A Self-Made Businesswoman: A Trainers Perspective
This week I had the opportunity to speak to a dear friend and one of the best trainers I have worked with, Alicia Wilkinson of Horse Show Leases LLC. We spoke about what it takes to make it in such a competitive industry and she shared some of her insights and advice with me!
Alicia is just like you and me, she has spent her life surrounded by horses and is lucky enough to have the opportunity to fulfill her dream of getting to work in the industry she loves so much! Alicia grew up in England and has always loved horses as long as she can remember. Some of her earliest memories involve asking her parents for a horse every Christmas (sounds familiar, right?). Since moving to the United States as a child, Alicia spent her life around horses and attended college to earn herself a degree in Equine Studies and Business Management. Alicia carved her own career path and has since become very well respected in the Hunter/Jumper industry. I spoke with Alicia about her career as she progressed from a fresh out of college trainer with big dreams, to her current status of successfully taking riders and horses to top levels of the A circuit.
Q: When was it that you knew a career in the equine industry was for you?
A: I guess I had always known I was going to do it. I remember being a young girl and always begging to take lessons, and that's where it started. I was hooked. I always looked for opportunities to be in the saddle and continue my education. My family was great and always helped to support my passion. I was lucky enough to continue chasing my dreams as I went to college with my horse in tow; that is where the foundation of my career began.
Q: What have been key steps in your career development?
A: Attending Virginia Intermont was a large part in the development of my career. At college, I was able to graduate with a degree in business management and equine studies. I spent all four years on the IHSA team, while also riding and competing on my own horse. This combined experience really helped me build my foundation. After college I was able to secure a position as a trainer at Providence Equestrian in North Carolina where I worked for 5 years before opening Carolina Country Acres. I spent many years developing Carolina Country Acres and had the opportunity to watch the farm grow into a successful business. I watched many kids develop from lesson students to successfully competing on the A Circuit. I also spent this time buying, training, and selling horses on the A Circuit which lead me to opening Horse Show Leases LLC. Now, I focus my time on my 8 very dedicated A show students, my successful IEA Team, and my lease/sale business. I have leaned that a lot of the success in the industry comes from trial and error; you often learn what doesn't work before you learn what does. Continually improving your methods and always striving to improve day in and day out is the key to a successful career, whether it is the equestrian industry or elsewhere.
Q: What have been some of the most memorable moments of your career?
A: I love being around the children and watching them develop in and out the saddle. It is so rewarding to watch them succeed over the years. From Pony Finals, to my middle school IEA Team qualifying for Nationals, it has been an adventure for sure. Watching the IEA team transform into a competitive group of riders has been such an amazing thing to see as their trainer. One of the most rewarding moments of my career was watching a student who would constantly get bucked off of her short stirrup pony become competitive in the U25 jumper classes in under 5 years. Seeing her become so successful in a relatively short amount of time was huge, for both of us. I am so proud of all my students and the accomplishments they've had!
Q: How do you ensure that you and your clients stay positive in a sport that can be so unpredictable?
A: For me it is the love of the sport and horses that keeps me positive, even on the worst days. Watching my students develop into great riders and equestrians in general is just another great addition. I work to create an environment of support and positivity around the farm and I encourage this attitude at home and while at shows. As with many things in life, some things are just out of your control, but you can control your reaction and attitude. Not every day will be filled with blue ribbons, you're bound to go off course and miss a distance or two, it is on those days that the positive attitude that I work hard to instill in my riders is the most important.
Q: When looking for a horse to buy and resell/lease out what is the most important thing you look for?
A: A good brain is everything. I can look past minor conformation flaws if the horse has a great brain. I want my guys to be able to take a joke and to be able to get their riders out of trouble when needed. A lot of the horses I purchase and sell/lease go on to have long and successful careers with amateur riders. I want the horses I produce and sell to bring their riders peace of mind even in tricky situations.
Q: What is the greatest adversity you have faced in your career? How did you overcome it?
A: A bad accident which caused me to flip during a George Morris Clinic. It was a freak accident that left me with broken ribs, a concussion, a collar bone that required surgery, and a broken tailbone. It was one of the most difficult things I have been through and one of the hardest things I have ever had to overcome. Up until the accident I had never been afraid to ride a horse, this accident made me realize that accidents can happen even in the most controlled and regulated situations. I was out of the saddle for 3 months. My first ride back was on my trusty jumper, Crush. Up until this, I had never had any fear about just hoping on and riding any horse. It took me building up confidence and my strength/stability on horses I trusted before I could get back on the horse who I had the accident with. It took some time but I conquered my fear by getting back on the horse I had the accident on. I think that I will always have a bit of uncertainty in the back of my mind, but my passion for this sport pushes me past the doubts.
Q: What would you say to those who want to have a similar career as you?
A: You have to be prepared for horses to be your life 24/7. There will be times that you are traveling 5 weeks in a row and there will be days that you can't make it to events with friends, but at the end of the day this sport gives you so much in return. You will always be surrounded by people who have the same passion as you and you will make lifelong friends through the sport. I would have to say that watching students and horses develop into their full potential is by far the most rewarding thing that this job has given me. That in itself is worth the late nights and missed happy hours, and that is why I wouldn't trade this career for the world.