OUT OF OFFICE INTERVIEW

After pushing herself toward a career as an Art Director, an introverted horse lover returned to her roots and made a name for herself as a ‘horse whisperer.’

Linnea Aarflot dedicated her early years in Stockholm to horses, even building enough acclaim to train horses for the Swedish military. When her main competition horse died, she took it as a sign that a ‘real career’ was her future, studying design and becoming an Art Director. But after studies, office jobs, and even an interview with Richard Branson, she couldn’t kick the feeling that the office environment – even the creative kind – wasn’t her place. A Fourth of July gathering in New York provided the chance discovery of a local horse ranch, and began a series of ‘arrows’ directing her back to her calling: training horses with a uniquely compassionate approach. She returned to what she was most authentically passionate about, knowing that if she gave it her all, she couldn’t fail.

How do you describe what you do for work?
I educate and compete dressage horses. I have a barn where clients put their horses for me to train and compete.

Who are your clients as a horse trainer?
Some buy a young horse, give it to me, and I train and compete it, and then after a couple of years, the horse is worth a lot more money, and they sell it.

Then I have clients who just want to enjoy a nice horse on Saturday and Sunday rides. I have the horse Monday to Friday to make sure the horse is behaving properly so they can have a nice time on the weekend. Some clients also have the horses at home, and I go there a few times a week to make sure the horse is doing what its supposed to do, and that they are fit, happy and healthy.

I get an allergic reaction to being in an office…and the second I go out and work with horses…I have no problems and I’m so happy.

What’s your work history before starting a business? You’ve worked with horses, but also in offices?

I’ve mostly worked in Fashion and Advertising office wise. I had been working with horses until my main competition horse died mid twenties. And then, I thought that I was going to go and have a ‘real career.’  I started to work at McCann (global advertising agency) in Stockholm, but I felt that it was not enough, and I applied and got into Central St Martins in London. I tried to do the Art Director thing, and moved to New York in 2012, where I worked at Above Magazine. But I think I knew already that I’m basically 100% horses, not office.

What was that period like in New York, before you decided to follow your passion?
I really truly respect my team and the people I worked with at Above. But I realised then that my head can take almost anything, but my body just cannot. I could not sit at a desk all day, I could not be inside all day. It’s like I get an allergic reaction to being in an office. I get back pain, headaches, bad skin. And the second I go out and work with horses, I work so much harder, but I have no problems and I’m so happy.

There were just too many arrows pointing in one direction to not follow them.

How did you follow these ‘arrows’ then?
I had moved to New York, but I knew I couldn’t be without horses. I had a friend who had a house in Montauk and we were there on the Fourth of July. Somebody there told me, “You know Ralph Lauren lives over there and was inspired by the oldest horse ranch in America, here in Montauk. You should go see them.”

There’s a nature preserve in Montauk, New York, with wild horses, and this horse ranch. And there were these real cowboys, with the Wrangler jeans, and the hats, and I came there in my New York outfit and said, “I promise you I can ride! Please please please can I ride!” I tried to convince them. And they just looked at me and patted me on the head and left. I left my number but thought they’re never gonna trust me.

But they had a horse who was misbehaving, and it had even thrown the head cowboy off. Because I was riding with two reins, they called me and said that if I wanted to train it, I could try. We had Summer Fridays then, so I could leave the city every Thursday afternoon, and stayed with their grandma for the weekend, then went back to the office Monday morning. So there I started to work with horses again.

…they were sending eight misbehaving horses to slaughter. But the cowboy told the officers, “Wait, use Linnea, and see if she can save them.”

You just continued working on the ranch then?
I did, and then I started training horses for the New York Police. The head cowboy in Montauk knew an officer at the New York Police, and heard that they were sending eight misbehaving horses to slaughter. But the cowboy told the officers, “Wait, use Linnea, and see if she can save them.” That way, the horses wouldn’t go to slaughter, and the police didn’t have to buy eight new horses. I also already had relevant experience, since I used to train the military horses in Sweden.

At that time, there were no equestrian blogs…

When did you realize you should focus more on your work with horses?I remember this one time at Above, we were having a photo shoot and interview with Richard Branson. He’s is a person I really look up to. And even then, I still felt that I was not where I was supposed to be.

I looked at photos of myself, and you can even see the difference: every time I’m in a photo with a horse, I’m loving myself, and every time I’m in a photo in the city, I’m not. There’s just something with the energy – when I’m with the horses, it’s right.

So I quit Above magazine and started to freelance as a “Graphic Designer-slash-Horse-Rider.” I worked with the Jeans Co in Sweden doing graphic design, and kept riding. That was a transitional phase, before working with Piaffe Performance, in 2013.

I know that I have a lot to give. And if I’m in a place where people don’t appreciate that, then I’m in the wrong place.

Since that time, what were the most significant things that had to happen to get where you are today?
I think it was important for me to work at Above magazine because I got to work with amazing creative people. And after that transitional phase, freelancing, I got hired as a rider at Piaffe Performance, which is the highest performing dressage barn in New York. I was riding some of the best horses in the world. I just knew then that I was gonna do that forever.

I was given horses of a very high quality – $ millions per horse. It’s such fine-tuned riding there, so high level – and I felt that I was so in the right place. I worked harder than I have ever done in my life, and I was so completely happy.. That part was really important.

You didn’t doubt yourself at all?
I didn’t. Because I’ve always had a solid foundation of knowing that I have a lot to give. And if I’m in a place where people don’t appreciate that, then I’m simply in the wrong place. I’m gonna give it all, and if it doesn’t work, then I’m gonna find someplace else.

Did you feel that you already had all the skills to teach these multimillion dollar horses?
Definitely not. I did not feel that I was skilled enough as a rider, but I felt that I had a talent that should be trained. And I was given training every day when I was there.

…I just thought that if I do what I love, and I believe in my talent, then I’m going to produce quite expensive products. So I’ll be fine.

You’ve been building a pretty successful blog on the side of all this. When did you start The Equestrian, and why?
I started it while studying Art Direction. I have such a huge need to express myself, but I’m a quite introverted person. So its easier for me to express myself through images on a blog. At that time, there were no equestrian blogs – it didn’t exist. I thought it was a great idea because the market was so undeveloped and I’m so passionate about sharing this beautiful world.

Did it take off immediately?
No, it took quite some time. I didn’t show it to anybody, and I’m still not really marketing it. It’s grown organically and now it’s the #1 equestrian blog on Google with visitors all over the world. When I started to work with the wild horses in America, I guess that content was particularly interesting. I know that’s when I started to get emails, and people started to interact much more.

How much of your income comes from The Equestrian blog, and how?
It takes so much time to organise photoshoots and collabs, so I don’t usually have the time. But when I do, maybe 25%. Normally, a brand contacts me, I look at what they’re doing, and suggest something. I have a media kit, so I send them prices, and it’s typically a photoshoot or doing a product together.

Did it feel like a huge financial risk leaving Above to work with horses?Yes and no. Because when I had a good salary, I just spent all the money on things I didn’t care about. And when I was a freelancer, I was in a financial risk anyway. So when I started to work with horses, I just thought that if I do what I love, and I believe in my talent, then I’m going to produce quite expensive products. So I’ll be fine.

In general, if you produce something with the best quality in every little detail, and you take the time to do it well, and you have the experience needed to execute it, then it becomes an expensive product. Some people produce bags, I produce horses. And I give it my all.

I guess in that sense, I was quite confident.

What have you needed to teach yourself regarding the business side of things?
Because I was a freelancer, and because my dad is an accountant I already knew some of the business part. If I do a job, then I write an invoice and I get paid.
My dad helped a lot for the tax returns. I am so allergic to administration, I am useless. Thankfully I have someone else doing it now – it’s my biggest weakness for sure.

Did you have startup costs or did your clients cover the stables etc?Yeah, they do.  Someone else owns the stable, I rent it. And then my clients pay and keep their horses there with me.

How many hours a week are you working?
I can work from the moment I open my eyes to the moment I close my eyes, but I’m riding about 7 hours a day. So I’m active 7-8 hours a day. But if it’s bad weather in the morning, then I stay in and do admin, and ride after.  If its a nice morning, I go out and ride first. And obviously when I have client days, then I have to go when I have to go, but it’s quite flexible.

What does a typical day for you look like?
Today, I had to go to another stable, where I have three horses that I’m competing. I went there to train their horses, and then I came back here to ride a couple of horses. Later, my saddle fitter came, to check the saddle on three horses and ride them with him. Since horses change in shape as they develop muscles, you need to have the saddles fitted to make sure they don’t hurt the horses over time.

Basically it’s just riding riding riding. Then also taking care of the client, and making sure they understand where the horse is at and what the horse needs.

Are you ever overwhelmed or exhausted?
I get super tired for sure, because I work so hard. I don’t function after 10pm. But luckily, I also have Tora, my swedish partner in crime who helps me with the barn work. The horses love her, she’s a sensitive softie like me – I find that important.

To take care of a horse takes no energy from me, but taking care of people is harder. I have amazing clients who I love luckily and can be myself around. But emailing and planning and doing the human admin – that takes a lot of energy from me.

Did you have a mentor?
The most important people for my career have been Åsa and Ubbe Nordstrom, my Swedish trainers. Before I understood that I was gonna work with horses, they believed that I would work with horses. And they pushed me hard. I’ve never met anybody else – even at Olympic level – who could have given me such a good foundation. They let me ride Grand Prix stallions when I was just a teenager. And they taught me riding from the horse’s point of view. I’m so grateful for that.

A lot of people can be good riders, but not a lot of people are good trainers. 

I’m also hugely grateful for Sune Hansen, my current trainer. He makes me ride better then anyone else has ever done.

It must have been pretty significant to have people believe in you so much.
Yes, and I definitely looked back to Asa’s words when deciding if I was going to go full in or not. That helped a lot, absolutely.

Have you ever felt like you failed?
Only once, in Sweden. There is a system of training horses – like in yoga, there’s a system on how to train the human body – so that it releases tension where it shouldn’t be tense, and it gets strong where it shouldn’t be weak. The owner of this horse had her own homemade idea of how to train a horse. She wasn’t happy with my training.

That’s fine, it happens, and I spoke to her.  I said, “This is how I see things, and if that’s not what you want, then lets just do it the way you want, because there’s no point in convincing you to do something you don’t believe in.” I’m happy that I spoke to her, because we ended on good terms. It’s the only time I’ve had a client who wasn’t happy.

What would you have done differently?
Nothing. Because everything has been born out of something before it.

What do you wish you had known earlier?
I’ve had a few professional riders who employed me as a rider, who sometimes were so harsh to me! But now, running my own business, I understand that as a boss, you sometimes have no time or energy to explain why things should be done in a certain way. You just say what should be done, and that’s the end of it.

I can remember rolling my eyes to them, thinking they were idiots. But now I know, they did know better than me.

How did you end up with a barn near London?
I first moved to London, and worked for an Olympic rider. But the way they were working the horses was against the way that I want to work. So I felt I had to try my wings – either I’ll make it now, or I’m not going to make it. I was 29 years old and I just thought, I can fail now and move back to my parents, but in five years, I’m not going to be able to.

I found a really old, rundown barn where I started. I had 2 great clients who wanted to support my idea and get horses with me. But within a year, another client said their friends had a completely new barn and recommended me as a tenant. And that’s where I am now.

What’s next?
I’m actually pretty happy with things as they are. I’m just really keen to develop all my horses. They’re all quite young still, and it takes years to get to any interesting level with a horse. I’m just in year two, so I’m looking forward to develop them and compete them, and see how they grow.