Reining trainer Doug Milholland gives the Straight Talk about the pros and cons of operating your own training operation.Reining trainer Doug Milholland gives the Straight Talk about the pros and cons of operating your own training operation.
Reining trainer Doug Milholland gives the Straight Talk about the pros and cons of operating your own training operation.
Do this, do that. Ride this half-baked horse here and rinse that good one over there. Drive this, shovel that. Turn that way. No! I said the other way! Go grab that pair of splint boots! And, oh yeah, can you be here Sunday afternoon?
You’ve had enough.
It’s time you were your own boss. A private horse trainer, free to sift horses, make schedules and be where he wants to be when he wants to be there. No more second-class assistant status. No more errands. No more running the trainer’s wife to town.
Being in business for yourself can be great, but only if you’re ready to dive head, hat, feet and boots into big time responsibility, long hours and never-ending stress. It’s not all bad, but it’s not all good either.
"I wouldn’t encourage them to jump out there on their own any too quick," reining horse trainer Doug Milholland said about assistant trainers. "It’s a tough business and it’s getting more and more competitive."
On his own for over three decades, Milholland came into the horse training profession the old fashioned way. He did it on his own. With early days spent on his family’s western Colorado ranch, Milholland never thought twice about turning his colt breaking into a full time training job.
He won his first major youth competition at the 1969 Congress, on Peppy Night, a sorrel gelding that had one time gotten loose and ran with wild horses for six months. That Congress victory was a turning point for Milholland. He still remembers watching Bob Anthony riding High Proof.
"When I saw that I was thinking, ‘Wow, I want to do this!’" Milholland said with a smile.
Times were a little tight when Milholland began his training career in the early 1970s. First class, standard or bulk rate, the trainer took just about every 30 and 60-day horse that came his way. Leftover money financed Milholland’s limited showing.
A sale is what eventually fanned Milholland’s aspirations into a heated reining career. Milholland took Second Mate, a mare he’d raised and trained, to a show where Jack Kyle was judging. The judge was so impressed with the horse that he purchased it on behalf of customers for $2,000, which was quite a price in those days.
"That’s when I started wanting to break into being a big league trainer," Milholland said.
And so he did. Milholland trained the reiners, cow horses and ropers while his wife, Valerie, concentrated on the all-around Western and English events. Together they built a business that eventually wound up in Purcell, Okla.
With nearly $700,000 to his NRHA earnings credit, Milholland has a three-decade perspective of horse training. Just like a well-intentioned, well-informed father, he cautions young trainers to be patient.
"Having your own business has its allure," Milholland said. "But if you think you’re your own boss, you’re wrong. However many owners you’re riding for, that’s how many bosses you have."
Talk about a shattered image. As an assistant trainer, you took orders from one person. As an independent operator, you yield to curt orders, frivolous requests and sometimes-ridiculous advice of just about everybody in the barn. It’s either smile graciously and go about business, or offend a paying customer who blinks not one eye at moving her horse to a trainer down the road.
The biggest mistake Milholland believes young trainers make is taking the autonomous route before they’re ready. Two or three years as an assistant are supposed to mold a skilled rider but not an expert. It’s one thing to train horses. It’s a whole new bailiwick when you attempt to manage an operation.
The true meaning of overhead is a concept that escapes nearly every young trainer. It’s a quick learning process, usually one that falls like a brick when floated checks pay for that second month’s worth of shavings, electricity and insurance. You never thought this could happen. Knowing the difference between debits and credits is helpful, not to mention write-offs and depreciation. Milholland suggests that you take classes and educate yourself about finance, accounting and business management before you strike out alone.
"Otherwise, it’s a lot of trial and error," Milholland said. "You make mistakes and do things that end up costing you a lot."
He also suggests a conservative, less glitzy business debut. Instead of buying property and building your own fancy place, settle for rented stalls in an existing facility. Private arenas are one option; fairgrounds and equine event centers are another. You might even find a situation where you’re provided stalls in trade for training time.
"It’s a pain in the neck, but you’ve got to have somewhere to work," Milholland said.
Give yourself every advantage. Move to a densely populated area where your particular sport is already popular. Bingo, you have a pool of potential customers and there are probably a good many nearby shows.
Well-bred, talented horses flow endlessly from high profile breeders and trainers. When you’re on your own, fabulous prospects dissolve just about as fast as your bi-weekly paycheck. Believe it or not, there are going to be times when anything with a mane, tail and four legs looks pretty good. Those are the days when you’d trade every ounce of freedom for just one more try on that second-string 2-year-old that got tossed your assistant way.
"I’ve had to ride horses I just absolutely hated," Milholland admitted. "If you’re getting paid to train them, you just need to put in your time and go out there and do it."
There are a few very successful trainers who have forged their way completely on their own. The other 99.9 percent have had help along the way. It’s nearly impossible to ride horses all day and then face tax returns and billing at night. In Milholland’s case, Valerie keeps the books in order and up-to-date. They’ve been married and worked together for 30 years.
True freedom arrives when you finally generate enough income to justify the expense of hiring your own barn helper. But even this luxury is not without its pitfalls.
"It’s hard to have someone who’s knowledgeable enough about the care of a horse but doesn’t have the least desire to want to ride and who is willing to work for what you can afford to pay," Milholland said.
Control can be a little tough and sometimes costly to relinquish. When you have your help fasten and remove splint boots day after day, that bowing tendon might get missed. What used to be your employer’s problem is now all yours. You’re the one who has to call the owner and tell him why his horse has scratched next month’s futurity. You get to listen while he vents frustration, anger over 17 months worth of expenses that got flushed down your training drain.
Tomorrow’s another day. Hopefully, the tendon gets better and the owner gushes when you and his horse win next spring’s Derby.
"My wonderful trainer was smart enough to know this horse needed to be taken slow," he’ll say.
If not, well then it’s on to another horse belonging to another customer. Don’t worry. Your barn will never be empty as long as you have the bare basics of people skills, lots of proven talent, a good work ethic and integrity. Sure, you’re bound to make a client mad occasionally but if you’re on the up-and-up, it won’t last long. If you’re not, then word wastes no time getting around.
"You’ve got to be honest, fair and straightforward," Milholland said. "In the reining game today people are getting pretty sophisticated and they know good trainers and good horses. The wool doesn’t get pulled over their eyes as much anymore."