HORSEPLAY MAGAZINE SEPTEMBER1989
CAREERS WITH HORSES
MARI ZDUNIC: TRAINING TOP-LEVEL DRESSAGE HORSES
BY BONNIE KREITLER
Some people call it a grind, but I love theeveryday repetition. I love seeing progress in my horses."says Mari Zdunic, who trains dressage horses up to the grand-prixlevel at Shine-A-Bit Farm in Brighton, Michigan. Afterapprenticing as a working student for four years, the 35 year-oldhorsewoman leased the facility from owner-trainer Chuck Grant in1980. She now has 26 horses in her care.
The Trainers Typical Day
Zdunic's typical day begins when she rolls outof bed for an eye-opening cup of coffee at seven a.m. By the timeMari reaches the barn at eight or eight-thirty to tack up andride her first horse, she will find Grant already working thefirst of six horses he will ride that day.
Zdunic likes to tack up trainees herself andride them through their warm-up routine., especially horses newto the barn. Afterwards a working student many hot-walk thehorse, take him to graze on a lead rope, or mount up for a"cruise" around the perimeter of a 50 acre field tokeep the horses feeling fresh and forward.
Before noon, Mari will work four or five horsesand give the working students their daily lesson. There is alwaysan hour's break at noon while the horses munch another flake ofhay. At one p.m. Zdunic is back in the saddle. She will workanother two or three horses that afternoon and finish up by threep.m.
"This is a routine kind of place,"she observes. That's part of the commitment one must make totraining.
She sits down at the beginning of the year andthinks through how many days she can afford to be away from theactual day-to-day training, doing exhibitions or competing atshows. Those days are budgeted into her calendar so that thereare no large gaps in training time. "Those who teach ridingor combine teaching, clinics, and judging are not as tied down asthe horse trainer," she comments. "A person who thinkshe wants to be a trainer must be willing to settle down,"she says, " because a trainer can't be gone from the horses.Even if you own all the horses yourself, you're ripping yourselfoff if you go away and neglect their work. If you have client'shorses, there's no way you can leave and have working studentsexercising the horses, because they don't make progress."
A Physical and Mental Life
Training horses calls for a great deal ofpatience, Mari emphasizes. Progress often comes in smallincrements, and a trainer must learn to accept what the horse isable to give and never force the horse or become angry. You mustlearn to deal with frustration. "I'm sure that there weredays when the arenas didn't need to be watered, because Isprinkled them with my tears," she laughs. "There'sjust a whole lot of hard work to this. It's a physical life.
It's a mental life too. Zdunic notes that whenshe was a working student at Shine-A-Bit, students received noformal lessons. Grant talked to them as he schooled his horses,and they were expected to think through and make the necessarychanges in the programs for their own horses. "In otherwords, Mari says " be independent - very independent."
A trainer must constantly be working throughthe horse's psychology and approaching his training mentally, shepoints out.
Pathways to a Training Career
After a youth spent fooling with a successionof cast off ponies that found their way to her parents' dairyfarm in Durand, Michigan, Mari took her first formal ridinglessons at age 13 with Chuck and Carole Grant in a riding programheld at nearby Michigan State University. During her high-schoolyears, she boarded her horse at Shine-A-Bit Farm and became moreserious about her riding.
Zdunic left her horse behind when she headed toDuke University to enroll in the pre-medical program there. Shehad every intention of becoming a doctor. Through thephysical-education program, however, she met former steeplechasejockey Bill Gosling and was soon involved in the North Carolinahunt scene.
By the time she was a junior in college, sheknew that she wanted horses to be her life's work. Sheinterviewed with Grant to become a working student that summer,went on to complete her BA in zoology and art at Duke, thenreturned to Shine-A-Bit to continue learning about training.
"My advice is to go to college and find away to maintain your riding while you're in college for a seriousdegree," she stresses. "If you really are going tocontinue to ride, you will."
If you desire to become a trainer hasn't fadedby the time you finish your education, "an apprenticeprogram is the way to go," Zdunic counsels.
Apprenticeship can be an ongoing equineeducation, she points out. Start while you are in high school,working for someone after school and on weekends. During summerswhile you are in high school and college, work locally or boardaway at a facility where you can learn new skills from adifferent mentor. After college, seek a full-time working studentposition that will help you reach your personal goals.
Zdunic advises youngsters to do their ownresearch to find a position, rather than depending on directoriesor classified ads in the horse publications. Study magazinewrite-ups and show results to locate successful professionals inthe field you are interested in, whether that be dressagetraining, competitive showing, or horse sales. Then write tothem. "See if there's some way you can slip into theirsystem, "she advises.
Find out in advance how long yourworking-student status will last, what jobs will be expected ofyou, what lessons or training are provided for working students,and what kind of help the farm offers in finding employment. Askabout board for yourself and your horse, transportation, healthinsurance, and whether or not any stipend for food and otherexpenses is available. She does not feel that working studentsshould pay for their positions, but acknowledges that this is thecase at some farms.
She also feels that equine-studies programs atcolleges and trade schools simply don't offer the depth ofexperience that an apprenticeship can.
Two Ways of Doing Business
Zdunic operates Shine-A-Bit Farm as a smallbusinesswoman who runs her own operation. Other trainers,however, work as employees for others, usually managing the barnand showing the animals, as well as training them. Thisarrangement offers an alternative to the person who lacks thecapital to start his own business. A salary is often supplementedby fringe benefits such as cars, living quarters, insurance, andthe like that the self-employed trainer must provide on her own.
Bright Future For Trainers
Zdunic feels that the future for good horsetrainers is bright. Ten years down the line, she feels, theequine community will need trainers who specialize in producingFEI level horses for our nation's competitors. The trainerdedicated solely to training will be a highly salable commodity,compared to the generalist, who wears several hats at once aspart-time trainer, part-time equine sales agent, and part timeriding instructor.
Mari points out that developing into thecaliber of trainer who can command fees of $500-$1000 a monthrequires as many years of study as becoming a doctor or lawyer.While she acknowledges that most trainers will never earn asalary equivalent to a doctor's, "If you think this is whatyou want to do, it's a very rewarding life."
Copyright ©1996 by Shine-A-Bit Farm; Brighton,Michigan - ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Reproduction of text and/orphotos for commercial purposes is strictly prohibited