So, you Wanna be a Horse Trainer

Advice from Cleve Wells

Written by Marilyn Morris-Mayer

Ever think you’d like to be a horse trainer, or just wonder what kind of life it is? World champion trainer Cleve Wells gives a close hand look at what it takes to make it as a horse trainer in any field–especially the road to the top in pleasure…

Getting started can be rough

Cleve’s advice to those who want to start their life as a trainer is fairly simple, but not the kind of advice everyone wants to hear:

  1. Travel light. (This first step to success can be an eye-opener for some).
  2. Let someone else pay your salary.
  3. Be sure you have the right stuff–physically & mentally.
  4. Educate yourself–it’s not all about horses.
  5. Invest in yourself. (That’s what Cleve did)!

1. Travel light

“Stay single; and keep everything that you own in the front seat of your truck,” Cleve says with a laugh, whenever he is asked what is the best way to get started as a trainer. And it never fails to get a laugh from whomever is around him, but Cleve is only half joking.

The fact is, in any business, it’s a lot easier if you have the freedom to relocate at a moment’s notice, so the single guy or gal with no encumbrances may have more opportunities come their way. “Be willing to relocate,” Cleve advises, “…if you’re in New York, be willing to go to Washington; if you’re in California, then be willing to go to New Jersey.”

That doesn’t mean that the person with a spouse and maybe even a good start on a boatload of kids can’t make it to the top as a trainer–just means that he or she may have to look closer to home, and perhaps pass by a few offers to relocate, if the spouse has a good-paying job with benefits in their home town.

2. Let someone else pay your salary

Regardless of whether your circumstances dictate that you stay put or are free to relocate, the best plan on the road to success is to find an experienced trainer to sign on with. “Be willing to learn different ways to do things–work with at least two or three different trainers,” Cleve recommends.

He is a strong proponent of young men and women apprenticing with an established trainer for quite some time. “Let somebody pay your salary and learn as much as you can about horses and people and driving and the road, because you’re not going to get any real money until you’re probably 30 years old.”

“You can win a lot, but you’re probably not going to get any real money in those early years, so you might as well spend those years just getting a paycheck. Work for someone and go in there and show. And if you don’t have a good ride, you’re boss has to answer for it–not you. You just keep focusing on your career.”

3. Be sure you have the right stuff–physically and mentally

Question 1: Are you willing to pay the price of working weekends and holidays?

“If you’re going to be in the horse business, weekends and holidays never belong to you, no matter how wealthy you get,” Cleve notes. “If you have to be home on Christmas, horse training won’t work for you; if Thanksgiving with the family means a lot, horse training won’t work. Those horses have to be tended to first; they don’t wait!

“Our customers have Christmas, and then they say, ‘Well, we’ve had Christmas–now we’re going to fly to Florida and show our horses.'” Cleve explains, “Well, if I had Christmas–how the (heck) did those horses get there? I’ve got to be on the road on Christmas eve and Christmas day to get them there.”

Question 2: Do you eat, sleep and breathe horses?

“You need to wake up every morning thinking about horses and dream about horses,” says Cleve, “and if you’re not eating ’em with your Cherrios–somebody else is. If you don’t wake up dreaming about horses–somebody else is. You can make a living, but if you’re going to the top, just remember that a mountain has a peak to it–and it gets smaller as it get higher. If you want to get up there, there’s not much room and they’re not gonna give it to you.”

When young men and woman come to Cleve’s place to be considered as apprentices, he asks them if they want to a Chief or an Indian. The answer is always the same–they want to be a Chief! But few bring with them the qualities and work ethic that would set them apart and qualify them for a life where they are totally on their own and success can be elusive.

One thing that Cleve is big on is a person being on time. Always. He won’t likely take the excuse that someone’s alarm didn’t go off. He contends that if you are thinking about tomorrow…thinking about horses each night that you won’t forget the alarm. And, in fact, you’ll be so focused on getting back to those horses in the morning that you’ll wake yourself up without an alarm.

Question 3: Are you built to ride and show?

Cleve considers western pleasure “equine ballet” and notes that a picture is worth a thousand words: a pretty horse with a pretty profile…and a rider that enhances the look, not one that is detrimental to it.

“In pleasure in helps to have a bit of a lean look on a horse. It’s about a horse lifting and loping slow, and let’s face it, the less weight they have on their back, the prettier they’re gonna move,” say Cleve.

On the subject of “lift” Cleve notes that the longer-legged rider is able to reach under the horse with his spur and create lift. Which is a very important thing to be able to do, because if you can’t create lift, you’re going to have to buy it already there in the horses you choose.

On the flip side, Cleve admits being tall can occasionally be a handicap when it comes to some of the 14.2 and 14.3 hand horses. As an example, Cleve notes he never personally showed Zippos Amblin Easy (who won eight AQHA World and Reserve championships under Cleve’s training and guidance) at a major event. He would put someone else on her for the big shows–just because at 6’3″ he didn’t feel he looked good on her.

Question 4: Do horses love you?

Cleve says that through the years he has seen that there are some people that horses just don’t like! The riders may love horses, but the horses just don’t love them. So, what’s the key? “It’s not about being kind to the horses or spoiling them, but knowing how to get along with them–having ‘good hands’ and good leg connection,” Cleve notes. “If you’re not stiff and jerky, if you’re not scared, then they’re not scared…and you have a relaxed, mutual respect for one another.” He adds, “It’s not anything anybody can teach–animals just sense it in you.”

What do you do if horses don’t like you? Lots of things. “Training is such a small part of the equine industry,” Cleve notes. “There are hundreds of ways to make a living in it and there is a place for everyone. If they loves horses, they’ll find a way to be successful in this industry even though it may not be on a horse’s back.”

4. Educate yourself–it’s not all about horses

It is important to remember that your clientele will be well educated. “You’re gonna deal with people who can pick up a phone and put a Lear jet in the air; or pick up the phone and get 5, or 10 or 500 people to be at their beckon call,” Cleve notes. “That’s probably not the kind of person who wants some 25 or 30 year old kid that didn’t finish high school to be telling them what to do.”

“You’re going to have to write these people letters, and you’re going to have to go to dinner with them,” Cleve continues, “and you’ve got to make sure that you’ve got the education and the intelligence to sit down and talk with this person that maybe has a Fortune 500 company. This guy’s going to believe you one day. He’s going to trust you and believe in you, and give you six-figures possibly to work with; and send his wife or his children off with you.”

Cleve laughs and recalls his time in high school when he was frustrated with the curriculum because he had already decided that he was going to be one of two things: a welder or a horse trainer–both professions that enjoyed working outdoors. “I used to sit there in English class and say, “Why in the (heck) do I need to learn what a verb is…to ride a horse? Or burn a welding rod?” Cleve gives a laugh as he continues, “Nobody ever explained it to me.” Today he is glad he stayed with it.

You will also need to stay sharp on current affairs, Cleve notes. “What a trainer needs to understand is that the whole family doesn’t show horses…so if it’s the wife that rides, it’s important to be able to talk with the husband about his hobbies (maybe it’s basketball or football, maybe golf or fishing). Otherwise, this guy is not going to be happy if he’s sitting around your camp on weekends.”

Would you take orders from a 9 year old? In some respects, that’s no different than expecting that client to take advice and instruction from you. “It is important to realize that often your clients are probably in their 50’s,” says Cleve. “You’ll deal with in some mid-40’s, 50’s…and you’re 21, or 22, or 25, and think you’re a hotshot horse trainer. Well, that’s half their age,” Cleve points out, and then offers the following analogy. “Say you’re reading this article and you’re 18 years old–imagine taking orders from a 9 year old! How much money are you going to give them to invest? How much should they have to explain themselves?”

Cleve says that young trainers have got to understand that no matter how much they win, they’re still half the age of their clients. “No matter how good that 9 year old is, he’s still half the age of an 18 year old–and he’s only going to get so much respect. Period. So a word of advice would be to concentrate on the ethics and the training…and the money will get better as your age gets closer to that of your clients.

Unlike some businesses, Cleve sees horse training as a business where a person may not reach their prime earning years until they are possibly 35 or 40 years old. “But you’ve got to lay the groundwork, just like in any other business,” he says.

5. Invest in yourself, that’s exactly what Cleve did

Cleve just laughs to himself when young trainers will say to him, “Well, if I had your customers…” or “Well, if I had your horses…” as if Cleve Wells were singled out early on for the good ones. Cleve notes, “They don’t just ante up those customers and you pick ’em–you earn that! You can never expect a good horse to drive in your driveway. You must be willing to invest in yourself. Never expect to have a customer buy you a good horse–buy your own good horse.”

Cleve says he asked himself the question, “Why should I want somebody to invest in me, if I’m not making enough money to invest in myself?” A the time Cleve was at a boarding stables and had eight horses in training when he bought a horse named RD Speed Stick. “I headed down to Jack Benson’s place,” Cleve recalls, “…and he had The Investor & Red Dee Hobby at the time, and I said ‘I need a good horse.'” Cleve says Jack replied, “Well, I’ve got one right here–and I want $6500 for him.” Cleve wrote him a check on the spot.

From there, Cleve says he worked the horse; took him to the Tom Powers and showed him; and sold him for about three times what he paid for him. Alex Ross then went on to win the World on the horse. The sale gave Cleve the money to reinvest in himself, and helped establish him as a trainer who could produce a good horse. Next, he used his profits to buy a colt from a lady named Ann Myers…and following that business transaction, Ann bought a young colt to Cleve for training. The horse’s name? Zips Chocolate Chip! Four years later they were World Champions…and the rest, as they say, is AQHA history!

If you think about it, Cleve says, what other business could you go in for that amount of money? “You couldn’t go into a hotdog stand on the street corner without $5-thousand dollars,” Cleve notes. “If I had sat there and waited on somebody to come down the drive with a good horse…I’d still be sitting there.”

Moving up

When young trainers are ready to strike out on their own, they need to keep in mind that they may be running pretty close to the edge, financially. Anytime you are in business for yourself there are going to be lean times, and hopefully fat times, too. Cleve suggests that young trainers play it safe by renting some stalls, not an entire barn. You may pay a bit more, but if business takes a slump, or you get injured and laid up for a few months, you can cut your expenses down–immediately. (Another reason not to rent a house along with the barn. Rent it separate).

Rewards of the game

“I have the greatest life in the world,” says Cleve. “I wouldn’t change a thing, because I get to spend all day with horses!” He adds, “As a horse trainer, you get to spend all day out in the sunshine…and out in the rain. You get to catch all the seasons. You get to travel coast to coast and you’re around people in a positive atmosphere.”

Cleve say the horse industry is a great place to be and is filled with positive people. “Horseowners work hard to be able to come play with their horses–something the trainer gets to do everyday (and gets paid to do it).”

Cleve Wells thrives in that positive attitude…and it is a key element in his day-to-day horse operation. Cleve lives by the philosophy that it’s always sunny–and if it’s not sunny, the sun’s coming. “It’s your job to make it fun as well as educational for your clients,” he notes, and stresses to his people that they keep a positive attitude. “We touch on the negatives, but then we need to let the clients know the things that are getting better.”

If you’re still on board for this life as a horse trainer, then know that you’ll be a part of a great group of people who pull together in time of need. “If you go for it,” Cleve says, “you will be in a fellowship with other trainers…and they will not allow you to fall. They’ll be there for you. The horse industry is a great place to be. It’s hard work, and it takes longer to get there then some imagine, but it’s worth it. The equine industry is world wide, and it is a very strong economy.”

If it sounds like the life for you, if you feel you have the work ethic and fortitude to make it in the horse business, Cleve has one final bit of welcoming advice: “Don’t waste another day; load up and come on!”

Good luck!

October 12th, 2008   |   Posted in Articles   |   0 Comments


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