Taking Care of Yourself When “Horse Trainer” is Your Job Title

Taking Care of Yourself When “Horse Trainer” is Your Job Title

By Heather Elliott - Elliott Performance Horses

Heather rode saddleseat Morgans starting at 8 years old, followed by riding all around quarters competitively through high school under an AQHA judge. Went to the University of Findlay and studied Equine Studies with an emphasis on Western Training. Then rode reiners professionally for 3 years. Later attended a local technical school and graduated with Vet Tech degree.

"Training horses is a career full of passionate individuals that make the most out of every day. We love our jobs, our customers, and our horses.  While these are things that keep us motivated and moving forward this is a career without things like health benefit packages, 401k plans and other incentives toward better healthier living.  My name is Heather Elliot and I am a Trainer myself at Elliot Performance Horses."

Finding a Health Coverage Solution as a Horse Trainer

When we do make the choice to find sources of health coverage; out of pocket costs can be life-changing numbers. Where is the middle ground of cost-effective health insurance plans with low monthly premiums and reasonable deductibles vs. not having any coverage at all?  We also have physical requirements that at times can be harsh and sometimes unforgiving, but while consistent fitness training and physical therapy are common for the animals we train they are not so much for us ourselves. Then there is the mental part of this career. I know that working with horses seems like a carefree fun job and I would say for the most part it is (I am biased), but when we are working with elite athletes at the highest level of competition the work hours are sometimes beyond extreme and the pressure to produce in a high dollar competitive market can cause real mental stress. Mental health care is rarely talked about by the horse training community and even less often taken advantage of.  While there are plenty of self-employed workers in private businesses they don’t all come with the same health risks we are exposed to each and every day.

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Weighing the pros and cons in making these types of decisions; opting into an expensive insurance program vs. taking the risk and paying ourselves; usually weighs heavily on the con side until it becomes a necessity. I know fellow trainers that struggle month to month with costs of operations in their equine-based business and the overhead costs that they incur. Between the trucks, trailers, feed, hay, shavings, hired hands, and insurances, if all our stalls aren’t full with a waiting list it can be difficult to keep the lights on let alone spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars on our own or family health insurance.

Left Untreated, Injuries can Backfire

I myself at 33 years of age can count on one hand the amount of times I’ve had any medical care in the last 15 years. I’ve had broken bones, terrible illnesses, and just general wellness checkups that I’ve never had the time or money to get taken care of.  At one point I had an accident and I broke my pelvis and went to the local doc in the box for some radiographs to confirm what I already knew was broken. I was sent home to heal with six weeks of bed rest, which, turned into two weeks and then I was back to work with no physical therapy or post-treatment. Over the last 5 years, I’ve struggled with the recovery of that injury enough that it has become at times debilitating. I’m at a place in my life where I have to ask what is the cost of my own self-health. I am getting older but not making any more money than I did as a younger trainer. My body has had a lot of wear and tear that has gone untreated for so long it’s now starting to catch up with me. I now have to start planning for the next 15 years of this journey that is my career, and if I don’t start trying to find out what I can do to live as long as I can in this body I may be setting myself up for an even rougher long term outcome.

Saving for the Future?

Now let's talk about saving for the future. It starts for most people after you’ve landed on your feet after four or more years of college, you’ve paid off all those student loans, found yourself working towards life long goals and setting aside what you can every month with your financial advisor. If you're lucky your employer offers some type of pension program that will help get you on your way. Not many of us in the horse training industry have any 401K’s offered by an employer and to create one on of our own means the flow of income needs to support the cost and be predictable into the future.  The probability of that is hard to pin down or unlikely.

Saddled With Education Debt

Not only are we not managing to save much for retirement, or afford expensive health insurance but some also went to some sort of equine college and have piled up expensive school loans.  I can say this as I did go to one of those fancy equestrian colleges and am still paying that tuition back. I found for both myself and friends that went to the same and other schools that the payoff of these types of programs don’t always set you up for success financially in the future. These schools offer specialty programs that cost more than the average costs of tuition. They boast that these programs will help set you up to be offered jobs that you otherwise might not get, and while there may be some opportunities that are offered they aren’t ones that really hard work couldn’t eventually get you. Some of us try to set aside what we can each month to build something for the future, but there are countless stories about fellow trainers that we all know and respect that have won every major event out there, been sponsored most of their careers by big brand name companies, and are now bankrupt, losing their homes, selling horses in dispersal sales, and liquidating their farms.

"All cowboys think they're invincible until they aren't".

There are a select few of us that take our physical health seriously and spend extra hours engaging in some sort of physical activity aimed at improving our overall health or getting physical therapy recommended after an injury or surgery. However, for the rest of us we think that spending 10-12 hour days in the barn is enough to keep us fit and healthy. That sprained ankle or sore back will get better in time. That nagging cough will go away at some point. We’ve all taken some sort of self-prescribed horse medicine to help get us through the day.  If you say you haven’t, your lying!!

We condition our horses to be as powerful and agile as we can, but don’t think twice about that importance for ourselves. When a horse is sore or sick we call the vet and get a medical plan that will accommodate the training and therapies they will need. Why not for us too? We are a culture of hard laborers and thick-skinned individuals, but looking at the generations before us, crippled and overweight. It should be a red light for the future generation to have more self-care and prolong this life that we all love so much.

The Mind-Body Connection - Addressing the Mental Health Aspect

Sometimes our thoughts are our worst enemy. Mental health in the equine industry is probably one of the least likely forms of self-health you’ll see. When it may in fact be one of the most important.  I went to a horse show recently and got to talking with a long time friend that told me a story about their real life struggle; they were mentally struggling with crippling self-doubt that threatened to take their whole business down, and the stresses they were feeling with clients that weren’t seeing the results they expected. They lost horses that were prospective champions and had shown so much talent.  Sometimes sent to another trainer for reasons unknown and after years of grinding things just got more complicated instead of better. This is someone who has won more money in the last year than most of us put together; someone that we all respect in the industry, and no one would think they have a care in the world. They had their shirt covered in sponsors and a newly purchased truck and trailer sitting outside the show barn, and a huge smile on their face. 

So what was the answer? The answer was a sports psychologist. They told me it helped them to understand how to deal with the pressures of what they were feeling and thinking.  Gave them the tools to move past roadblocks that were keeping them from succeeding. They told me the only reason they were standing before me was because they got the help they needed to thrive in the tough and demanding life we all live as trainers. Their struggles were not unique. The situations and thoughts they were having are ones I’ve heard over and over and even felt myself. The difference was simply that they asked for help. Needing counseling in the world of competitive sports is not a new concept but to an industry that doesn’t put health over all else, it’s not utilized enough.

So whether its contemplating health plans, starting a savings for the future, or taking action to care for your mind, body, and spirit; it’s a personal choice that should take precedent in our business plan but too often gets overlooked.  We have to realize that at some point in the future, we won't be able to keep up this level of activity.  We will need to have a reserve in place for that time.

Resources for Self Employed Horse Trainers to Help with Medical Cost Management


Lump Sum Policies that Payout for Accidents

Companies such as Aflac and Allstate offer inexpensive insurance products that are relatively low in cost and can pay out a predefined lump sum payment in the event of an accident.  As an example, you may be able to purchase a policy for a low monthly premium (under 10-50$) that would pay out a lump sum payment of say $2500 if you are in an accident.  Premiums depend upon your age and what sort of lump sum you are looking for as a maximum payout and of course your payout has certain qualifications you must meet.  This sort of plan is sometimes a great alternative if you aren’t good at saving money into a personal emergency fund. It won’t cover any big issue but will help with immediate expenses and cash flow if you get hurt.  The same sort of policies might also be available as a disability policy.  Disability policies usually pay a percentage of your monthly income after a recuperation period has expired.  In other words, if you have not recovered and returned to work in "x" number of weeks, then insurance kicks in and pays you a % of your documented income.  Here's link to begin your search from the Allstate Insurance company.  There are others as well. 

What is Accident insurance article: Accident Insurance Article  (https://www.policygenius.com/disability-insurance/what-is-accident-insurance/#whats-covered-by-accident-insurance)

Allstate website on limited benefit programs: Allstate Insurance Benefits  (https://www.allstate.com/voluntary-employee-benefits/accident-disability.aspx)

Major Medical Plans

These are also available from many health insurance providers and come with very high deductible amounts.  In other words, unless it is a catastrophe you will never use it, but it will cover a huge medical event such as a serious break or heart attack.  This is something that is important to have if you own assets and don’t want to end up in bankruptcy because of a medical problem. Most people don’t know that in the US today about 75% of bankruptcy claims are due to medical bills.

Healthcare MarketPlace

Depending upon your income, you may qualify for some healthcare supplemental credits.  Many of these programs have relatively high deductibles that you must pay before the coverage begins, and then an additional ceiling that must be reached before coverage is 100%.  But this option is always a great thing to look at.  The system seems to favor those that have some income such as 20,000 per year and is not favorable for high wage earners.

A quick government survey will get you in to at least look at possible government subsidy numbers: Government Healthcare Subsidies (https://www.healthcare.gov/)

Other Medical Bill Sharing Programs (not actually insurance)

Companies such as the Christian Care Ministries provide health care assistance through products such as their “Medishare” program.  They have lower premiums than many health insurance companies and are set up to help members contribute monthly premiums directly toward medical bills for people in need.  Each company has a qualification process to go through, not all are Christian based.  The benefits are twofold: not only might you be able to help others directly when they are in need, but the premiums tend to be 25-40% lower than some insurance products. This is definitely something to take a look at as an alternative to a large health insurance company.  They keep their overhead low and have a team of negotiators that work to reduce the total bills before they begin paying.  Depending upon your specific needs, these may also be a great option.

Here's a great article that explains these ministries in more detail: Medical Cost Sharing Ministries (https://www.laurengreutman.com/save-money-with-health-care-sharing-ministries/)