Horse Training … the Straight Talk

It's a little of the old West whipped up with a whole lot of today's materialism and power. Well-known trainers pull up to the shows in the finest rigs, ride the best-bred, high-dollar horses and are treated to expensive dinners by customers who own strings of franchises or inherited fortunes. These accomplished riders have won more saddles than they remember. Buckles are just part of the ceremony.

Story originally posted by Staff

Ah, the big leagues of the horse industry. You could get drunk on this glitzy world of futurities, classics, nationals, the All American Quarter Horse Congress, the AQHA World Show.

But for every trainer who slides, turns or chases a cow across the glossy cover of a magazine, dozens more are mucking out stalls, stomping through muddy arenas, breaking colts, treating injuries, nursing egos. The nearly invisible second stringers of the horse world.

A few trainers make the big time. Most don’t. And as it goes with any business we call a sport, winners get the publicity, prize checks and sponsors. Losers head for home, thinking about how they’ll pay for the next load of hay. Mostly, they wonder how they’ll rationalize failure to an ever-hopeful customer.

Plain and simple, training horses is a tough way to make a living. The dangling carrot of success and financial security keeps most going. True love for the Western way of life sustains the others. What tempts all is opportunity. The idea of what can be exists because, with very, very few exceptions, the big players spent their own time on the B-team. You just didn’t notice.

You didn’t see Ascencion Banuelos cleaning out dairy barns for a living. Teddy Robinson was just another construction worker riding colts after work. Unable to afford a horse of her own, Kathy Daughn started riding on ponies her father rented at local parks. Yes, these all-star trainers might be on the front page now, but it wasn’t always that way.

The job of training horses is one you have to live full time and love part time. There’s no map to chart the course. Some guys catch on quick, get in with the right, influential trainer and experience the big time in no time. More are satisfied to strike out on their own, independently taking the long route to the top. Some just want to play. Others wallow in pools of frustration.

What if the Ascencion Banuelos, Teddy Robinsons and Kathy Daughns of the world could do it over again? Would they do it differently? What do they wish they’d known before they were horse trainers?

These are questions answered in this and upcoming issues of Quarter Horse News. The column offers up a menu of reality spoken from trainToddCrawfordslideers who have tasted serious accomplishment mixed with the cautioned voices from behind-the-scenes horsemen and women. It’s the straight talk, straight from trainers who know the horse business best.

You better love it. Todd Crawford gives the straight talk.

“You better love it,” Todd Crawford said about the business of being a horse trainer. “I mean you better really, really love it.”

Indeed, he loves the business. Crawford, who lives in Santa Ynez, Calif., has experienced success that has earned him the 2001 AQHA Professional Horseman of the Year award, made him a premier cow horse competitor, taken him to the top of multiple aged events and catapulted him to the highest echelon of reiners as the 2000 USET Champion and Reserve Champion.

Despite his almost $1 million in earnings, Crawford has traveled a pretty expensive training toll road. Along the way, bill after bill has been extracted from his wallet of precious time. Like an aggressive businessman who climbs his way to the top digs at some Manhattan high rise, Crawford has sacrificed leisure and family moments for a tough career trek.

The executive travels around the world for meetings. Crawford travels around the world to shows. The executive spends his free time at the office. Crawford spends his at the barn. The pursuit of excellence is always the same, whether it’s in New York or Santa Ynez. When he started in 1990, Todd’s annual winnings were about $3,500 total. Ten years later, they hit nearly $250,000. That incredible progression does not happen without personal forfeiture along the way.

If you think training horses is the normal eight-hour day, Crawford said you better think again. Years getting ready, weeks spent away from home, days preparing for the trip and hours of logistics are part of the job description. Average wages over the imaginary punch card is enough to make a horse trainer consider an easier line of work.

“It’s not an ‘8-to-5’ job,” Crawford reinforces. “It’s a ‘5-to-10’ job most of the time.”

Married for 21 years to his wife, Pam, Todd is lucky to have a supportive family that includes daughters Carter, 12, and MacKinnon, who is 8. Pam used to attend shows with her husband. That worked fine until the girls were old enough for school, which meant either a future of babysitters or a parent who stayed home. Faced with the predicament, the Crawfords responded by establishing a stallion service that Pam manages full time – perhaps far more than full time in the spring season.

Still, Todd feels the sting of absent family time.

“That’s the hardest part for me,” he said. “I miss a lot of the activities that the kids are involved in.”

Case in point, the NRCHA Derby in July. As Todd was making his runs in the herd, reining and cow work in Medford, Ore., his daughter, Carter, was in an all-star softball tournament back in California. The rest of the family was at the show.

“I call her on the phone and ask her how she did,” he said. “That’s all I can do.”

Even when Todd works from home, his job demands constant attention.

“Unfortunately, I don’t get to spend much time practicing with my daughters because most of the time I’m busy,” he said. “When you’ve been gone a week, there are still 30 head at home that need to be ridden. I have to work double-time when I’m home and when I’m not riding, I’m tired.”

But there are limits to any job.

“If my daughters have a game, I go,” Crawford said. “I don’t miss their games.”

The balancing act between maintaining a thriving profession and healthy family life is precarious at best. But when Todd compares his situation with that of other trainers, he feels blessed.

“Pam is home with the kids and that’s good,” he said. “It’s not like we’re both gone where a lot of people are, particularly at the Quarter Horse shows.”

Strides in his career have enabled Todd to adjust his schedule, allowing more days at the ranch.

“I’ve cut down on the number of shows I go to,” he said. “I try to go to the bigger ones.”

But with the NRHA, NRCHA and AQHA circuits all combined, that’s still a big chunk on the road.

In the summer, when the breeding has ended and school is out, the family travels together. Since it usually happens over Thanksgiving weekend, the National Reining Horse Association (NRHA) Futurity is another event the Crawfords attend as one. Todd and Pam take the girls out of school and head for Oklahoma City.

“A lot of the time I’m up most of the night at the Futurity, but there are times in the day when we can go do stuff,” Todd said. “It’s just nice having them there.”

As for this year’s National Reined Cow Horse Association (NRCHA) River Front Farms Derby, Carter won her game the same Saturday night her father won the Open on her mother’s horse. The next day, Todd, Pam and MacKinnon made the 12-hour drive home and went straight to work on Monday. There’s no comp time in the horse training business. Two- and 3-year-old horses don’t wait for days off.

Is horse training worth the price?

“I don’t mind because I like it,” Todd said resolutely. “It’s what I like to do.”

He does, however, caution those coming into the business to the long hours and family sacrifices.

“You better think of that before you decide to be a trainer,” he said.