Source: Text by Kristy Vanderwende • Photos by KC Montgomery, Jeff Kirkbride and Shane Rux
It’s the never ending hours in the barn, the day- to-day hard work in the saddle and the countless miles down the highway that make life as a horse trainer, a profession like no other.
Getting horses ready to show is challenging enough, but trainers must also be able to manage all the financial stresses that go along with running their own business. All that physical and emotional pressure can take a real toll on trainers. It’s a demanding life that requires dedication, sacrifice and sheer determination and it’s not for everyone.
We asked eight trainers, with over 250 combined years in the business, over $2 million in National Snaffle Bit Association earnings and too many World and Congress Championships to count, to offer advice over the next few months on everything from maintaining a family life to reinventing yourself to keep up with the changes in the industry, all while making a living as a professional horse trainer.
Here in part one of our five-part series, four of our experts share insight on how they have dealt with some of the pains and ailments that training horses has caused them through the years and what they would have done differently if given the opportunity.
Growing up on a farm in Indiana, Troy Oakley, of Pilot Point, Texas, always had a love for animals. In fact, he knew by the time he was about 12-years-old that he wanted to be a horse trainer. Apprenticing under Lester Howard after he graduated high school, Oakley never wanted to do anything else.
“My dad always told me if you love what you do, you never have to really work a day in your life,” he says.
Now looking back with over 35 years in the Quarter Horse business, Oakley says there are many things he would have done differently to better take care of himself.
“When I was just a youngster I paid pretty good attention to what I ate because I wanted to be slim in order to look good on a horse,” he says. “But I later went through a period of time when I got very lackadaisical about what I ate.”
Oakley admits that he not only did not watch his nutritional intake but also was not going to the doctor for regular checkups. With a whole barn full of horses and several assistants, Oakley explains he was just ” blowing and going” thinking he was healthy until at 45-years-old he had an aortic aneurism also known as the “widow maker.” With only a three percent survival rate, he truly considers it miracle that he is alive.
“I look at life totally different now. Every day is a bonus and I just feel very blessed to be here,” he says. “You know I thought I was bulletproof and nothing could happen to me. I got a second chance at life and I am now able to ride again. I feel very fortunate.”
Since his health issues, Oakley explains that he has become a lot more cautious about what and when he eats. With late nights in the barn and on the road, he would tend to eat “truck stop” or “fast food” late at night and then he would go to bed, which he admits is the worst thing you can do to your body.
“When I was a kid on the farm, I ate a big breakfast and lunch. We would eat a light, early dinner,” he says. “Later I found myself doing just the opposite. I think horse trainers believe just because we get good exercise we can eat this way and still be healthy but it’s just not true.”
A very physically demanding profession, Oakley truly believes being a horse trainer has risks other professions do not. Through the years, he has broken many bones including his wrists and leg and separated his shoulder.
“You can not make a living in this business when you are hurt. So, you need to pay attention to safety and you need to have health insurance,” he says. “I would be bankrupt if I had no health insurance when I had to have surgery. You can do without the fancy truck and trailer but have health insurance to cover yourself in case of an accident. It is also helpful with prescriptions you may need.”
Experiencing a similar catastrophic event that has been life altering, long time successful horse trainer Carl Yamber of Roberta, Georgia recommends staying up on your health and going to the doctor for regular checkups.
“Many trainers like me do not take the time to go to the doctor,” he says. ” I was never sick a day in my life until I had a stroke. I had over $1.6 million in hospital bills so it was very important that I did have health insurance. If you can’t afford much to start out with at least get something with a big deductible so you are covered.”
Yamber says he believes that the general public really does not have any idea how physically demanding being a horse trainer really is. He also thinks the added traveling time that trainers put in really adds to many not taking care of themselves because they just don’t eat or sleep right on the road.
“You leave a horse show at 10 p.m. and drive all night home,” he says. “Then, you work all day the next day. It gets very hard to do as you get older but really you shouldn’t ever do it.”
In addition, Yamber recommends that young trainers stay really physically fit. Through over 40 years of training horses professionally, Yamber has never had any injuries and has only been bucked off twice.
“I was always athletic enough to stay on. It’s a job that requires you to be athletic and fit so you can move out of the way,” he says. “If you start getting sloppy on a horse that’s when you are going to get bucked off. If you work hard, you will stay physically fit.”
A professional horse trainer since 1977, Jon Barry of Advance, Missouri also believes staying physically fit especially as you get older is key in maintaining a successful operation.
“I don’t feel the general public knows or understands the effort that goes into training horses and the toll it takes on a trainer’s body,” he says. “The younger you are the more invincible you think you are.”
With all his injuries through the years including two hip replacements, two rod screws in his back, a broken leg and rods in his arm, Barry feels health insurance is a must for any trainer.
“I have always had health insurance since day one. No matter what you need it,” he says. “I don’t care if you are eating bologna sandwiches make sure you have some kind of insurance. ”
To Barry, young trainers should strive to buy their own farm eventually.
While working to pay for such a lifelong investment without health insurance accidents and injuries could cause hospital bills to take away your farm. Therefore, Barry says health insurance is an absolute essential for any trainer regardless of age.
“The best advice I can give is to not take unnecessary risks,” he says. “Every time I got into trouble was from accidents occurring due to taking risks.”
When he was just 23 he won the 2-Year-Old Western Pleasure at the Quarter Horse Congress aboard Shy Prescription. Through the years, he has trained numerous Congress, World and NSBA Champions including Zippos Mr Good Bar, Principle Investment, Dynamic Deluxe and Zippo Jack Bar.
He just recently held a dispersal sale of all of his horses and equipment and is taking his life in a different direction.
Heckaman agrees that as you get older with more experience you tend to think more about risk.
“When you are younger, you take more chances and play off the risk more,” he says.
Besides the many injuries Heckaman has endured from just freak horse accidents, he also was the victim of a car accident on the way home from the East Coast Championship Show in Lexington, Virginia in April 2007 that took the life of his wife, Mary Carole and left him suffering with a compound fracture of the tibia/fibula in the right leg, fracture in the humorous of the right arm, both cheekbones broken, compound fracture of the ulna and radius in the right forearm, his forehead shattered into about 12 pieces, a broken nose, a collapsed lung, a stomach and tracheotomy tube, a broken C3 (base of neck and part of spine bone), a hole drilled in his cranium to reduce pressure from brain swelling and numerous orbital fractures around his right eye with the loss of vision in his right eye.
“I have an extremely high tolerance for pain but since the accident I had to learn to be smarter and learn to take calculated risks,” he says. “I did get health insurance after I was married. Having been through a catastrophic event and having seen what the medical bills are, I just can not fathom being a horse trainer without having medical insurance.”
Even with medical insurance, there were some expenses that were disallowed following his accident. A past-president of the National Snaffle Bit Association, Heckaman started the NSBA Crisis Fund as a way to help other trainers that were put in the position that he was in.
“So many people did nice things for me,” he says. “The horse community is a close family. Although we are competitors, we do come through for each other in times of need.”
In addition, Heckaman advises young trainers to go to the doctor regularly and find out what their cholesterol level is so they can adjust their diet. He also believes it is important to know your family history and speak with your doctor on how to best take care of yourself as you get older.
“When you are young and working a lot with the horses your metabolism is high and it is easier to maintain a healthy weight,” he says. “As you get older, you have to make a more concentrated effort. I think a slim rider makes a lot prettier profile on a horse and just adds to the overall look.”
At 14, Dale Livingston of San Antonio, Texas started training horses and kind of ” ran off with the circus” never finishing high school. Yet, he has no regrets and has never wanted to do anything else.
In the beginning, he spent a lot of time with Bob Loomis. Both he and Bob were fortunate to learn from Livingston’s true mentor, George Phillips.
“He was the smartest man about a horse I have ever seen. He really taught me how to think like a horse,” he says.
Before becoming a horse trainer, Livingston advises the younger generation to consider the amount of determination, confidence and tenacity that it takes to be successful in this business.
“You have to make up your mind no matter what that you are going to do this and that goes right down to doing some of the simplest things with a horse,” he says. “I think you have to really love working with horses and know that they are animals and stuff is going to happen.”
Over the years, Livingston has had many injuries and admits most of his physical issues came from just pushing the envelope a little too far.
“I have been really fortunate to have had a lot of really nice horses with only a few who would seldom disagree. If they challenge you there can be physical consequences with that,” he says.
Livingston feels that the general public has no idea how physically taxing horse training is and believes there is a common misconception about strength.
“It’s really more about feel than strength,” he says. “I think people think of horses like cars. You get in and turn it on and it’s going to go. Training a horse is so much more challenging than that.”
Physically, Livingston advises young trainers to stay fit and flexible.
“If you get hurt go through the rehab and take care of yourself,” he says. ” I know that all sounds great because you also have to earn a living. I had to get back to work after my injuries but do as much of the rehab as you can.”
Above all, Livingston says if you pick horse training as your living it should not be just be something you want to do but it better be a calling.
“It’s a tough business but then so are all businesses and so is life. Life is tough,” he says. “Winners never quit and quitters never win.”