Dressed In Overalls, Looking Like Work

Dec 11, 2014 - 8:35 AM
You have to be willing to hold a pitchfork just as much as the reins. Photo by Molly Sorge

I had an open working student job all summer, and then added another position that I needed to fill this fall. (Both filled, amen!) It meant that it was a summer of resumes and interviews, and of getting down to a science my hiring procures. And it is thus: someone emails me asking for more information about the job, and I write back with a description of a typical day, as well as with what other chores I expect my staff to do. And I also tell them what I offer for compensation.

My working student job does require lots of farm tasks, and long hours. It also involves riding, every day, and almost always in a lesson setting with me. It involves coming with me to clinics and shows, listening to the best of the best teach me and, whenever I can, my working students. It involves opportunities to show client horses whenever I can find them. It involves a day off every week (which is more than I get.) And it involves beautiful housing, fun fellow staff and wonderful clients, and a salary. At the end of the day, it involves being paid to improve one’s education and build one’s skills.

And about one out of every three tells me thanks, but no thanks. “I’m looking to be paid more,” or “I’m looking for a riding-and-teaching job only with no grooming or mucking or mowing,” or both.  

I understand. It’s a lot of work, and not a lot of pay. Some of these kids come with some impressive-sounding resumes. Perhaps they have two scores at Prix St. Georges, on a schoolmaster, at one show, in East Bumbletootsie, on 57 percent. Perhaps they made an appearance at the national collegiate championships at a level where no sitting trot is required. Perhaps they took 12th place at the NAJYRC, a very noteworthy accomplishment, so impressive that a new young person gets to do so every year.

These are not small achievements, particularly when one is 22, or 24, or comes from a modest financial background.

But the bravado and bluster that often comes along with these bright young things does get grating, after a while.

My job does seem meager. It’s true, I am not an Olympian. It’s true that I’ve only trained a few horses to Grand Prix, none on whom I’ve had any success at the international level; it’s true that my clients have yet to win the NAJYRC or the USDF Amateur Grand Prix finals. I’ve heard that many of these trainers, ones with better resumes than I, don’t offer pay at all, or don’t allow anyone to ride until they’ve been grooms for months, or put all the working students in one half-hour group lesson together during lunch (which means, it should go without saying, that there’s no lunch break of any sort provided for said working students).

When I lived in Germany, working students were at the barn not a minute after 6 a.m., and usually more like 5 or 5:30, cleaning stalls, scrubbing floors. They did get a lunch break, but then worked long into the night, doing more of the same. And they were unpaid.

It didn’t matter whether the working students had had successes in the show ring, or were at the lower levels of the sport. All were expected to prove themselves, prove they were worthy of every opportunity presented to them, and do it the hard way, one braid job, one stay-up-with-the-colic-case-all-night, one month of being lunged with no reins, one six months of riding with no stirrups, at a time.

These young people want to prove themselves too—well, as long as that they don’t have to clean stalls, do barn work or make only meager wages.

Now that’s not fair, I imagine them saying. It’s true—the world is very different now than it was from even as recently as my years as a working student, much less 10, 20, 30 years ago. College is the new high school, except with the potential for staggering student loan debt. Health insurance is expensive, and the risk in our line of work is high. Even a cheap apartment in the sticks can be expensive, for those barns that don’t offer housing as part of compensation. There’s lots to consider.

And I hear the practical side of this. These kids might be good enough to go out on their own, particularly in parts of the country where there’s not much in the way of competition for dressage trainers. You can make a good living teaching beginner lessons and amateurs on horses of limited talent, finding clients who are starved for the education someone like you can offer them.

You can have a Life this way; it’s much easier to have a family when you’re not worried about traveling to Florida or going to the CDIs up and down the coasts or spending time campaigning in Europe. Really, truly, grumpy cynicism aside, the world needs more quality instructors of beginners, of amateurs up the levels, of the riders of East Bumbletootsie. 

But it’s a pretty big challenge to make your career go places—places like the Olympics and the World Championships—from there.

Sometimes I think about writing them back. I would write, I hope that you find the job you’re looking for, one that pays great and lets you ride and teach all day long. I hope you pay off your student loans, make gads of money, find a great sponsor to buy you nice horses and provide such that you’re never worried about how you’ll pay for the well pump that broke at 3 a.m., or the set of new tires for the trailer. And when you make it big and you’re out on your own, the Big Cheese, and you place an ad for a working student, I hope you can provide all kinds of resources for the bright young generation that arrives at your door, new and shiny, and ready to work hard, but would prefer not to do stalls, because after all, they’re just like you are today.

And if it doesn’t work out, if it’s not all you cracked up to be; if you find yourself making slaves’ wages at the end of a long day’s work like so, so many others, like so, so many who grew up to be great, I hope you’re still in love with the work. I hope you’re in this because your heart beats for it, that you’re willing to do whatever it takes, even when the time gets rough, to prove your worth to the people who could change your stars. Because if you don’t wake up wanting it every day, even on the worst of the worst days of your life, this path will chew you up and spit you out in no time flat.

I never do write back. 

I’ve got a staff full of bright-eyed, high-energy young women, some with loads of experience, some with very little, but all with a burning desire to do Whatever It Takes to advance their own educations. They fill my barn with joy and enthusiasm and great passion, and make it a fun place to be every day, surrounded by people with the same goal—to become the best they can be, come hell or high water.

I filled my two open jobs with two more who fit the same mold, who believe that I’ll make good on my promise to help them, to reward them for their hard work and dedication with the best opportunities I can scrounge up for them.

And just as I hope they’ll make me glad I took them under my wing, I hope I’ll make them glad they did.



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