If you want to be a horse trainer, you'd better be tough. Just ask Daphne Thornton.
"I've been bucked off, bit, kicked and stomped," said the 57-year-old Overland Park, Kan., trainer, whose pupils recently finished competing in a horse show at the American Royal. "I've broken a leg, broken an ankle three times, lots of foot bones, had a back fracture, and I got kicked pretty hard and broke three ribs and collapsed a lung."
Thornton trains horses and works with riders in hunter/jumper competitions. Riding a hunter is all style -- they're judged on the way they look and move -- beauty, flow, elegance, even the number of steps they take between jumps. Jumpers care only about speed and performance. If they complete a course the fastest with the fewest faults (such as knocking over a rail) they win.
If you think you're tough enough to train thousand-pound horses, Thornton has some advice. First, immerse yourself.
"You must love it so much that this is the only thing you want to do from sunup to sundown," she said. "And hang around good trainers like a puppy dog and hang on their every word. There's no book to tell you how to be a horse trainer."
Second, get a college degree. "This is a fairly precarious living," she said. "A lot of people are on the fringe. They don't necessarily make a great living, ... so you've always got to have a fallback position."
Third, you'll have to travel. Competitive horse trainers live much of their life on the road.
Finally, you can't mind competing against people who have a lot of money. Celebrities including Bruce Springsteen, Michael Bloomberg and Lou Dobbs have daughters who ride in competitions.
Still, Thornton has more than held her own. In 2008, one of her hunters even won a national horse of the year award in the highest division. "That's kind of a big deal to come from Kansas City," she said.
Thornton, who has trained hundreds of horses in her career, began riding when she was 8 and growing up in Mission, Kan. Her parents had a weekend, or "hobby," farm, and by the time she was a young adult, she had learned how to help other riders who were having problems.
What began as part time turned into a career. Today, she works with riders from age 7 into their 50s and all breeds of horses. It takes a couple of years to train a hunter/jumper horse well.
Training jumpers is the most dangerous. In 1995, actor Christopher Reeve famously became paralyzed from the neck down after falling off a horse that refused to make a jump. He died nine years later at 52.
Thornton, like all good trainers, puts safety first. "No one wants a crash."
Still, accidents do happen.
But so does fun. "We sit around and tell stories about each other and laugh and have a good time."