How a woman turned being a ‘horse girl’ into a career

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For Leah Goldman, one of the biggest challenges as an equine coach is simply getting people to understand what she does. No, she doesn’t coach horses. And she’s not a therapist. She’s a professional certified coach with clients who partner with a horse on a farm to learn more about themselves.

It’s a job she created combining her experience as a counselor, time in the health and wellness industry, and a 30-year love affair with horses. Goldman’s Fika Coaching, based in Ipswich, Mass., is all about working with horses through coaching as a new form of self-care and wellness.

Goldman took time away from the barn to walk Fortune through this form of coaching.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

What’s a typical workday look like for you?

I make my own hours, but my day looks different depending on how many people I’m working with—up to three clients, maybe four. It takes a lot of mental energy. What I have to do is really hold the human heart, and hold the equine heart masterfully. I have to be really in tune with a lot of things that are going on at the same time.

The farm has a big indoor arena, so weather doesn’t impact us too much. Whether it’s 3 degrees or 100 degrees, I’m out there. I’m on my feet practically all day, and I never know what’s going to happen. That’s one of the coolest parts. 

Barn life is fun because you can get really lost in the environment. Plus, I usually build in time to try to shoot content. People like to see the horses on Instagram. 

If I have an hour or even 30 minutes where I can just work with my horse by myself, I do that so I can always keep learning and trying new experiences.

What does a session look like? 

No session is ever the same. Everything is done on the ground. There’s no horseback riding involved.

Clients have goals. They’re coming for personal reasons, but one of the very first things we establish is trust and respect. Many people have this fear of the horses not liking them. It’s really a cultivated partnership. You have to be firm, you have to be fair. For people who struggle with relationships, boundaries, communication, they get to sort of see how they show up within all of those circumstances depending on what we’re doing with the horse.

I do everything from one hour sessions to immersive experiences to half-day and multi-day retreats.

How did you get into this?

My credentials are as a professional certified coach through the International Coaching Federation (ICF). I blended that certification with my 30 years of horse experience, combined with the work I’ve done in the health and fitness industry and as a school guidance counselor.

I always wanted to help people in some way. I worked in a school for several years, but people weren’t always there by choice. I worked with middle and high school kids who just sort of looked at me and counted down the minutes until they could get out of my office.

So I left to work in the health and fitness industry. I was working in marketing and advertising and teaching fitness classes on the side. I was like, wow, people are here because they’re choosing to be here. They want to be better.

What led to the switch into equine coaching? 

In 2018, I was in a serious relationship, and I found out that he was living a double life. I had created this whole life in my mind—we were going to get married and start a family. The universe was basically like, no, not happening for you. My whole world sort of just fell apart.

Horses had been out of my life for a few years, but I decided to lease a horse for the summer. I found out the relationship was over two weeks later. I don’t know if I believe in coincidences, so much as this was serendipitous. After that, I basically just got to go to this house and be with this horse. That really started my healing. I was working with a therapist as well, but I was getting so much more from the animal.

There was this part of me that was sort of self-healing and at the same time feeling really called to go back to helping others. I had this fleeting thought: What if I combined my experiences with courses into something in the therapeutic space? I ended up going the coaching route because people coming in are ready, willing, and wanting to change. 

Leah Goldman demonstrates an activity to clients with her horse Saint.

Photo by Billie Weiss

You mentioned having a lot of experience with horses. How did that start? 

I was your stereotypical, pony-loving little girl. I asked my parents if I could learn how to ride, and my first lesson was when I was six years old. It was a big, beautiful property. I had my own horse at one point, and we went to horse shows on the weekends. 

Everything I learned when I was growing up contributed to who I am today; from a super young age, we were responsible for those animals. As soon as I was big and strong enough to handle a horse on my own, we had to get the horses ourselves. We had to feed them, clean their stalls. It taught me an immense amount of responsibility. 

When this whole incident happened, I realized how different the relationship and partnership with horses could be—because they act as a mirror to us. There’s tons of scientific research out there, including a study that shows horses can sync their heartbeats with ours from up to four feet away. They can directly impact your heart rate, your blood pressure. Unless you’re really fearful of horses—maybe you’ve had a bad experience—for most people, they sort of instantly put you in a better state without you even knowing that it’s happening.

When you wanted to pivot to this career path, how did you build your business? 

My parents are entrepreneurs, so it runs in my blood. It’s not for the faint of heart. It’s really challenging.

The process really began in 2019 through acquiring my coaching accreditation (which took a little over a year). I opened at the end of February 2020. Two weeks later, the COVID-19 outbreak happened.

But because of what I was doing, everything was outside. Around May and June, I started having sessions outside, with masks on and everyone six feet apart. It was something that people could actually do.

I’ve also stayed in the health and fitness sector at the big gym I was with before the pandemic. I’m still there two days a week and help with marketing.

Your business needed very specific elements. How did you go about finding space and a horse? 

I found a barn and they were open to the idea. Then I sought out a horse that I have been dreaming of since I was a teenager—a very particular breed, height, color, and markings.

In a Facebook group that specializes in horses for sale in New England, I posted that I was in search of my horse. A woman reached out to me and said, “I think I have the perfect horse for you.” I messaged her back and she sent me photos: Same breed, same color, all the markings, height—everything. His name was Saint. If that is not the most perfect name for a horse that’s going to help heal people and move forward in their lives, I don’t know what is. 

I met him and knew this was my guy. Once the owner learned what I wanted to do, she just wanted me to have him—and she just gave him to me. 

Leah Goldman leads clients through coaching exercises with her horse, Saint.

Photo by Billie Weiss

What does the business look like today? 

This is a high-end, luxury experience business. Prices range from $100 to engage with a horse for an hour to one-on-one private coaching starting at $3,600.

When it comes to clients, it’s really about the quality of the relationship over the quantity. I’ve had as many as 16 clients at one time and as few as three. For my long-term clients, most end up working with me for about six months to a year.

There are people who come for just an experience because they might not live locally. I just had somebody drive from New York. I’m also affiliated with an organization in Santa Fe, and last year I actually brought four women out to Santa Fe for a two-day retreat. 

Most of my clients are word-of-mouth. I tend to draw in women as young as in their 30s all the way up to those in their 70s. No teens or children. With this work, it requires going deep. You have to really be able to look at yourself, and kids, developmentally, aren’t there yet.

Last year, I basically broke even, earning perhaps a bit more. The expenses and overhead is really high—about $50,000 a year. It costs $25,000 to $30,000 to care for my horse. Insurance is really high, like $4,000. The rest falls under marketing, advertising, travel, equipment, continuing education, and other small business expenses. 

What are the most difficult parts of the job and how do you navigate those?

It doesn’t happen all the time, but if my horse is sick or injured, I’m unable to work with clients. Fortunately, I have wonderful barn mates who let me partner with their horses. But that’s always a challenge, especially because my horse is older.

Another challenge is educating people on what this work is. It can be a little elusive and very hard to put into words. That’s actually one of my missions and goals—really to just educate on this work. I’d love to one day own a property where people can come and have five horses—a community-based place where I can educate and have trainings, maybe even corporate retreats.

Do you work a nontraditional job? Become a part of Fortune’s new Odd Jobs series. We’re looking to highlight the daily routines and career paths of those whose work takes them beyond the traditional 9-to-5 desk jobFill out this form to be considered for upcoming profiles.

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