Why Good Help Is Hard to Find: A Barn Manager’s Perspective

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For years I’ve loved working as a barn manager and stay-at-home trainer. Part of my job is acting as a liaison between the boss and the two different kinds of grooms we often see at the barn – the young and the (often) undocumented.

I’m “old school” in regards to work ethic. I believe the work that we do is a direct reflection of who we are as people, and so everyone should always do the best job they possibly can. I think this used to just be considered “having a work ethic” instead of being old school, but that’s beside the point. It should go without saying that when people are at work, they should behave in the most professional way possible. That applies to both employees and employers.

There are a lot of reasons why it’s hard to find and keep good employees, but before pointing fingers at the employees for being unprofessional, perhaps shedding some light on where the “poor work ethic” comes from could help trainers figure out how to attract and retain quality staff. In my experience, turnover is often due to the lack of a living wage.

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The best barns are often located in high-income neighborhoods. Young women are forced to leave jobs they love because they can’t afford the cheapest mortgage in the area and have to work hours that make having a family or social life impossible. Some show barns can’t find a good groom because it’s no secret among the “backbones” and “unsung heroes” which farms have too many horses, not enough hands, and no fiscal reward for the extra work. 

The only time I’ve personally heard of a team of long-term employees threatening to walk out was when they were feeling drastically overworked, and underpaid. When more sales horses and clients came to the barn, these employees were slapped in the face with more work without the addition of help or extra compensation. In the end, they only stayed because they were scared of the probability that they wouldn’t find new jobs once the word of their “coup” got out.

I know how risky the business of horses is. Revenue can be cyclical, and it’s unquestionably hard for barn owners to keep up with big bills, high debt and higher expectations. However, in the cases where there’s no extra money to compensate for extra work, employers need to take a hard look at the books and start to examine their business model. If you want to get and keep good help, the employees can’t continually suffer.

Frequent turnover isn’t just hard on barn owners, but continually changing daily handlers is emotionally stressful to horses that usually spend more time with their grooms than their riders. Accepting a revolving door of employees is a side effect of the “let’s go shopping” style that a lot of trainers have with horses. Instead of fixing problems in the barn, it’s easier to get a new horse or a new groom or a new anything. Instead, we should be taking the time to pitch in when we can’t compensate monetarily for the consequences of drumming up more business.

On the other end of the spectrum, there is a steady stream of under aged barn rats and actually-talented working students who help out just for the perks of spending time with glittering animals they could never afford. While it makes sense from the perspective of these young people, it can undermine the incentive for employers to pay their staff better. Unfortunately, delicious as the barter of sweet, sweet labor for “free” equine time seems, it doesn’t go unnoticed by clients paying top dollar expecting legitimate services. 

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Ethically worse than that, it is completely offensive to grown men who are here trying to support their families despite possibility of federal raids, incarceration and/or deportation.  Sometimes, this dichotomy leads to grooms taking on more responsibility that they simply don’t have extra time for so they don’t seem superfluous to their bosses, but it can also lead to depression and lackluster performance. 

Fixing problems with employment in this industry isn’t simple. Perhaps I’ve only made an ironic suggestion that ethical problems in the workplace can be solved with money. Even if I don’t have an easy solution, I believe it’s important to keep this necessary conversation going.

I’d love to see an article written by a business owner about how they have managed to run a fiscally sound business and maintain a staff who feels their time and effort are being fairly compensated.  I’d also like to see a gritty article about a regular week in the life of a groom, complete with images of family photos taped to the walls of shared rooms, cracked hands, and the bags under their eyes on Sunday afternoon. There are huge extremes in our industry right now, and they all need representation before we can fix this disparity.

Lindsey Abbott is a USHJA Provisionally Certified Trainer.  She has been working professionally as a barn manager and assistant trainer in the Northeast since 2013.

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