There’s a real hiring crisis right now, and it’s across all industries, not just ours. The COVID pandemic has been unkind on so many fronts. To me, we’ve got two problems. One is about the expectations of those who think they want to work in the horse industry, about what a day, a week, a year in the life looks like. And the other is a serious problem with our industry and how we shape our business models.
Let’s begin with the latter. Most equine businesses rely on less skilled, less trained workers to do the unsexy parts of horse care: stall mucking, barn cleaning, schlepping through the mud and the heat and the flies. For some, that’s low-cost labor in the form of paid grooms. But for others, that’s working students, those interns who are paid few (or sometimes even no) dollars but gain experience and resume line-items that help them climb the ladder to better-paying jobs within the industry.
This concept isn’t unique to horses—internships exist in law firms and publishing and all sorts of places. And just like in those industries, sometimes interns learn through their internships that the industry isn’t for them. They don’t like the hours; they don’t like the work; they’d rather go back to school or do something else. That’s OK. That’s the point of an internship—to gain experience, taste the work, and decide if you like it.
Here’s where it goes awry: Not everyone is a magnanimous employer. Some make promises of opportunities they can’t keep. And someone who doesn’t have a lot of horse mileage from childhood may find themselves unable to advance beyond that entry-level working student position for many years, longer than they’re able to live on those low wages. It’s a heck of a lot easier to use a working student position as a springboard to bigger and better things if you come into it with extensive riding and stable experience from a childhood of riding and “barn rat” time, which is getting more and more expensive to procure. And this is all skipping over the crappy employers who try and take advantage of the young people—overwhelmingly young women—in far worse ways than simply financially.
There’s a groundswell of support across all industries for this wacky notion that people should be paid for their time and effort. The meager increase in wages over the past decades doesn’t match inflation; there’s an impossible rise in home ownership costs. These are real things that go well beyond the horse industry, and they need addressing.
In our industry, I see it in the Facebook comments in horse job groups: “That’s not a living wage!” “I bet you just want to take advantage of people to clean stalls!” “Because you yourself were abused as a working student, you want to abuse others!”
On the other side of that, there’s this: Do you want to pay $3,000 a month for board? Because I’d be giddy as a schoolgirl to pay my staff more. But I’ve also got to pay for hay, which has gone up 66% in 12 months for me. I’ve also got to put fuel in trucks and lawn mowers. And I couldn’t possibly afford even the most meager of health insurance for my working students, many of whom are under 26 and, therefore, still eligible to be on their parents’ insurance.
So let’s talk about those young people—the “Kids These Days” problem. Long long ago, back when we all rode wooly mammoths to school if we didn’t walk barefoot through the snow uphill both ways, I’d never even heard of a paying working student position. I had already done my first Grand Prix tests on a horse that was not trained to the level when I came to own him, and was working on making the next one, when I was still mucking and sweeping for more experienced riders. Today, the number of applicants I receive for things like working student positions and assistant trainer positions who are unbelievably unqualified, and who have the audacity to tell me that they need $3,000 a month plus a training stall and housing and to not muck stalls is not new, but it’s always shocking.
Of course I was able to do the things I did as a kid because I had the good fortune of being born into a family capable of providing the tools for me to achieve them. I am grateful every day for that. The same family that let me be a “barn rat” little kid also told me I had to get a paying job at 14. (I put covers on library books, riding my bike there and back, summers and weekends.) They also instilled in me a work ethic and a type of ego that—while still waaaaayy too big for my britches (apologies, as ever, to those who trained me and employed me as a teen/20-something)—would never have believed that stalls, or long hours, were beneath me.
I’ve met other upper-class kids like me, just as I’ve met other upper-class kids who were lazy, spoiled and soft. I’ve met kids who grew up without the same financial resources who were scrappy, hungry and clever, just as I’ve met kids like that who were defeatist, entitled and jaded. I’ve had ones whose parents were nightmares and still somehow turned out OK, and I’ve had ones who ended up useless in spite of having had every opportunity made available to them.
One thing they all have in common, though, is that—whether it was because their parents allowed them to get tough, or because a lack of parenting made them that way—the most successful young people who’ve crossed my path were allowed to fail, allowed to struggle, and emerged the better for it. Sometimes they rode tricky horses and learned to be brave. Sometimes they worked hard only to have opportunities taken away through circumstances, fate or Lady Luck. They learned the world isn’t always fair. And they learned that a hard day’s work is not abuse.
Easy for me to say, of course: When I was a kid, Instagram didn’t exist, there were fewer guns in the world, and no one thought twice about a 14-year-old biking from home to that library job, stopping at the barn on the way. But it feels to me that when kids are too protected, too sheltered from struggle, every minor battle stings like a radioactive burn.
Has the carefully curated Instagram presentation of the contemporary trainer’s life conned the next generation into thinking that it’s easy? Has the recent focus on mental health—a very real and important dialogue to have—swung the pendulum too far, into creating a softness in our youth and young professionals that is actually a disservice?
I’ve been working on this blog for months (those who know me and my absolutely manic writing process know what a big deal that is!) because I don’t have a solution to this problem, and writing about it feels like leaving a turd on the horse industry’s kitchen floor and then walking away from it for others to deal with. But if we don’t deal with it, we’re going to have a serious problem, because the population of young people who want to be horse trainers one day is shrinking, and the expenses of those running the businesses that will give the next generation the experience needed to inherit this industry are growing.
The egalitarian in me wants to be able to give it to them: better wages, better hours, all the keys to the kingdom. The curmudgeon in me wants to tell them to suck it up, pull their collective heads out of their collective behinds, and get off my damn lawn.
I understand that the world is different from when I was a child. Student loans are real. Health insurance is a tremendous burden. Car payments and inflation are causing the prices of groceries to soar. I get it, I do. But I also get this: Opportunities aren’t always attached to a dollar amount. You never know who is watching. And while there’s no guarantee that hard work will net results, and karma is not instant, I can guarantee that the number of people who’ve Gotten There through hard work and dedication and plugging away through the hardest of times dramatically dwarfs the number of people who don’t work hard and just happened to get one lucky moment.
Diamonds are made under pressure; it’s true (and trope-y). No grit, no pearl. And you don’t get a callous, a protective shell, without getting roughed up just a little bit.
With that said, the industry needs a long, hard look in the mirror, too. We can’t build our businesses on the backs of 20-year-olds without giving something back. That “something” can be better wages, even if that means raising board costs—every time I’ve done this, by the way, and explained to my clients that their increased board bill is going directly to my payroll, they’ve all graciously understood. And it’s also about opportunities, sometimes giving opportunities that the trainer could keep for themselves but instead need to be gracious about and share.
I hope scrappy kids don’t go the way of the wooly mammoths we old farts used to ride to school back in our day. I hope that we old farts don’t stick to our old ways so fiercely that we don’t seize upon the opportunity to do it better and kinder. And I hope everyone on all sides of this—the young and hungry, the employers, and the clients who support us all—keeps talking (politely, please) about how to keep our industry alive, even in the lean times. It’s going to take us all coming together to create a generation that values the opportunity, that embraces and thrives in the magic that lives at the edges of the comfort zone, and that doesn’t force them into financial ruin while they do it.
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 Guernsey Elvis and her own string of young horses with hopes of one day representing the United States in team competition. Follow her on Facebook and Instagram.