For many aspiring professionals, time spent as a working student is an invaluable stepping stone on the way to running one’s own operation. After eight years spent as a working student, 23-year-old Danielle Poulsen took a leap of faith and decided to take a position as the head trainer at Myopia Hunt Club Stables in Hamilton, Massachusetts.
“It’s really those years that you need as a rider to be in the barn and with the professionals doing this kind of stuff,” Poulsen reflected. “You make your relationships and your friendships and you’re in the barn 24 hours a day just sitting and being able to watch great riders and be in the ring with them. Everyone’s got a pointer for you – it’s invaluable.”
Poulsen’s journey to become a professional began when she was 12 years old and she bought a 4-year-old off-the-track Thoroughbred named A Kodak Image, or “Koda” for short. With the help of Danny Warrington, for whom she became a full-time working student at the age of 16, Poulsen and Koda progressed together from the Beginner Novice level all the way to the Intermediate level.
“I’m one of those few people that have a really great off-the-track Thoroughbred that becomes their first Intermediate horse – he has the kindest soul in the world,” Poulsen said. “Just being able to get a 4-year-old off the track and get into an amazing program and be able to bring that horse along as you’re coming along – that doesn’t happen often in this sport.”
After 10 years together, Poulsen made the decision to sell Koda on to compete at the lower levels. “He’s so happy – it was kind of one of those decisions I needed to make to buy the horse I currently have. He’s a pretty amazing horse – I’m really lucky to have had him for so long.”
Selling Koda gave Poulsen the opportunity to acquire Capability Brown, her current three-star horse. Poulsen met “Bane” while employed as a working student for Sara Kozumplik Murphy and Brian Murphy where she moved after four years as Warrington’s working student.
Sara bought Bane off the track as a 4-year-old with the intention of reselling him as an event horse. When she broke her knee in the fall of 2017, Poulsen took over the ride full-time. “I’d been riding him a little bit, just when she didn’t have time, and when she broke her knee I took over the ride,” Poulsen said. “She’d ridden him up to Training level so I took him to his first Preliminary, his first FEI event, and then when she healed, it was like, ‘Well, this partnership is really good and he’s a bit of quirky guy and you guys seem to get along really well. Let’s just see how it goes.’”
“I was going through a lot of stuff with Koda at the time – I was trying to move up to the Advanced level and he just couldn’t do it – and making the decision to sell him was really hard,” she continued. “I leased him out for a year and that whole transition period I was really lucky to have the ride on Bane. It really put me in the direction that my world wasn’t crashing down and there was another opportunity. I finally said to Sara, ‘What do you think about me actually keeping this horse,’ and she said, ‘Let’s do it.’ [Sara and Brian] have been awesome and helped me out a lot with him.”
After nearly four years as Sara and Brian’s working student, Poulsen began thinking about taking her first solo steps as a professional. “I was getting to that point where I wanted to ride more and I wanted to compete more horses,” she said. “Sara and Brian let me compete and ride a ton of horses, but it’s that next step where I was like, ‘If I’m going to be able to do this and be successful, I have to jump off of a ledge somewhere.’”
That somewhere happened to be Massachusetts. A friend of a friend happened to hear about an opening for a trainer at Myopia Hunt Club Stables in Hamilton and Poulsen decided to go up and give it a look. “It was weird how it all worked out because I’m not from there, I don’t really know anybody from there,” she said. “Luckily as a working student I’ve lived in a lot of places so moving is nothing new to me!”
“In Massachusetts, I’m a big fish in a small pond so there’s an opportunity to grow there,” Poulsen said. “The hardest part for me is finding people to train with in the area. There are always good trainers around – you just have to find them! The biggest thing is that I’m so used to being in a program and having at least five lessons and week and eyes on me all the time on multiple horses. Going out and being on my own I have to make sure those skills don’t get lazy and my [bad] habits don’t come back.”
“You spend a lot of years working for professionals and being in these barns and you take little things from everywhere you’re at,” Poulsen concluded. “I obviously don’t know everything yet – there’s still so much to learn!”
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