Interview with a Quarter Horse Trainer

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Al Dunning talks about his career as a horse trainer.  You can find Al at his website and on his Twitter feed in the sidebar of this interview. 

What do you do for a living?

Quarter Horse Trainer, Clinician, Tack Business, Horse Sales

How would you describe what you do?

I live and breathe horses. I train and show AQHA, NCHA Cutting, and Reining Horses. I also do clinics world-wide to teach riders and trainers how to train and show.

What does your work entail?

I ride approx. 12 horses daily and compete extensively, mostly in the Western states. I am focused on cutting horses but have shown almost every event.

What’s a typical work week like?

We get up early, saddle, water the arenas, work them with the tractor, ride, give lessons, do office work, repair various things on the ranch, doctor cattle, wash and prepare the trucks and trailers, clip and bathe horses, feed, clean, and go show.

How did you get started?

My sisters rode when I was young and I watched. When I was 12, I took lessons and started showing. I competed through my college years, then decided to become a professional when I was 20.

What do you like about what you do?

I like the work, the horses, and the life style. Being a cowboy and having cowboy standards, believing in America, Mom, and apple pie.

What do you dislike?

Sometimes dealing with customers that micro-manage or that have unrealistic expectations.

How do you make money/or how are you compensated?

I charge a monthly rate to board and train the horses. There is a daily charge at each show and a riders fee when prise money is won. We also charge a commission to buy and sell horses.

How much money do Horse Trainers make?

This is based on how good you are or how much you win. The better you are the more horses you get to train from the public.  Top trainers can make $100,000 to $250,000 annually.  Top assistants $30,000 to $50,000 annually.

No one is going to get rich training but it’s a great life!

How much money did/do you make starting out as a Horse Trainer?

When I was an apprentice, I starved. After success, I have been comfortable. You must adjust your spending to relate to your income. I have accumulated horses, equipment, property, and more over the years.

The assistant or apprentice makes minimum wage plus housing in most cases.  Sometimes they can make $15 @ hour.  Unfortunately, the nature of the business is long hours and few employers pay by the hour.

What education, schooling, or skills are needed to do this?

I think a good education is a huge advantage. Bookkeeping, organizing, and dealing with clients can be enhanced by a college degree in business and psycology, which were my majors.

What is most challenging about what you do?

Everyday working hard, ups and downs, winning and losing, balancing the budget, and balancing family time.

What is most rewarding?

I love the Western life style, seeing the advancement of the horses, meeting many interesting people, traveling, competing, and all the friends that love horses too.

What advice would you offer someone considering this career?

Many young men and women have come through my program and started careers for themselves. You must apprentice for someone who has the skills and business that you want. Take your time to absorb all you can learn, minimum of 5 years.

How much time off do you get/take?

I take a vacation each year. Usually I take Sunday off if I don’t have a show or Monday off if I do have a show on the weekend.

What is a common misconception people have about what you do?

Some think it is all glitz and glamor they see in the winner’s circle and overlook all of the sweat and work that got you there.

What are your goals/dreams for the future?

I am living my dream each day! I love helping good people that have the desire to achieve and riding good horses.

What else would you like people to know about your job/career?

My career is not typical in this fast pace world. I get dirty, work hard, it is sometimes dangerous, there are long hours, you must stay very good to make a good living, only 10% of trainers make it to a decent level…but it’s a great life!


{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Lianna Burgener June 22, 2018 at 12:57 pm

I am a Junior in high school and have always wanted to train horses. I have 10 years of riding experience including dressage, western pleasure, equestrian vaulting, and English pleasure. I work hard to improve my intellect and often strive to learn even more about horses. I don’t currently have a paying job, but I do work at a barn. My boss allowed me to start working for her after money started to get tight. I work there about three to four times a week and about 4 or 5 hours each day. She has had me turn horses out, give medication, shave bridle paths, mix grain, tune-up the horses that she doesn’t have time to do, lunge the horses, and do ground work with the three horses she is currently training. I work with 12 horses and each are very different. I don’t know how to continue my path to becoming a paid horse trainer. I live in a suburban city, so I would have to train at the owner’s house or at a stable. Please help me achieve my goal!


Al Dunning November 21, 2018 at 1:27 pm

Hi Lianna,
I enjoyed reading about your horse journey. It sounds like you are getting some experience. My main suggestion is that you try to find a trainer that you like and respect. Go to work for them and usually you will get paid for your help, experience, and work ethic. The element you are lacking is experience learning from a recognized professional.
AQHA has a list of qualified trainers on their website. The are members of the AQHA Pro Horseman.
Happy Thanksgiving, Al Dunning


Cheyenne Ludwig September 7, 2017 at 8:19 am

I’m a Jr. in high school and i love horses been riding sects i was young but as i got older with school and my job i don’t ride as much as i want to, I don’t own any horses , but i know a lot about them. After high school i don’t really have a plan i always wanted to work with troubled horse etc. Could u help me out?


Jacob Sloter January 14, 2014 at 12:59 pm

I owned horses for several years one got sick and I had to put it down and gave the other away, I’m in college right now for auto mechanics tech and after I want to become a horse trainer for western style riding and was looking for a school or an apprenticeship, preferably the apprenticeship but I’m not sure how to find someone if anyone has anything let me know


Lizzy April 14, 2014 at 12:40 pm

My trainer went to Meredith Manor in West Virginia and she loved it. She said it was a little pricey though.


Emma Dalzell November 15, 2012 at 10:26 pm

I’m a freshman in college and have been riding since I was 10. I want to spend my life showing and training horses. I want to apprentice under a trainer but I also have my own horses. One has the potential to go far. The problem is I need cash flow to keep the two of them, let alone get her where she could be. Do you know of any opportunities that mix the working with the learning? I mean I’d be starting at ground zero at any barn I go to…
Another thing is I live in Wisconsin, not exactly horse country..


Al Dunning November 16, 2012 at 6:39 pm

Hi Emma,
We get many aspiring young riders that are looking for the same as you are. My best advice is to first, get a good education; second, find a trainer that can mentor you that is near your current location; then third, decide which of your horses can get you to where you want to go.
Most internships do not pay well as you learn. Get the best experience you can and keep trying to improve you situation when you can, until you reach your best opportunity to learn from the optimum coach.
Most interns get to only are bring one horse with them.
Contact AQHA or the Association that you are most interested in and see if they have a trainer directory of their professionals for you to contact. You must be willing to go donate your time to see if the situation is right for everyone concerned.
For me, you must have high level of experience, a great resume, and some quality recommendations to be considered. Then I must have a personal interview and try out.
It’s not easy but it proves your level of commitment and skills.
To live the dream, you must do the do!!! Al


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