Life as a professional horse trainer isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s full of ups, downs, long days, short nights and plenty of hard work. To the outsider looking in, so much hard work and effort might not seem worth the trouble. However, the experienced horse lover knows that behind every trainer’s work-worn boots, steady eyes, sunburned skin and callused hands, there’s a deep and abiding passion for the horse – and that’s a passion that’s worth every drop of the blood, sweat and tears that makes up a life in the horse industry.
But what’s it really like to live and work as a professional horse trainer? You’re about to find it!
Laura Ashley Killian is a Grand Prix Dressage Rider and United States Dressage Federation (USDF) certified trainer based in Loxahatchee, Fla. A horse lover since childhood, she has spent her whole life in the saddle. She’s only 29, but she already owns and operates a successful training and coaching business out of her own farm, which is situated on five acres and includes an eight-stall horse barn. Over the course of her competition career, Laura has earned her USDF Gold, Silver and Bronze medals, along with many other accolades at both USDF and United States Equestrian Federation (USEF) events. She’s currently pursuing her certification as an FEI trainer, and is also a USDF “L” Judging Graduate.
When she’s not competing or riding her own horses in pursuit of new goals, Laura is actively involved in training horses and coaching adult amateur riders in the discipline of dressage. On top of all that, she also maintains her own personal string of horses, which includes her past competition horses as well as her current competition mount. It’s a busy life, but it’s the life Laura has always wanted for herself.
Are you ready to walk through a typical day in the life with Laura? Let’s go!
THE TRAINER LIFE: AT HOME ON THE FARM
Before purchasing her own farm in 2020, Laura was invited to operate her business out of her client’s private facilities. Becoming a property owner has added a whole new category of tasks to her daily life.
“Owning a farm has been the most major change in my life because now I’m a glorified stall mucker as well as a Grand Prix level trainer,” Laura said with a laugh. “I do just as much poop picking and feeding, turnout, wound care, grooming, tacking, bathing and body clipping as I ever did when I was a full-time working student, on top of also managing way more construction tasks than I ever cared to know about!”
Laura’s day starts in the barn around 8 am and finishes at 10 or 11 at night.
“I’ll wake up and go drop feed first thing in the morning, turn in and turn out anyone who needs to be rotated, fill the waters, do the hay, pick stalls and then get into riding after that. Since we’re in Florida, it’s generally best to get riding done in the first half of the day because the afternoons get pretty warm. I give most of my lessons between 9 am and 1 pm. After that, I’ll do a quick touch-up around the barn, then go in and eat some lunch,” Laura said.
After lunch, Laura’s on the road for most of the afternoon, traveling from farm to farm to give lessons. Once she’s back in the barn, it’s time for more work – this time alongside her working students.
“Most of them are 14- to 16-year-old girls who are enjoy being at the barn the same way I do. They’ll come between the hours of 4 and 7, and we’ll tackle some projects that need to be taken care of around the barn, whether that’s cleaning tack or bathing and body-clipping horses. Then they’ll help me get on the last of the horses I need to ride for the day, and I’ll ride until dark. Sometimes we’ll go on a little trail ride together. After that, it’s chore time again. Then I’ll go in to eat dinner, work out and finish the night on the couch with my boyfriend so I can decompress.”
Although Laura spends every day being physically active, she prioritizes spending time moving her body in other ways, too. In addition to running half-marathons, lifting heavy weights and practicing judo and jiu-jitsu, Laura loves to salsa dance and spends the occasional weekend at dance conventions.
“Other types of exercise are really beneficial to me as a rider, both mentally and physically,” Laura explained. “The feeling of connection you get when you’re dancing is very similar to the connection you develop when you’re riding, except that as the female, I follow when I’m dancing. That gives me perspective as to what it feels like to be the horse. I also develop better body coordination through judo and jiu-jitsu because feeling how pressure and timing can create motion is similar to how we move the horse with our leg at just the right moments. I also learn about isolating my body parts from dancing and lifting. Having that level of awareness of my different muscle groups really helps me ride better.”
THE TRAINER LIFE: AT A COMPETITION
From January to April, Laura focuses on supporting her clients at shows and competitions. But during the late spring and summer, she takes the opportunity to pursue her own competition goals. Since she’s located just a stone’s throw from Wellington, Laura rarely has to overnight at the show grounds – instead, she can haul in and haul out whenever she needs to.
“I can do everything I need to right out of my house,” Laura said. “On show day, I’ll do my whole normal morning with all the chores first. Then I touch up any manure stains on my horse, throw in braids, get myself cleaned up and dressed, hitch the trailer, load the horse and tack, then drive 15 minutes or so to the show. Sometimes a friend might show up to help me out. I’m pretty good at being a one-woman band, but I’m also lucky enough that someone generally shows up to help make my life easier one way or another. I’ll spend about an hour with my horse, making sure we’re both prim and proper and ready to go, and ride for 30 minutes in the warm-up pen. After the show, we trailer back home, and I go right back to my normal day.”
AVOIDING BURN OUT
Just like for any hard-working professional, self-care is an important ritual for Laura. Horse trainers are under a lot of mental, physical and financial pressure. Taking the time to recharge after a show or to take care of her body, mind and spirit is essential for Laura so she can continue doing the work she loves without getting burned out.
“I need variety to stay refreshed and not get burned out in a really tough industry,” Laura said. “A lot of people get pressured into thinking that if they’re only working 23 hours a day, there’s someone else out there who will work the 24th hour. But that’s not always the best thing for you. I try to keep myself within boundaries so that I can give the best of myself every time I’m out there.”
Laura says that support from her clients is one of the keys to her success in the industry.
“I’m fortunate in that I’ve got clients who really love and support me and my business. I seem to attract kindhearted people with good energy, and they’re all respectful of the times when I go out of town to a dance convention, for example. They’re always happy for me to go have fun, and they usually offer to help out while I’m gone. Having that kind of support around me really helps,” she said.
IT’S ALL ABOUT THE HORSES
In addition to client horses, Laura owns and maintains four horses of her own. The first is Donnerluck. Although he’s now a 27-year-old retiree, Donnerluck helped Laura earn the final score she needed to earn her USDF Gold Medal. The second is MS Spanish Legacy, a palomino mare and Laura’s own Grand Prix mount. The third is Shana’s Romance, who is currently being rehabbed from an injury she suffered in the pasture. Shana’s routine varies between the occasional training day with Laura and lighter days babysitting students during lessons. Finally, Laura is currently campaigning Freedom, or Freddy, with the goal of Concours de Dressage International (CDI)-level competitions for next season. Eventually, Freddy will be for sale, but for now, Laura is excited to spend time working with him and training him.
Although it’s unusual for a trainer to have the luxury of owning and keeping a personal string, Laura has an important reason for keeping each one of her horses.
“Each horse has played a very important role in my life and career,” Laura said. “There’s an emotional link between me and the ones that I have strong feelings for. There are some horses in your life that when you see them, you can just feel your heart pounding out of your chest. These horses are the handful on that list that have ended up being something special. I owe a little bit more of myself to them.”