BY DIANNA BABINGTON
During the recent winter circuit in Wellington, there was a lot of chatter among professional trainers and riders regarding the arduous task of finding and keeping qualified help to manage barns and groom horses. Numerous texts circulated among trainers asking if anyone knew of grooms looking for a job. Many had horror stories about staff walking out all at once, people not showing up, etc. Others had staff, but they felt they just had no work ethic and had to be monitored constantly. I started to think a lot about this and I began to wonder how the ethics of employment in the horse industry had become a forgotten art. When did people stop caring about pride in a job well done or how walking off the job reflected on their character- and worse how doing so affects the rest of the staff and the horses they were charged to care for?
In May, soon after I returned home from Florida, I learned that another professional was literally soliciting staff out from under me by calling one of my grooms and telling them they would pay an additional $50 a week for an experienced worker. A job offer of an extra $50 a week became especially alluring when it came on a day I had the audacity to ask my employee to rewash legs because the sand had to actually come off. The request to then towel dry after washing was insult added to injury I suppose, and off he went. My grandmother used to say easily lost is not worth having. Although she was mostly regarding love interests, it was true here, too. This groom was no real loss, average at best, and regularly late to the ring. However, when staff walks off the job unexpectedly, it can be a huge problem because the ones that suffer when the rest of the staff is overwhelmed are the horses.
So who is the bad actor in the above scenario? The groom for not trying to rise to the standard of care, for his lack of work ethic, for taking offense instead of learning how to care for legs, for not giving notice? Or the other professional for being desperate enough in their own situation to throw common decency away for self-interest? If you own a horse business you have probably at some point been told of a groom with tons of experience that is looking for a job. So-and-So’s FEI groom drives the truck, braids, gives shots, he’s not happy, he’s looking. Do you call So-and-So for a reference or do you just talk to the groom and tell him he can start in two week or, more commonly, simply ask, “When can you start?” Your response sets the bar for our industry.
The ethics of employment are old school and simple; it’s about doing the right thing. For example, show up on time for your interview, give appropriate notice before you leave a job. If you are a manager, two weeks is a short amount of time to replace that skill set. Check references before you hire someone, act in a professional manner at work, dress appropriately, don’t knowingly steal other people’s help out from under them. It is simply how to behave. Things that your mother should have taught you and if she didn’t, she did you a great disservice. Some people say the problems we encounter with finding and retaining qualified help are no different in other industries, but I beg to differ. The employees in the horse industry are generally young or illegal. That’s the truth. Both present their share of problems.
There is not a professional trainer who does not appreciate an excellent groom. They are out there, and I have had the pleasure of employing many of them. Grooms are the hard-working backbone of every horse facility and training program. A great groom can take a lot of pressure off of a trainer. They are the unsung heroes who get up at 3:00 am to lunge the Equitation horses and Pony Hunters. They take pride in their work and they do it well even when nobody is looking. If you can count yourself among the industrious, reliable and committed understand that this article is not about you and we all thank you for your service. However, if you are one of those golden employees, I’ll bet you can think of at least one co-worker who you wish would be fired because they are doing the minimum.
If you are looking for employment in the industry, understand that how you act matters from the interview to the last day you are on the job. In fact, how you leave your job will be more important than how you came in because you will want a reference if you want to work for a reputable trainer in any management position. Be on time to your interview and if you have gotten as far as accepting the job – show up. If you are opting out, tell the employer immediately. Many trainers explained they have held jobs for candidates that decided not to come for various reasons and then give no notice. The absence of their arrival on the start date was the only indication they were not taking the job. Vanishing leaves people questioning everything about you and your name, I assure you, will not be forgotten. It’s a small industry.
Further, trainers are running businesses. Your actions will always be viewed as a reflection of your character and the farm you work for. In some cases, the trainers are actually liable for your actions. Getting drunk and crashing the farm truck drags your employer legally into your unprofessional behavior. Similarly, drunk selfies with the client’s horses on a Sunday night posted on Instagram and Snapchat is a horrible idea, but a common occurrence. Then there is my personal favorite, lying. Just tell the truth. If you failed to give the medication, be honest. If you drugged the horse to clip him or gave him meds and didn’t realize he was showing, be honest. Your attempt to cover your mistake could get your boss set down. Mistakes are mistakes, lying is intentional.
Understanding how to behave is only part of the issue. Many employers will over-look bad behavior if you are a decent worker. Many will confirm they have to because if you actually have a skill set as a groom, you are in the minority. Grooms are seen leading horses around by halters with no lead ropes, not opening stall doors wide enough and catching a hip, leaving nylon halters on during turn out. Where is the common sense? What appears to be a lack of common sense is actually a dire lack of training.
The applicant pool for grooms usually spawns from kids that grew up riding or illegal immigrants. With access to equestrian sports rapidly bottlenecking into the wealthiest one percent, the self-care rider is heading the way of the dodo bird. Pony Club is no longer the obvious first step for equestrians. More and more riders start out at show barns and miss actual horsemanship training. They are learning to ride and compete. Where do they learn to wrap legs, identify signs of colic, or even what the difference is between a dandy brush and curry comb? Frankly, many don’t want or need to learn this. Someone does this for them, like cleaning the pool and grooming the dog. Those fortunate enough to ride with an elite A-show barn train to become riders, not horsemen. Trainers will admit they are so focused on making a living and literally getting the show on the road, there are not enough hours in the day to teach horsemanship. This trend has not been lost on our governing associations and the attempt to rectify this deficit is seen in programs like the USHJA Horsemanship Quiz Challenge and the newly developed Gold Star Clinics.
Elizabeth Sponseller, Kevin Babington’s FEI groom and rider, also grew up riding. But, the difference is she wasn’t the client. I asked her where she was trained initially. She said she worked as a kid in her local barn tacking up horses for other kids who were lessoning. In exchange for work, she was given lessons herself. This is the dodo bird scenario. She is fantastic at her job, she is knowledgeable, and she cares about the horses. She shows up on her day off just to check them sometimes or to hand graze one that’s on stall rest. She is a dying breed. When she arrived at Kevin’s, she worked under Alex Bartlett who was the current head girl. She explained that between Kevin and Alex, she learned a lot and then learned more from her shared experiences with other grooms on the road who were established FEI grooms.
Now enter the illegal groom population. When an experienced groom departs and an inexperienced groom shows up looking for work, employers are so relieved to have an extra set of hands that they consider giving them a shot. Many grooms will replace themselves. It is not uncommon for established grooms to leave for more money, to relocate near family, and to replace themselves. “I’m leaving, but I have a friend who needs work.” Yet, they are not really replacing themselves. They are placing someone who has no experience, and more often than not, doesn’t speak a word of English. It’s usually a family member they are bringing into the fold of the industry. For employers, it makes their life harder, but not as hard as having nobody. I was told many experienced grooms have left the industry for the summer because landscapers pay more than farms. In an environment where illegal immigrants are declining in numbers and experienced grooms are unavailable, employers will take what they can get. They have no real choice with 40 stalls to clean, horses to go out, and grass to be cut. If you can sweep you can stay, by the way the halter goes on like this. They are literally training on the job. So how does this relate to the ethics of employment? It’s the age-old economics of supply and demand as it relates to services. It’s what creates the undesirable behavior of cherry picking another trainer’s staff and its why the chatter was so prevalent among professionals this year in Wellington.
What is the answer to this dilemma? That is the question. Nobody I asked had any solutions. The problem is when you are dealing with ethics, it is self-government. Supply and demand changes people’s behavior. There are ethics committees in highly regulated professions like law and securities because it’s human nature to be self-interested. I believe the answer is a format for proper training to end the supply and demand problem. I believe there is not only room for, but an urgent need for a training program for grooms. Equestrian college with high tuition costs is not tenable. Who would pay college tuition to earn $650 a week? But a program as simple as a two week course to impart basic knowledge I believe would be a start.