Do Working Student Programs Still Work?

Jul 8, 2022 - 2:57 PM

Callan Solem’s working student position with Carol Thompson at Quiet Winter Farm almost didn’t happen. It was the summer of 1996, and the 17-year-old had driven up to Colts Neck, New Jersey, from her home in Atlanta with her mother.

“This was like my dream come true. I was so excited. I absolutely could not wait. And I got there, and she opened the door. And she looked at me, and she said, ‘If I’d wanted kids, I’d have had my own.’ And I was like, ‘Yes ma’am,’ ” Solem recalled, laughing about it now.

It turned out that Thompson had changed her mind and left a message to that effect on the family’s answering machine, unaware that they’d already departed.

“So I knew that she wasn’t super excited for me to be there to start with, so I just worked. I just started working as hard as I could. I really didn’t want to get sent away, so I did whatever she said—and I mean whatever,” Solem said.

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Callan Solem said her working student experience “gave me a very clear representation of what life in that industry would look like.” Laura Lemon Photo

When she was asked to fill a water tank on a truck, and accidentally filled the gas tank with water instead, she did what she was told to do to fix the mistake. “I siphoned the entire fuel tank by mouth to fix what I had done wrong. That would never fly in 2022!” she said, laughing.

It was a hard summer, and Solem made lots of mistakes, she said. But she fixed them all, and she didn’t make them a second time. She learned not just how to run an operation; she learned what the “dream job” of being a professional really entailed.

“What [Thompson] gave me was a very clear representation of what life in that industry would look like, as someone who doesn’t come from significant means, as someone who was going to have to work her way through it. I got a very clear picture of what that was going to be,” Solem said.

She ended up deferring college for a semester, then a year, and she stayed with Thompson in a professional capacity for the next 15 years.

“When I chose not to go to college, I was very clear what I was choosing,” she said. “I was very clear that the grand majority of days were going to be a 5 a.m. start, that the grand majority of nights were going to include night check for the foreseeable future, that I probably wasn’t going to get to go to my friend’s beach house for the weekend,” she said. “As much as the information and the knowledge that she gave me about horses and taking care of them and training them and all that, also the gift was just getting to see into what a future [in the industry] would look like.”

Life as an equine professional involves grueling hours, work outside in the elements, hard physical labor, and not always the healthiest work-life balance. A working student position should reflect that reality; it’s not doing the next generation of equestrians any favors to portray it as something else.

But when a trainer screams at a working student in the barn aisle until they cry, or makes someone finish feeding and turning out horses after breaking their arm, or provides housing that would make a fraternity brother blanch, what are they teaching that student? Are they toughening someone up for a hard job and ensuring they want it badly enough? Or are they taking advantage and showing a lack of professionalism?

This is all taking place in a sport that is getting so expensive that many people are effectively priced out, while those who make their living in the industry struggle to find good help, paid or unpaid.

The equestrian world isn’t alone—all sorts of industries are grappling with shock waves in the workforce as workers reevaluate what’s most important to them and what they’re willing to tolerate. This is on top of a pre-pandemic movement to rein in unpaid internships in white-collar jobs because they create an opportunity gap—many people can’t afford to work for free to gain the experience they need to launch careers in those fields.

With all those forces buffeting the equine labor market, it might be time to take a hard look at the idea of working students, bearing in mind one simple question: Is this fair?

Where Things Can Go Awry

Everyone knows someone with a working student horror story, and they come from both sides of the equation—either a lazy, unqualified or difficult student, or an overly demanding, dishonest or disinterested trainer. Some of the stories are surely exaggerated or one-sided. But they’re ubiquitous enough to say that a not insignificant number of working student arrangements don’t work out well, for one party or the other.

Jennifer Petterson is professor and director of the School of Equestrian Studies at William Woods University in Fulton, Missouri. Most of the 600 to 800 students in the program come to William Woods having already done some type of working student position, Petterson said, and they often come into the program seeking instruction that’s more structured and formal than they found in their previous work environments.

One of the reasons for that, she explained, is that the term “working student” is so poorly defined. It encompasses everything from a teenage student who feeds horses twice a week in exchange for one spot in a group lesson, to a young adult who’s living on the property and working full time with the expectation of becoming a pro.

“What makes it a ‘working’ position is that no money is exchanged,” she said. “It’s an opportunity to grow and learn, and that in itself is worth the work.”

While both the student and the trainer might initially agree to a vague outline of “you do this for me, and I’ll do this for you,” things can quickly get fuzzy.

It’s important for both parties to have realistic expectations, Petterson said. The student should be honest about his or her experience, and the trainer should be in it for the right reasons.

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Trainers taking on working students should be very specific about what they will be asking the students to do and what they will provide in return. Arnd Bronkhorst Photo

“The student should be asking themselves, ‘What am I comfortable doing with other people’s animals?’ ” she said.

That might not include longeing horses that are very fit and fresh, or handling yearlings, or other specialized horse-handling skills a typical young rider might not have picked up at a local lesson barn.

And for the trainer, “They have to understand that [a working student position] is an educational experience. It’s not to save [the trainer] time or money,” Petterson said. “They will be teaching [the student], and that has to be something they’re willing to do.”

So if the trainer is willing to teach the student how to properly longe a fresh horse, that’s one thing. But he or she can’t just hand an inexperienced kid a longe line and a whip and send them off with an unfamiliar horse in order to save some time.

What Petterson hears most from those who were dissatisfied with working student positions is that a lack of communication leads to confusion and disillusionment.

“They’re not afraid of the hard work; it’s not even that,” Petterson said. “They all kind of spoke to the uncertainty of not knowing what’s expected all the time.”

In the horse industry, barns aren’t always treated like workplaces, and horse businesses aren’t always run like businesses. Something as simple as a quick weekly staff meeting can help everyone understand their responsibilities and present an opportunity to ask questions, Petterson said.

She also recommends putting each party’s expectations down in writing at the start—not even something as formal as a contract but just a document (or an email or text message) that spells things out.

Petterson pointed out that some of the qualities that serve professionals well in dealing with horses—making decisions quickly, being direct—don’t always translate to working with people. And the “soft skills” you need to manage other humans often aren’t a part of someone’s equestrian education. Just because a professional is a great rider or trainer doesn’t necessarily mean they’re a good manager or teacher.

Lucy Courchaine, a Grand Prix dressage rider, owns and runs Sapphire Sporthorses, a dressage training barn and rehabilitation facility, in North Salem, New York. She graduated from the equine program at William Woods and earned a master’s degree in business administration and managed the university’s work study program.

Although she wasn’t a working student in the formal sense, she exchanged work for riding opportunities throughout her educational career, and she now has her own working student program.

“There are certainly people out there that have a [working student] program that are taking advantage, and that’s wrong,” she said. “But I think a lot of professionals, that’s how they were taught. And it’s how their trainer was taught, and back to the dawn of time about how to treat someone in a position. And that’s just a little bit out of date now. It was out of date before—it’s never been in vogue to mistreat someone.”

She believes many problems crop up because the employer’s professionalism and management skills were never developed.

“One of my big goals in life in general, but certainly in my business, is to leave this industry a little bit better than I found it,” she said. “If [I make] a working student program that was better than what was available when I wanted to be working students, then for me, that’s going to be a success. And that’s what I drive for.”

One of the simplest things a professional can do, Courchaine said, is to outline what they’re planning to provide to a student and then revisit it occasionally.

“We all say things and then forget it, you know? We all are so much more busy than we should be,” she said. “Maybe we thought we could do something for them, and it didn’t happen, or it’s been now three weeks or a month since you ever even pulled them aside and asked how they were doing.”

In her program, she tries to do a weekly check-in.

“I have an every-other-Friday payday meeting with all my girls, staff and working students. I try to be really present—and I’m very busy; I’m a new mom alongside all of this, so if I can make time for it, anyone can!” she said with a laugh. “I think checking in with them and being sure they see the value, or they ask for things they need, or they ask to learn something. And you’re giving it your best effort to teach them. That’s where you can avoid the disparity between what’s a good program and not, I think.”

Doing It For The Right Reasons

Jessica Pye, of Fayetteville, North Carolina, had several stints as a working student for various top-level eventers and then had working students herself when she was an eventing professional. She also has a master’s degree in industrial organizational psychology and worked in the corporate world for a residential treatment center for troubled youth in New Mexico, moving from unpaid human resources intern to director of admissions, utilization review and assessment.

“The reason the working student position exists is because horse professionals need staff. We all know horses require a whole lot of work,” she said. “They don’t have the money to pay [staff]. So they end up with kids that will do it for free. And I’m not saying it’s all bad—I think you do learn a lot, particularly depending on who you’re working for.”

Overall, Pye’s working student experiences, while educational, left a lot to be desired. There were toxic work environments filled with drama, unnecessary busy work, and a lack of interest from many of the professionals. And she said she’s not alone in that experience.

“I have a lot of upper-level eventing friends that were also working students. And there just haven’t been that many positive experiences to relay,” she said.

When she was working as a professional, Pye only had one working student at a time, with other staff helping.

“My working students never really got abused, and that was important to me. I just never wanted anybody to go through what I went through. So I treated my working students more like apprentices,” she said. “I was always very happy to jump in and help and do whatever they were doing. My motto was, if I won’t do it myself, I won’t ask you to do it. If it’s unreasonable, there’s no way I’m going to ask you to do it.”

Sometimes unreasonable can also border on dangerous, like riding an unsafe horse, or unethical, like riding horses that the professional is being paid to ride.

“I joke that working students are not disposable, but I do truly feel that people often consider their working students to be disposable,” she said. “They think, ‘Well, they need to learn. They’re young, you know; they need to pay their dues. They need to learn to deal with these types of horses.’ But to be honest, nobody needs to deal with those types of horses. Like, those types of horses need to go to a cowboy, not have this teenage kid on it.”

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Working students shouldn’t be considered disposable or put in situations where they are responsible for a dangerous horse. Frank Sorge for Arnd.NL Photo

When Courchaine started taking on working students, she said she was intentional about what she would be asking the students to do and what she would be providing in return.

“I try to be conscious of fairness in everything that I do, and I just didn’t think I could even ask anyone to work for me if I didn’t have the ability to provide something that they would want,” she explained. “So my program developed out of the need for help in the barn, as everyone’s does. But I also thought I had some cool opportunities. I had a lot of really nice horses, a huge range of horses to learn from, whether it’s on the ground or in the saddle. I think of myself as a good teacher as far as lessons go; it’s certainly something I do a lot. So I knew I could provide lessons and education, continued dressage training, education for anyone who wanted to learn how to ride better, or teach people better.”

In addition, her location provided access to other top professionals from which to learn: farriers, nutritionists, acupuncturists and dentists, in addition to other top riders.

“I always look at it like, ‘What would I have wanted to see and learn, and what could better educate the next generation of horse people?’” she said. “Because if there’s nobody that comes behind us that knows this stuff, it dies with us. This is a sport and hopefully an industry that sees the value in educating the next people coming behind you.”

The Accessibility Problem

By definition, a working student is someone who is still learning. So just as with many other professions, what’s essentially an unpaid (or minimally paid) internship is a first step up the career ladder.

But unlike most other professions, a working student’s typical workday is routinely 10 or 12 hours (or longer). Many equine professionals keep those kinds of hours too, but they (hopefully) make a living wage doing it and working students usually don’t.

And a 12-hour day of physical work in a barn out in the country doesn’t exactly lend itself to tending bar or waiting tables in the evenings for grocery money.

All sorts of industries have unpaid or barely paid internships or apprenticeships. But the internship model—especially when unpaid—can be a significant barrier to entry because many people simply can’t afford not to have any income for an extended period. They don’t have a cushion of savings or other financial support.

In the horse world, this opportunity gap is also evident, primarily with regard to income—the majority of working students are at least partially financially supported by someone else. Because while being a working student might be the “going to college” of the professional horse world, the myriad financial aid opportunities available to college students just aren’t available to kids who want to work with horses. The end result: Those from families without means are more likely to miss out on the educational opportunities.

To try to address this issue, particularly as it relates to equestrians of color and their lack of representation in the horse world, the nonprofit Strides For Equality Equestrians launched the Ever So Sweet Scholarship in 2021.

“It started purely with trying to provide access to more diverse communities that don’t know that some of these positions exist or that don’t have the opportunity to do them, because they don’t have the horse; they don’t have even the exposure, the network to go find somebody,” said Heather Gillette, who cofounded SEE along with Anastasia Curwood. Gillette is a five-star eventer who runs Heron’s Landing Eventing in Tewksbury, New Jersey.

The scholarship, offered in conjunction with the U.S. Eventing Association, establishes a biannual, fully funded internship with five-star eventer Sara Kozumplik. Funded by Edy Rameika, it covers full board and training costs for the recipient’s horse, several lessons per week, housing for the rider, a stipend to cover living expenses, competition fees and coaching at competitions.

“The idea when we started SEE was to increase the variety of individuals that are riding and competing—the diverse backgrounds, ethnicities, and all that sort of stuff,” Gillette said. One of the organization’s goals is to create professional pathways to sustainable careers in the horse industry.

“It costs a lot of money to be a working student. You give up a lot! I mean, a ton,” she explained. “Just to be able to afford, even if it’s for just three months, to lose money and work.”

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“Expanding your knowledge of other people’s worlds and experiences can only make things better,” said Heather Gillette, cofounder of Strides For Equality Equestrians, which launched the Ever So Sweet Scholarship in 2021. Lindsay Berreth Photo

Diversity—and not just in race or ethnicity, but also in life experience, socioeconomic background, education level and so on—benefits everyone in the industry, Gillette stressed.

“Expanding your knowledge of other people’s worlds and experiences can only make things better,” she said. “I think that it makes those that have [access to opportunity] appreciate it more, and then hopefully it makes them realize that they should do what they can to help others. I mean, horses are great; riding is great! It’s good for you mentally; it’s good for you physically, and there are many careers in it. You don’t have to be a rider; you don’t have to be a groom. You can be a farrier; you can be a course designer. Think of all the people who touch your horse every week—there are ample opportunities. But, you know, honestly, those of us in our lily-white world would benefit greatly from realizing that it’s not all about us. And that there are other people whose lives and experiences we can learn from.”

Cecily Clark, a Fédération Equestre Internationale dressage trainer, runs East West Training Stables in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, along with her husband, Matt Brown, a five-star event rider. They generally have two or three working students at a time to help care for 25 to 30 horses.

Like many professionals, Clark has noticed that it’s become more difficult in recent years to find good candidates to fill their working student positions.

“I have to wonder if part of the reason why it’s harder to find working students is because fewer people can afford to be working students, and does that have to do with the disappearance of the middle class in the U.S.?” said Clark. “To me, being a working student is a very, almost uniquely, middle class thing to do. Because if you’re wealthy enough, you probably don’t have to be a working student; you can just be a student, and you can pay to do it, and probably you’re going to be pursuing [a non-equestrian] education. Or if you’re going to be a horse professional, then you’ll probably fund the experience yourself until you’re good enough to be a professional. And if you are poor, you can’t afford to be a working student, because you’re not getting paid anything.”

“That’s sort of what I come down to—people can’t afford to do it anymore. And as an industry, I think that there needs to be a reckoning with that,” Clark continued.

While their working student program covers housing, board for a horse and training, their business model can’t support a decent living wage to the student on top of that.

“That isn’t supported, I don’t think, in the industry in terms of what we [professionals] charge,” Clark said. “So to me, as a whole, the industry has to figure that out. Probably everyone needs to start charging more so that you don’t have to be rich to be a working student. And that’s sad to me, because then that starts pricing clients out even more and making it more of an elitist sport. So, you know, it is a very difficult subject.”

The ‘That’s The Way I Did It’ Defense 

If there’s a common refrain, from the student’s side, about bad experiences as a working student, it usually centers around being worked outrageously and unreasonable hours, said Petterson. And the equally common retort from equine professionals is, “Well, that’s what I had to do when I was a working student.”

“Reconstructing a bad experience for others because you had one is not ideal,” Petterson said.

Pye, who is married to a gastroenterologist, likens working student programs to medical student residency, another educational experience that’s known for long hours and grueling schedules. (And, not coincidentally, is the subject of various efforts to reform.)

“Working students go into it so hopeful to get educated that they’re willing to do anything. And I think—and I hesitate to say this—but I would say the majority of employers spend a lot more time using and abusing these kids than teaching them anything,” she said.

For medical students, there’s at least a light at the end of the tunnel, Pye added. Residency ends; they become doctors, and they have reasonable hours and are earning a good income. But it can take a long time to attain that level of success in the horse industry, if it can be achieved at all.

“[Being a working student is] just an obscene amount of work, and people just get burned out,” she said. “That’s what happened to me every time I tried to do it—burnout is real. I don’t care how young or fit you are, when you’re talking about working 12 to 15 hours a day, six or six-and-a-half days a week with stuff that’s considered pretty physical, it’s pretty challenging.”

“Every generation says about the next generation, ‘These kids have it so good! They don’t know how hard we had to work,’ ” said Clark. “That is very true in the horse world and in the world in general. Look at how things in the entertainment industry have evolved. You know, women used to be expected to sleep with people in order to get parts in movies, right? And that is not acceptable anymore, thankfully!

“The same thing is true in horse training. The methods that we use to train our horses maybe now we need to look at and be like, ‘Hmm, just because that old guy did it, maybe that’s not how we should do it,’ ” she continued. “And then the same thing with working student positions, right? Just because I was yelled at and screamed at and overworked and treated horribly, and I just put my head down and kept working, doesn’t mean that is the kind of program that I need to run now.”

Clark and Brown’s working students get two days off most weeks, but the schedule can be flexible when needed; some weeks might have longer hours and only one day off.

“Historically, it’s been six days a week [of work], but I just think it makes it hard for them to have any other kind of life or interests. So having two days of rest is helpful,” Clark said.

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“People can’t afford to [be working students] anymore,” said Cecily Clark. “And as an industry, I think that there needs to be a reckoning with that.” Lindsay Berreth Photo
Clark said she sees a lack of evolution in some programs.

“I think that there is, in some programs, a little bit of a lack of evolving,” Clark said. “For a long time, the philosophy in bringing people up in the horse world was to break them down and see if they can fight back. How hard do they want it? How much abuse can they take? How stupid can we make them feel? And will they still come back again tomorrow? If they came in, then they have that true grit, and they will make it. And I just don’t think that that’s really acceptable anymore.”

That’s not to say it’s not still a tough job—it is. It’s still hard physical work, with early starts and late nights. It’s still inflexible in many aspects; feeding schedules need to be kept, regardless of what else is going on in any given day. And top professionals have exacting standards as to how they expect even mundane tasks to be performed.

Solem, who now has her own working students, said that the responsibilities in her program vary, depending on the students. “But the idea was to work to help me do whatever. There’s not anything that I couldn’t do or wouldn’t do myself to make the day go properly,” she said.

That includes a lot of hand-walking at shows to get the horses out of their stalls—important work but not the most exciting job. And it includes education about all the little things that go into a top-notch operation. Solem recalled how one former working student, now a professional herself, texted her, “I was just scrubbing buckets and thinking of you.”

“Because I would be shouting, ‘Why did these buckets get put away dirty?!’ and I would be scrubbing them myself at 8 p.m. saying, ‘Who would put these away when they’re not clean?’ ” Solem said, laughing.

“So I do think that [the working student position] was representative. I do think that any of the working students that we have would say that, yeah, it’s a lot of work. But it just is. It is a lot of work. And I think it doesn’t mean it’s for everybody,” Solem said.

Peeking Behind The Curtain 

A working student position delivers access to a top-level operation that a young person of normal means might not otherwise be able to obtain. But that still comes at a cost, just not a financial one.

“Fun is sort of off the table, that’s like not the point,” said Solem. “It doesn’t mean that you’re not going to have fun, but this is more of an internship opportunity.”

“A lot of people have spent all their high school and college years working in a local barn, a backyard barn,” said Courchaine. “And the way we do things as a high-performance barn, it is just a little bit different level. For the people who apply [for a working student position] in that position and that time in their life, it’s still more valuable to them to get that kind of experience than it is to be paid a large salary.”

But Pye cautions students to be realistic about what an “elite” working student position can deliver, beyond the educational aspects.

“Most of these kids want to go to the Olympics, OK? If you want to run the five-star level, go to the Olympics and be that kind of pro, you need to find funding,” she said. “That is the thing. I’m sorry, but that is the thing that sets these people apart from the other really talented hard workers in the sport.”

Too often, Pye said, potential working students think that being in the proximity of elite professionals will give them access to the networks of owners and sponsors that those professionals have, and that’s not usually the case.

“When you’re working for someone that is so much better than you, the odds of someone recognizing you and sponsoring you are pretty low,” she said. “I’ve always been kind of not thrilled with people who advertise working student positions as the only pathway to being a professional rider, because I’m sorry, but how many working students do we see every year? And how many of those actually become professionals?”

So don’t think that a working student position with an Olympian is going to punch your ticket to riding at that level. What it does provide is a look at how these operations are run.

“If you can find a good position, you should absolutely go to that good position and be a working student for no more than a year. I think a short-term stint as a working student at a good barn with good people is very valuable,” Pye said. “You need to learn how a barn works. You need to learn how to deal with different situations with horses and with people. It’s very valuable. You just have to choose wisely.”

And sometimes, the most valuable thing someone learns is that a professional horse life is not for them.

“Matt and I joke all the time: ‘What we do is we break spirits. That’s what we do,’ ” Clark said with a laugh. “And not because we are mean or unfair. Basically everybody that has prior experience being a working student or being a professional in some capacity in the horse industry comes into our barn and, they’re like, ‘This is the nicest working student job ever.’

“Even though it’s a nice job for what a working student job is, it’s still hard. It’s still hard work,” she continued. “People get into it and go, ‘I don’t know that I want to do this for a living.’ ”

Clark recalled having to choose: Do I work hard in a “real world” job so that I can make enough money to afford horses? Or do I work hard and do horses professionally?

“I think that everyone, at some point, gets faced with that decision,” she said. “And sometimes going and being a working student is what pushes you one direction or another.”

Courchaine said most of her working students come to her intending to be professionals themselves. They don’t always leave with the same intention.

“Sometimes I think the most valuable thing I can teach someone is that this industry is not for them. And that has happened sometimes,” she said. “They’ve never left on a bad note, but I’ve had girls leave the program and say, ‘You know what, I think I’ll do horses as a hobby.’ And I’m like, ‘You’re welcome! That’s a very expensive lesson I just taught you,’ ” she said, laughing.

“I can provide a very transparent image into what it is like to be a professional. And I do think I have had at least the success that I was looking for at that age, so [my program is] a good example of ‘this is what it takes to do it this way,’ ” she added. “If you don’t like that, or you realize you don’t want to work that hard, or you don’t actually want to manage all the things that there are to manage, which is perfectly fine, there are people who are then like, ‘You know what, this profession is not for me.’ And that’s fine too.”


This article ran in The Chronicle of the Horse in our June 27-July 18, 2022, Issue. Subscribers may choose online access to a digital version or a print subscription or both, and they will also receive our lifestyle publication, Untacked. 

If you’re just following COTH online, you’re missing so much great unique content. Each print issue of the Chronicle is full of in-depth competition news, fascinating features, probing looks at issues within the sports of hunter/jumper, eventing and dressage, and stunning photography.

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