Tuesday, Jul. 2, 2024

So, You Want To Get Your First Job In The Horse World?

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It’s a time of year when the horse job market is flooded with new graduates, both high schoolers not advancing on to college or those taking a gap year, and college grads, some from equine studies-adjacent programs, some not. We professionals in the equine business need support staff, whether it’s grooms or working students or vet techs or farrier’s assistants. There’s no barn-to-barn consistency in what one of those positions looks like, in the same way that being a server at TGI Fridays and a server at the nicest restaurant in Manhattan aren’t the same type of position. And with barns, just like restaurants, there are great ones and there are crappy ones, run by great people, run by crappy people. 

I am so, so grateful to not be amongst the barns out there hiring right now (she says as she knocks wood and crosses her fingers and prays to whatever deity needs prayer to keep the team I have). The pandemic and its resulting economic strangeness have left the hiring market in the horse world a wild place. Inflation is making it harder and harder to keep up with wages. I’ve raised board five times in four years just to keep up with both increased costs on my end and also in trying to provide my employees with a wage that made it possible for them to live in a more expensive world. It’s tough, for a lot of people. I don’t have to tell you all this.

Blogger Lauren Sprieser has some words of wisdom for those folks striking out to find their first jobs in the horse world: “It’s OK to be at the beginning of your journey. But get real about what that journey looks like, and get humble about it.” iStock Photo

And listen, young and horsey, I see them too: the posts on the equine employment groups on Facebook that are offering unpaid positions with shady housing and long hours, touting “I will teach you the ways of the industry and provide invaluable experience” from people with boarding barns or low-level training jobs. If you think it sounds like one step above slave labor, it probably is.

With that said, somewhere behind the naiveté of my fellow Millennials who were told we could be anything we wanted to be—as long as we were willing to take on tens of thousands of dollars of student loans—only to have three epic financial crises in our lifetimes, and the Gen Z “tear it all down” approach to capitalism are a whole bunch of people who love horses and just want to make it all work. There’s gotta be a middle ground.

Here are some real things potential employees said to me when I was hiring earlier this year:

• “I really prefer a five-day work week. Gives me more time to charge the batteries, you know?” You’re 22. If this is already where you are, your batteries need replacing, and you’re not going to make it in agriculture, where six days is de rigueur.

• “I have 15 years of FEI grooming and managing experience.” You’re 25, and you’re bad at math.

• “I’ve shown at X level, and jumped Y height at these showgrounds.” Well, USEF has a search function, so I can see that not only have you done zero of those things, but you’ve also never been to any show, in any discipline, in your life. If you’re going to lie, lie better.

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• “Because I’ve been showing at the lower levels for two years, I’m ready to be your assistant trainer.” Only if the program you’d be a part of would be also low level. Those are INCREDIBLY important programs, bringing people into riding or showing. But I’m going to guess that you think you’re ready to be a more upper-level trainer’s assistant. You would be incorrect.

I don’t blame young and inexperienced people for being young and inexperienced. No one can be expected to know what they don’t know. And as kiddo who was a big fish in the small Young Rider (and even smaller fledgling U25) pond, only to be booted out into the real world and get a hard and fast education in “You Don’t Know Jack,” I have the utmost sympathy. 

But here it is, kids: You don’t know jack. I’m not trying to be unkind. But you don’t. Here are some more new-hire stories I’ve experienced over the years:

• “I’ve written a self-published book about my achievements, because I managed to earn my USDF bronze medal all on home-trained horses by the time I was 21. And inside this book is also all about how horrible the industry is, and how far we’ve strayed from the classical principles.” Pumpkin Patch, you squeaked some low scores from East Nowhere, Pennsyltucky, to earn that medal, you’re using the “classical principles” as an excuse to be not very good at this, and you washed out of a two-week paid trial on day six because you didn’t like seeing that maybe, just maybe, you weren’t as big an expert as you thought you were.

• “What do you mean I’m not a candidate for this position?! I’ve been on a spiritual journey to improve myself, and I just know I’d be the right person for you; you won’t even take the time to talk to me?” Nope. But I’m glad you found a guru to help you become a better person than you were the last time you applied for this job, which was a few years ago, when you wasted my time for weeks. 

• “I can’t stay here because I don’t feel like a treasured member of the team!” Well, you’re crying in my office at 9 a.m., still in your pajamas and eating Oreos for breakfast, and you’ve been here for two days. So … go with that feeling.

These are just a few of the stories collected from my time hiring the kids these days, and they’re certainly the funniest ones. But all joking aside, we’ve gotta find some middle ground here. Trainers and barn owners, we can’t enslave the youths. We have to pay them a fair wage, and then we have to make good on the opportunities we promise. This industry, and this life with livestock, is brutal. And I hear you, I do. Every time I see a post on Facebook looking for stall board in the D.C. Metro area for $400/month, I cringe. Boarding barns are closing everywhere. Trainers are struggling to find barns to rent everywhere. It’s just hard, period.

But youths, you’ve gotta bear with us here. The brutality of life with livestock isn’t because we barn owners and trainers are brutes; it’s because animals can’t feed or clean up after themselves. It is inherently physical. They don’t know that they’re supposed to be on a 9-5, Monday-Friday schedule. 

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It’s just going to be long days, in crummy weather, in an industry increasingly devastated by inflation, global warming and the costs related to it, increasing property taxes, and so many more things that make running a horse business in the black—and I mean BARELY in the black—so, so hard. 

Long days are not unfair. Bosses who quietly and tactfully explain your mistake to you, and how they want it done better, are not unfair. And it’s OK, youths, to not have a lengthy resume. You don’t have to make things up or overstate what you know or what you’ve done. (This is true for gigs outside of the equine industry, by the way.) Be who you are. Be where you are. Lord grant me a relatively inexperienced person with no ego and tons of work ethic over the chip-on-their-shoulder kid with some mileage. 

How, future working students, do you determine which are the cool and helpful places to work, or cool and helpful trainers to work for? Ask your potential employers for references. In my 17 years in Virginia, want to know how many kids have asked them of me? Maybe five. And yes, you have to make a living, but consider the cost of things like housing and a full-training stall, where you get lessons daily. Maybe being in a phenomenal program that offers both those things as part of compensation is worth making slightly less, especially if you learn a ton. 

And don’t flinch, necessarily, when an employer is always looking for staff. Entry level positions are just that: entry level. They’re not forever. I expect working students to want to move on after a year or so, and if a program has more than one working student position, that can be a lot of always-looking. So don’t turn your nose up at it.

Breathe. Be where you are. It’s OK to be at the beginning of your journey. But get real about what that journey looks like, and get humble about it. Learning while working can be done well, and it can be fun along the way, but the ego and the unrealistic expectations will get in your way.


Lauren Sprieser is a USDF gold, silver and bronze medalist with distinction making horses and riders to FEI from her farm in Marshall, Virginia. She’s currently developing The Elvis Syndicate’s C. Cadeau, Clearwater Farm Partners’ Tjornelys Solution, as well as her own string of young horses, with hopes of one day representing the United States in team competition. Follow her on Facebook and Instagram, and read her book on horse syndication, “Strength In Numbers.”

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