Sustainable Horse Careers: Executive Director of GallopNYC

Photo © Sarah Nir

BY JESSIE LOCHRIE 

Careers in the horse world are known for long hours, low pay, and a high rate of burnout — so how do the professionals we admire manage their careers in a sustainable way? We reached out to some of our favorite people in the equine industry to find out. Today we’re chatting with James Wilson, Executive Director of GallopNYC, a therapeutic riding nonprofit in New York City. 

How did you get started in horses, and what led you to your particular path in the industry?

I grew up in Texas and my parents both had horses when they were younger, but by the time I came along there weren’t actual physical horses around. When I went to college, my roommate was into team roping, and one day I went with him to the roping arena and watched and I was like “Well, that’s pretty cool, I want to try that.” 

I called my dad, asked him to teach me to ride so that I could rope, and he did.I learned to ride, bought a horse over the summer, and took him back to college. I was going to school, doing rodeo, and going to take care of my horse every day, and I found that having my horse made me better in school. I didn’t really understand horses and when I brought this horse to school and worked with him on my own, he taught me a lot about myself, a lot of things that no one else could teach me. How to be patient, how to be cool. 

After college, I was working as a retail buyer and my career took me to New York. I was going through some things in my personal life and I thought I should go find some horses, so I started volunteering with GallopNYC.  I missed horses in my life, and I found them where I could find them. I really enjoyed that time and so when I decided to make a career change, I talked to the executive director and she suggested I apply for her job, so I did. The nonprofit aspect really drew me in because I got to experience the same thing for these young riders that I experienced. They got to know a horse and their life became better because of that.

What does a typical day or week in your life look like? 

In my current role as Executive Director, I’m responsible for the public face of GallopNYC. I do interviews, I do phone calls with donors, I try to make sure that everyone knows who GallopNYC is and everyone has a really good feeling about our work and our horses and our riders.  And then I’m responsible for the overarching strategy of the organization, ensuring that we’re doing everything we can to meet our mission. So that could look like having conversations with my staff about the effectiveness of our programs, checking in on things that are happening at the barn, or going with my barn manager to see a new horse. 

People say to me all the time, “Oh, you must love your job, you’re with horses all day.” Actually, I’m usually on the phone or behind a computer writing something. But I love the work that I do, and that it allows us to really change the lives of New Yorkers. I see it every day and that’s why I get up in the morning. 

Photo © Hayley Lohn

Do you feel you could remain in this position for the next 5 years? 10 years? 20 years?

I love this career and I love what I do. I will do this job at this organization as long as I can be productive and as long as I’m challenged doing the work. I love the results of going to work every day and seeing my efforts change people’s lives. I’ve been here since 2014 and there’s going to be a point in the future where this job is no longer a challenge, right? I’ve solved a lot of the bigger problems and now I’m solving smaller and smaller problems. 

There’s going to be a point at which my vision for the organization, maybe it’s not the best thing for the organization anymore. I’m not going to say that I’ll stay in this job for the rest of my life, but I’ll stay as long as it’s good for me and it’s good for GallopNYC. 

If you weren’t in horses, what would you do?

My previous industry was retail, I was a planner and a buyer. It was fun because it was all about solving a different problem in new and different problems every day, and I enjoyed that. If I wasn’t in horses, I would be in something tech or retail related. It would just be something challenging and interesting.  

What’s the hardest part of your career? Has any aspect of your path or role in the industry surprised you?

I’m still surprised at how universally helpful the horse is to people. Everyone who comes to GallopNYC, their life is improved by the horse. I didn’t really recognize that when I had a horse in college or even when I started volunteering. Now I see that the volunteers’ day is better after they’re finished volunteering. They’re happier because they’ve been around horses. I knew that horses were special and powerful, but I didn’t fully get that horse and human connection, and how great it is and how strong it is. I’m surprised by that every day. 

What do you see as the main barriers to creating sustainable careers in the horse world?

The margins are tough in this business unless you’re at the very high end. There’s a lot of places where you can’t price lessons or board at too high a price, or you’ll price people out, but unless people can make a living, this industry is not sustainable.

Luckily at GallopNYC, we are able to subsidize most of our riders because we have donors who support our riders and our work. I’m proud of where GallopNYC is sitting in this space. We’re bringing new people into the community, we’re bringing horses to people in New York City, we’re doing it every day. But if we weren’t able to be subsidized by people who care about our work, I would be concerned, because it’s a very, very tough business. 

I think the whole business is a challenge because there are not enough people in it. I think the entire industry needs more exposure. Watching three day eventing is better than NASCAR, but no one knows that. I think we have to broaden the industry and welcome more people in so that there’s more demand. We need kids to get excited about riding, we need their parents to be excited about riding, we need more boys to be excited about riding. 

I feel really strongly that we have to welcome in people from diverse backgrounds. That’s one thing I’m very proud of: our community at Gallop is very, very diverse and very, very welcoming. If you walk into our barn, regardless of what you look like, someone is going to walk up to you and say, “Hey, can I show you what we’re doing? Can I teach you about horses?” To me, that’s the first step, making sure people feel good going to a barn. If you show up and it’s scary and intimidating, you’re never going to go back. 

Photo courtesy of James Wilson

What advice would you give to someone starting out in your career path?

Look for where you can do the most good and put your energy there. Working for a nonprofit or working for a therapeutic riding center – it’s a challenge. But if you can really focus your energy on the problems that are most important for your constituents, then you’re going to be doing good for people.

Make sure that you’re not just focusing on issues that you can solve. Focus on the issues that are important, and figure out how to solve those. And if you can’t solve them, then talk to your community, talk to your peers, talk to your people. That’s the best advice I can give to anybody who’s working in this business, because this business is hard. Horses are hard and the nonprofit world is hard, so horses plus nonprofits are especially hard. 

I think that this business needs people that are clear-eyed about the nonprofit industry. So I would encourage people who are interested in a nonprofit to go spend time with them, go volunteer. At nonprofits like GallopNYC, we need volunteers at all levels: we need people to paint the fence, to pick up after the horses, to help with lessons, we need people to serve on the board of directors. We need people in our community, and that’s the best way to get to know a nonprofit and if this is a career that you want. Don’t spend a lot of time worrying about it. Just go and do. Volunteer, make some friends. Just do. And see how it is.

You can learn more about GallopNYC’s mission and programs at http://gallopnyc.org/.


Jessie Lochrie is a writer based in Los Angeles. You can find her in the jumper ring or at www.jessielochrie.com.

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