BY AN ANONYMOUS YOUNG TRAINER
I frequently hear horse trainers complain about their young assistants. Their criticisms include things like, they don’t work hard enough, they get burnt out too quickly, they’re too slow, they don’t want to teach, etc. But as a young professional in my early twenties, I can explain why we get burnt out so quickly. And no—it’s not because we don’t like to teach.
Assistants like me are often “paying our dues” up to 80 hours a week riding the bad ones, teaching up-down lessons, doing laundry and setting courses. It’s no wonder a significant number of young professionals burn out. And yet, the horse community doesn’t talk enough about why we burn out. Most people assume we couldn’t take the pressure or didn’t want to work hard enough. In many cases, including my own, this could not be further from the truth.
Unfortunately, many young professionals in this industry have been chewed up and spit out by the elders in our sport.. the very same Trainers who we look up to and respect. We spend hundreds of hours working for these people, often judged and criticized for not doing things the way it was done “back in their day.” All the while, we’ve been drilled to never complain and always be grateful for opportunities—even when they come at the cost of our physical and mental well-being.
Many times these opportunities that are killing us barely offer a living wage. Trainers claim the compensation for our hard work should be the satisfaction of getting better. The better you ride, the more you get to do later in your career.
Growing up on school horses and being a barn rat from a middle-class family, I would have never imagined that I’d be riding for a huge show barn by the time I was twenty-two years old. I didn’t compete in my first local show until I was 14, and didn’t even sit on a “nice” horse with a USEF record 17. But even so, I knew I was hooked on the horse industry when I moved to Germany after high school to become a working student at a busy show barn.
Even after getting my butt kicked, thrown into the dirt and screamed at in German almost daily, I woke every morning loving it. I’m eternally grateful for all of the opportunities I’ve received and for the hours of instruction that have significantly improved my riding and horsemanship. The day I finally stepped up from showing sale horses in the 3’ jumpers to showing a client’s horse in the 3’6” performance hunters was a dream come true. But that dream came at a very high cost. The price we pay is why so many of us, including me, get burnt out.
One of the biggest things that has suffered since I started riding professionally is my confidence. I’m sure many young professionals can relate to the feeling of never being good enough. It’s unbelievable the things that have been said to me by some of the people I’ve worked for, such as:
“I might as well be throwing my money down the toilet because you ride like sh*t.”
“What are you, f**king stupid?”
“You will never find another job showing someone else’s horses because you’re just not good enough.”
And the list goes on. This unprofessionalism is not acceptable.
When I was eighteen and just starting out, I believed that I deserved the cruelty of that criticism. All I wanted was to get better. If that was the price I had to pay, so be it.
As I got older, the words hurt me more and more. I’ve realized that no one should be spoken to in that manner. Verbal abuse seems to be commonplace in the horse industry. Sure, there are rude people that say rude things in every industry, but why is it so prevalent, so easily accepted and considered “normal” in the horse community for trainers to be downright mean to their assistants?
I have worked to my breaking point, made innumerable sacrifices, and dedicated my entire life to this career. I am part of the up and coming generation that is passionate about keeping our sport going successfully. But as someone who is the future of this sport, I have to tell you that many trainers of previous generations are making it difficult.
Constructive criticism in the saddle to improve our riding and training is one thing, but being scrutinized and yelled at constantly in and out of the saddle becomes unbearable. It’s difficult to ride with confidence and have self-respect when suffering this type of treatment. People wonder why assistant trainers bounce from job to job, eventually leaving the horse industry altogether. The vast majority do it for their own well-being!
Not only can trainers be cruel with their words, but many simply have no respect for their hired young professionals. Last year, I moved across the country to work for a woman on the West Coast. I was promised a trailer to live in on the barn’s property, however, when I arrived ready to move in… it wasn’t there. It was being repaired and wasn’t returned to the property until months after my start date. Without a place to live, I moved in and out of motels and an Air B&B. Moving alone to a new state was stressful enough without having to worry about where I would be living week after week.
My employer was rarely at the barn; I would sometimes go five or six weeks without compensation. If I dared to ask for my paycheck at the end of the month, she would get defensive. I understand that not all trainers treat their assistants this way. But I’ve experienced this unfair treatment first-hand with more than one employer, and know many other young pros with the same experience. We can only be “grateful for the opportunity” for so long. We are professional adults who need to make a living—just like everyone else.
Many trainers say that true horsemen are going extinct, being replaced by people like us who can’t stick it out long term, or by people who can buy their way to the top of the sport. It wasn’t until I came home from Germany and got my first job as a professional rider that I realized I was the underdog. I’m not rich, I’ve never felt naturally gifted with exceptional talent, and I’m not the trainer’s kid. It seems I will always be trying to catch up to those riders no matter how many hours I work or how hard I try.
While I do have an unwavering work ethic and boundless determination, I don’t have the resources nor the backers they have. The fact is it takes money to be successful in this industry. If you happen to have money and talent, then you’re practically guaranteed success. If you have exceptional talent but no money, then you may get discovered and someone may pay your way.
Lately, it seems the older generation is accusing young professionals for taking the sport in a negative direction. People ask what happened to all of the barn rats? I am one of those barn rats, now in my early twenties. The older generation claims they prepared me to carry on and maintain this sport, but in my last five years as a professional I’ve been chewed up and spit out by this industry. I am so broken that just a few weeks ago I walked out on what could have been a great job. I loved every part of it—except for the way I was treated.
During the year I worked there, I was rarely ever paid for the work I performed. I was never allowed to state my opinion and was reprimanded if I spoke up. I was scared to talk to clients because I was told not to. When riding, my confidence was continually battered because everything I did was wrong. Not being able to stand the horrible treatment any longer, I dropped everything at a horse show and returned home.
It is difficult to put my feelings into writing and sum up the last five years of my life into just a few paragraphs. All of the negative feelings come from being grossly under-appreciated, verbally abused, belittled and made to feel inferior. Perhaps, if horse trainers worked harder to boost morale and treated people with kindness and respect, using constructive criticism as opposed to abuse, we’d stick around a lot longer.
I want people to understand there isn’t always a happy ending for young professionals in the horse industry, even after we “pay our dues.” From the bottom of my heart, I believe I’ve lived through a very prevalent and cruel reality that cannot be ignored.