How To Become A Horse Trainer
Hi – Larry Trocha here.
Because so many people are members or customers of my horse training website, I get asked many questions.
A lot of young people (and some not so young) will email me asking how they can learn to become a professional or semi-professional horse trainer.
I seldom tell them exactly what to do because everybody is different.
The right way to go for one person may not be right for someone else.
However, I’m happy to share with you how I personally did it.
If nothing else, I think you’ll find the story pretty surprising.
Okay, let’s get started.
The day I decided to become a professional horse trainer, I was in my mid twenties and hadn’t been on a horse in ten years.
I know… Right off the bat that sounds weird, doesn’t it?
What’s even weirder, at the time I made that decision, I lived just outside of Naples, Florida and made my living building custom motorcycles… Choppers!
Even though I had a business doing something I liked, I was not happy.
There was this big “void” in my life that had plagued me for years.
You see, I was born and raised on a farm in the state of Nebraska.
I loved living on the farm but I didn’t care much for farming.
My passion was horses.
My parents got me one when I was 7 and from that time on, I lived and breathed horses.
Every spare moment I had was spent on the back of a horse.
When I was 12, I talked my Dad into letting me show.
I had no trainer or instructor.
I learned what I could by observing others.
By the time I was 16, I had won a bunch of awards and trophies.
It was then, my father sold the farm and moved our family to southwest Florida.
We lived in a housing development directly on the west edge of the Everglades… and I was miserable.
Without horses in my life, I felt lost.
For a long time (over a year), I was deeply depressed.
I desperately wanted to return to the life I loved but it wasn’t meant to be.
Eventually, I got over my depression and got interested in hot cars, custom painting and Harley-Davidson motorcycles.
I got good enough to start a business building choppers and doing tricked-out paint jobs.
Ironically, it was a cross-country trip with my motorcycle that led me back to a life with horses.
During that trip, a friend and I camped in the Sequoia National Park in California.
While there, I picked up a magazine called, “The California Horse Review”.
I purchased it simply to pass the time while camping.
I loved what was in that magazine.
The photos of reined cow horses sliding to a stop and working cattle really caught my attention.
But most of all, it brought back memories of how great it was having horses when I was a kid.
When we got back to Florida, I subscribed to that magazine. Each month it arrived and I simply devoured it.
Until eventually, the Snaffle Bit Futurity issue arrived.
And that did it!
After reading about the SBF and seeing the photos of all those great horses, I knew I had to go to California and try my hand.
I hadn’t been on a horse in ten years, nor did I have any connections in the horse world.
It didn’t matter.
I would leave everything I had, and head to California to learn to become a competitive show horse trainer.
When I got to California, my plan was to get a job with a top trainer and learn what I could from him.
I didn’t care what kind of work I had to do. I figured I would have to start out by cleaning stalls.
One problem though.
I couldn’t find any trainer who would hire me. I had long, shoulder-length hair and a full beard.
Basically, I looked like a Hell’s Angel.
It’s funny now but at that time, I didn’t realize my appearance made me look like trouble.
Anyway, I had a list of trainers arranged in alphabetical order and the last trainer on the list was a guy named Ken Wold.
I crossed my fingers, knocked on Ken’s door and asked him for a job.
He looked me up and down like I was some kind of ax murderer.
Then he said, “My stall cleaner quit four days ago and I’m desperate. The job pays $200 a month plus room and board. I’ll give you a try if you’ll work hard”.
I was tickled pink but told him I’d take the job only if he’d promise to give me a free lesson once each week.
We shook hands on the deal and that was the start of my career.
Of course, I soon discovered that after ten years away from horses, I was no longer a good rider.
In fact, if the horse started trotting, I would lose my balance and bounce right off the side.
Very humiliating for me considering I had told Ken that I had won stuff when I was a kid.
After seeing me ride, he didn’t believe a word of it.
Ken kept his end of the bargain and tried his best to teach me something but heck, I couldn’t even stay in the saddle, let alone learn any training techniques.
Being around Ken made me face a harsh reality.
He and I were close to the same age and he was already a successful professional trainer.
There were a lot of guys my age who already had their own training stable and were winning at the shows.
I was way behind… way behind.
I realized if I was to make a living as a competitive horse trainer, I was going to have to learn at a record-breaking pace.
I needed to figure out a plan that would accelerate my education.
After six months with Ken, I gave him notice that I was going to leave.
I explained to him I needed to find a job where I could spend more time in the saddle.
Ken was great about it and totally understood.
To this day, 40 years later, we are still friends.
Anyway, Ken’s buddy, Bill Martin got me a job on a big ranch outside of Columbus, Montana.
I didn’t have enough money to get there so they wired me gas money to make the trip.
That ranch ran 350 head of mother cows, 250 head of sheep and over 150 head of horses.
60 of those horses needed to be broke to ride.
They ranged in age from 3 to 5 years old and were wild.
I mean REALLY wild.
Those horses were running on 5,000 acres and were basically un-touched except for when they got branded as weanlings.
Made ’em pretty darn wary of humans.
The folks who owned this ranch also owned some Stakes winning, thoroughbred race stallions.
They bred those thoroughbred stallions to their big, ill-bred, bad-minded, ranch mares.
That cross produced big, rank broncs with the disposition and athletic ability of a mountain lion.
I’m not exaggerating. Any rodeo stock contractor would have loved them.
The thought of taking on those horses was very sobering.
Upon seeing my new string, I remember thinking to myself…
“You’re in over your head. If you’re not careful, you’ll get killed”.
Ken Wold had shown me how he started his 2-year olds so I did have some knowledge.
But really, none of the horses I’d ever seen were like those on this ranch.
The very first bronc I tried to touch, struck me in the chest and knocked me down so fast I didn’t even see it coming.
He then turned around and proceeded to kick me around the perimeter of the stall like a soccer ball.
I barely escaped in one piece.
I gave it a try with several more broncs. Every single one of them struck me… either in the chest or on the hand.
After a week of trying, I never managed to lay a hand on any of them.
I needed help or some kind of advice but nobody on that ranch was a horseman. Basically, the owners were alcoholics who inherited a lot of money and never left the house.
I drove all the way into Billings and searched every tack store looking for a horse training book that could help me.
I finally found one that addressed the dilemma I was in.
The book was written by Dave Jones and in it he explained how he handled rank broncs.
That book probably saved my life.
After reading it, I seldom got struck or kicked anymore.
Unfortunately, it didn’t keep me from getting bucked off. I got dumped anywhere from 3 to 6 times a day.
To make matters worse, the breaking pen didn’t have any sand in it and the gate was too narrow to get a tractor in there to
work it up?
Whenever I hit the ground, it was like landing on cement.
Some of the easier broncs, I got broke to ride but the tougher ones I couldn’t stay on long enough to get anything done.
I also had some crazy, flipping-over-backwards broncs. I didn’t even try to get those broke. I just sold ’em to the Crow Indians.
My stay at that ranch was a hell of an education. One I’m thankful to have experienced.
But after all the wrecks, I left that place so physically beat up, I could barely walk.
I had to go back to my Mom’s house in Florida to heal up.
It took three months to heal. I didn’t know it at the time but I had broken a couple vertebrae in my back.
Once healed, I got a job as a colt starter for a big horse and cattle ranch in Cheifland, Florida.
That outfit had great horses. Their stock was from top bloodlines that produced smart, cowy, easy to train colts.
This job was a piece of cake compared to my experience in Montana.
It was at this ranch, I had the opportunity to ride my first real
That ride had a profound effect on me. It was by far the most fun I’d ever experienced on the back of a horse.
It’s hard to explain but experimenting with cow horses changed my whole way of thinking about horses and horse training in general.
Trying to teach a horse to think and control a cow, gave me insight to how a horse’s mind, body and instincts work that I had never experienced before.
It also made me realize how little I really knew about horses.
Again, I was acutely aware of the need to accelerate my education.
I left this ranch and drove back to California to work for top AQHA trainers, Dan and Nancy Easton. Ken Wold got me the job (thanks again Ken).
Dan and Nancy trained horses for a variety of events and were very successful on the Pacific Coast AQHA show circuit. (They were honest, hard-working people).
They mostly trained pleasure horses but also had a few reining and cutting horses in training.
They also stood several breeding stallions.
There were a ton of horses in training at that place.
It was my job to clean stalls, start the colts, help with the breeding and exercise some of the horses.
We were so busy trying to get all the work done, I didn’t get much instruction. Most of what I learned there came from the occasional opportunity to watch Dan or Nancy ride.
Overall, my progress was painfully slow. I didn’t have any horses I could experiment on.
And I sure as hell didn’t want to risk messing up any of the horses Dan and Nancy had in training. To do so would have been an inexcusable breach of trust.
So again, the urgency to accelerate my education caused me to move on.
After I left the Easton ranch, I had a string of short-term jobs working for small breeders. It was a good opportunity to experiment with the training techniques I’d seen.
But to tell the truth, I really couldn’t do much.
Sure, I was pretty good at starting colts because that’s what I’d done the most. But that was about it.
I couldn’t get a horse to stop on his hindquarters.
I couldn’t teach one to rollback or spin.
Flying lead changes were definitely out of the question.
I really wanted to learn to train cutting horses but that wasn’t happening either.
Honestly, when it came to doing anything beyond the basics, I was pretty pathetic.
I felt I was accurately duplicating the techniques I’d seen other trainers use successfully but I wasn’t getting good results.
Obviously, there was still a lot I didn’t know or understand.
This really frustrated me.
I needed to move on to the next step. I needed a major change of direction but I didn’t know which way to turn.
It was at this point in my career, I got lucky.
Out of the blue, a famous, big-time cutting horse trainer by the name of Gene Suiter, stopped by the ranch where I was working.
Gene lived in Arizona but traveled to California looking to buy cutting futurity prospects.
I had started several 2-year olds for this ranch and Gene wanted to take a look at them.
I saddled them up and rode them around.
Gene watched me ride three colts and then got in his car and left without saying a word. I figured he must not have liked the colts or maybe he didn’t like the job I’d done.
I was pretty bummed about it.
Two hours later, the owner of the ranch, Jay Garrett came out to talk to me.
He said, “I just got off the phone with Gene”. “He bought all the 2-year olds and wants to know if you’d come to work for him”.
I was ecstatic!
I restrained my excitement though because this ranch owner had been very good to me. I didn’t want to seem anxious to leave or ungrateful for the job he’d given me.
I asked Jay, “What do you think”?
He replied, “Are you kidding, what an opportunity! I told Gene you’d be there within two weeks”.
Man, I couldn’t wait to get there.
As soon as Jay found somebody to replace me, I was off like a shot, headed for Arizona.
That job was a dream come true. Lucky for me, Gene was a very smart and generous man.
He provided me every opportunity to observe and learn. Of course, he also gave me enough rope to hang myself if I didn’t pay attention and do a good job.
I worked long, long hours at that job and did my absolute best.
Oftentimes I worked seven days a week.
Not because Gene required it. I worked on my day off because there was work that needed to be done.
And my hard work did not go unrewarded. Gene made sure I had plenty of top-bred horses to break and train.
Some of those horses later became famous (Queens Are Better, NCHA Derby Champion and Doc N Missy, SBF Champion and NCHA World Champion Mare).
I worked for Gene two years before leaving to take a job on a horse ranch in northern California.
Gene told me I wasn’t ready yet and needed to stay another year. Of course, he was right but I left anyway.
Fortunately, my determination to succeed overcame my lack of experience.
One year later, I started my own training stable and the following year I was Reserve World High-Point Champion in AQHA Senior Cutting on a mare named “Cal Filly Bar”.
That same year, I showed my first cutting futurity horse, I’m An Alibi, in two futurities.
I made the finals at one and the semi-finals in the other.
From there, my training business pretty much took off like a rocket. However, the road has not always been a bed of roses.
Like many professional trainers, I’ve experienced some really high, highs as well as some really low, lows.
I’ve ridden incredible, red-hot winning streaks and other times been so cold, I couldn’t win if my life depended on it.
On five separate occasions, I lost my entire training business and had to start from scratch.
Fortunately, the good has outweighed the bad.
I’ve enjoyed success training horses for cutting, reining, working cow horse and even barrel racing.
Many of my students and non-pros have won championships… both on the local level as well as the big-time show circuits.
So far, life as a professional horse trainer has been a rewarding adventure.
However, I’m not yet satisfied.
I feel there is still more to learn, more to win and more to teach.
You have elected to become one of my members.
Perhaps like me, you have the desire to be a better horseman.
Hopefully, my experience and advice will help you get closer to your goal.
I wish you all the best.
Larry Trocha Training Stable