What do you think of when you imagine the life of a top level equine professional? The ones out there week after week on the podium at the international events, in the winner’s circle on race day, putting their white wraps on for yet another mounted prizegiving at a dressage show, jumping higher, wider, faster than anyone else in front of marquees full of people drinking champagne, getting handed an impossibly big trophy while perched on an impossibly beautiful horse by some member of the royal family? Do you look on with a twinge of jealously, not just for their success, but for their life? It’s really hard not to at times, I’ll admit. It can be tempting to think that it’s all so much easier for them.
There are so many misconceptions about the life of a pro – of the fact that when you’ve ‘made it’ at a certain level the struggle is over and while you can’t coast along, there is a point where success means a sudden transference to ease and grace. Unfortunately, for most, that simply isn’t true. This is not a blog about how awful it is to be a pro, how poor they are, how hard they have to work, how stressful it is, that you simply don’t understand what it’s like to manage a yard and a team and a string. Yes, there is some of that, but it’s more about the understanding that things don’t magically change the moment you have a win or decide to go pro.
A common thought is that when you are a professional rider or trainer and have staff, you don’t work as hard. A pro might not muck out, tack up or clean gear on a daily basis. The pro exchanges this for riding 6-10 horses a day, teaching a full afternoon of lessons and spending their evenings in front of the computer paying bills, making entries, talking to owners and attending to their own physical needs as an athlete. I remember a comment that I read about someone who had just won a competition in Scotland who said they were going to sleep in the luton of the lorry while the groom drove home. Someone said something along the lines of ‘it’s alright for him – he can afford it!’ I just about spat my coffee (ok, it might have been whisky) all over my computer. For a start, the winners cheque goes to the owners, not the rider. If this pro is anything like the tens of other pros I know, they probably pay themselves a lower hourly rate than the groom. And the only way that they can afford to pay the grooms and keep the teams on the road is to travel through the night, swap tired horses for fresh, dirty kit for clean, fatigued staff for rested, restock the fridge and head out the gate again within hours to the next show…
Elite riders are often envied for their sponsors, both corporate and private. While there is no doubt that those at the top of their game are more appealing to corporate sponsors very, very, few are getting any sort of cash out of the relationship. Even the most accomplished equestrians are most likely getting product, and the vast majority of sponsorship deals just cover discounts and some kit. Yes, every little thing helps, but when you have a big team at the top of their game, the costs increase exponentially. Having done some calculations a couple of years ago for an international horse on a conservative circuit, there is no change out of £35,000 per year. And that’s if everything goes to plan. You only have to own one or two horses yourselves and that takes a fair chunk out of any wage you might pay yourself. The bigger name riders may attract owners, but in my experience that likely improves the quality of horses rather than the amount of money paid. Again, a conservative budget is that it costs £260 per week per horse to provide livery. Yes, really. And that does not include any fee for the pro’s time in the saddle. Plus, it is based on a full yard. I know of one fantastic 5* rider who charges about £80 less than that. How does she manage? She not only rides, she does a lot of the grooming duties herself. She hasn’t paid herself a wage in years, she is fortunate enough to have the use of her property rent free – although she still has to pay running costs. You can imagine the stress when a horse is sold, an owner doesn’t pay a bill, an unexpected repair needs to be done. The horses will still get fed, the grooms will still get paid, it’s the pro that takes it all on board.
There’s something else to consider when next time you covet a pro’s life – what happens when, for one reason or another, they can’t maintain their work rate? What happens when they’re injured or ill, when their owners can’t afford to keep their horses, when a family crisis occurs or (god forbid) they want to go on holiday or take a longer break? There is no backstop, no passive income, no holiday pay, no sickness benefit. If the pros aren’t riding, there is no money coming in at all. Ribbons are nice, but they don’t pay the bills, put food on the table, keep you warm. All it takes is one big crash and you’re out of your swanky yard and back to mucking out at a DIY down the road, teaching a couple of lessons to eat baked beans out of a tin.
There’s only one reason these guys keep at it. An overwhelming obsession to be the best they can be. And the love of the horses. If they come across good fortune on the way, they deserve every piece of it.
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