Rider Shawn Flarida is a professional horseman who has won $3.8 million in reining competitions. He buys, sells and trains horses; works with other reiners; sells videos of his training techniques; and is sponsored by a host of companies, including Purina.
Champion drivers Tucker Johnson and Chester Weber — whose sport of carriage driving requires hundreds of thousands of dollars for carriages and driving horses — are heirs to huge fortunes, Johnson & Johnson and Campbell's Soup, respectively.
On the other end of the spectrum, vaulting clubs might hold fund-raisers to get their teams and horses to big competitions.
Money to pay for high-level equine sports like the eight competitive disciplines at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games can come from personal checkbooks, professional and corporate sponsorships or even bake sales. The only constant is the cash flow required to train and compete.
"It's a very expensive business," says Mason Phelps, owner of Phelps Media Group, an equestrian public relations firm. "But if you look at the very top, most of those people are professionals. And with talent and desire and a lot of hard work, there's a future for anyone."
Phelps points to two members of the U.S. jumping team, McLain Ward and Beezie Madden, both of whom came up through the ranks of junior riders, then became professionals. They train other riders, train horses and hope to have a few wealthy owners who will pay the seven figures needed to buy a top-level jumper the professional can ride in international competitions.
U.S. eventing team member Kim Severson started out working for Linda Wachtmeister of Plain Dealing Farm in Virginia. Severson exercised the farm horses and trained Wachtmeister's two daughters. Wachtmeister became her patron, Severson says on her Web site.
"This all goes back to Linda," she wrote. "I ride at her farm, she foots the whole bill. It's like she's a parent and a friend who looks after me, and I do the same for her, I hope. It's sort of a fairy tale."
Severson eventually started her own operation, training riders, selling horses and actively seeking sponsorships to bankroll her competition costs.
The horse she will ride at the Games, for example, Tipperary Liadhnan, is owned by a group of supporters called Friends of Kim Severson. Her Web site also asks for donations through the American Horse Trials Foundation.
Riding for T-shirts
The costs for competitive riders — between horses, coaches, veterinarians, grooms, feed and stabling — are high. Then you have to add the cost of getting to the Games. For many Europeans, those costs are prohibitive.
British officials estimated it would cost nearly $2 million to bring teams in all eight disciplines to Kentucky for the Games. They decided not to field a driving team because of the costs.
Vaulting and endurance are probably the least expensive of the eight competitive disciplines. In vaulting, team members can share a horse, and many of them are owned by vaulting clubs. Competing in the 100-mile endurance race simply requires a horse, equipment and some very long trail rides.
"It's pretty much self-financed, and we're not rich people," said Connie Caudill, president of the American Endurance Ride Conference. "We don't ride for prize money; we ride for a T-shirt."
Endurance horses can be purchased for as little as $500, although they have sold for much more, particularly in the Middle East, where endurance is a popular sport.
Sponsors are sometimes required at the highest levels of competition, such as the Games, even for professionals. Joanie Morris, spokeswoman for the United States Equestrian Foundation, said it has found sponsors for the U.S. teams at the Games. In one case, Land Rover is sponsoring the entire U.S. eventing team.
Lend me a horse
In many European countries, governments help subsidize high-level equestrian sports. The U.S. government does not. But other foundations often fill in.
The United States Equestrian Team Foundation, for example, raises $2.4 million to $2.7 million a year to give to high-level competitors.
The foundation's president, Jane Forbes Clark, is helping in a different way: She owns several of the horses athletes are using in the competition.