Perhaps one of the most controversial subjects in the horse world is the use (and possible abuse) of working students. The equestrian equivalent of interns, working students exchange manual labour for experience and training with the world’s best riders. Said riders complain that today’s youth lack work ethic and are too self centred. Students cry poor working conditions and unfair compensation. The word “slavery” is often tossed around.
Who is right? Both sides, depending on what angle you look at it from. Of course, every working student situation differs based on the program and the involvement of the mentor and expectations of the student.
Soon after finishing high school (as in, the day after) I got on a plane to Europe to be a working student for a top rider, with little more than a couple emails exchanged over a classified ad. Growing up in a super small town, I was itching to “get the hell out of Dodge.”
Over the course of exactly three months, I was physically abused twice, witnessed a fellow student forced to dig through a garbage bin full of used needles, and once crawled under the bellies of five horses in a lorry travelling at God knows what speed down the highway, in order to hobble the horse at the end who was kicking. Tacking up a stallion in the lorry earned me a perfect octagonal bruise in my neck where I was kicked with a studded hoof. Studs after boots, learned the hard way.
Horrible? Yes. One of the best times of my life? Also yes.
At the age of seventeen, I shared a house with at least eight people of at least eight different nationalities – accomplished riders, party animals and generally inspiring human beings. The first day I got there, I was whisked away to go dancing all night. I got half an hour of sleep and got to work the next day. (As a side note, this is a brilliant way to get over jet lag.)
I helped pack for the Olympics. I took said Olympic horse for a hack. I schooled cross country on an ex-two star horse. I learned the calculative method for getting top level horses fit and keeping them healthy. I trained other working students. I was the self-appointed “barn vet,” administering the daily meds, icing, bandaging and various therapies. I learned that success takes a lot more work than I otherwise thought.
The kind of camaraderie and lifelong friendships that can come out of those situations is quite amazing. Most of my anecdotes and stories come from this minuscule period of my life. When I set out on that fateful journey, a teenage airhead full of bravado, I was looking for someone to turn me into a “great” rider. Looking back, I needed an adventure, practical horse knowledge, and life experience. That’s definitely what I got.
There’s a wonderful YouTube episode of “The sort of OK show about Horses” by Kyle Carter and Buck Davidson, two of the best event riders out there, sounding off about working students. Kyle emphasizes that it’s not about the forty five minute riding lessons, it’s learning how to be an expert horse person. How quickly can you notice a loose shoe? A swollen leg? An empty water bucket? Buck adds that “being a high level rider isn’t about the riding, it’s about all the “other stuff,” the care of the animals, management, paperwork…” Things you can’t learn from a book. You need to submerse yourself in it.
He also goes on to say that he has ex-working students who excelled in his program working high up the corporate ladder at Fortune 500 companies. This resonated with me, having recently started my own business. A sixteen hour work day is, well, pretty normal. And it pays off. You get mental discipline from those long days. You get confidence that you can handle a monumental amount of difficult tasks. Being a working student is like getting a degree in life skills.
However, there is a lot to be said for solid, well organized working student program, and respectful relationships between the mentor and student. A program that is terrible for one might be perfect for another. The internet and word of mouth is a great tool for networking your way into the best situation possible. Talk to their previous working students. Go for a two week trial at a few different places and see how each of them works.
A mentor who takes a vested interest in your future is better than the one who gives you a longer lunch break. The reality is that unless you have a mountain of cash, being a top rider requires you to be tougher than nails. But even if you don’t have the Olympic rings on your mind, being a working student can teach you to be a detail oriented go-getter, and the world is in sore need of those.