Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Working for (not) a Living -Being a Working Student

There has been quite the lively discussion of late due to Boyd Martin's working student post.

I am not going to comment on the particular post but would like to share a bit about my working student journey.

The story begins when I was 14 and brand spanking new to eventing. I enrolled in a week long camp at Southwinds Farm. The camp was educational and fun...plenty of things to do, learn and see. Swimming, chasing peacocks and movie watching were all non-horsey activities campers could enjoy. Though I did enjoy the snipe hunt I skipped the other social activities -to watch the advanced riders and lend a hand (just to be around them). OK I stalked. But while stalking I cooled out a few horses, wiped down tack and helped with feedings. On Sunday when it was time to go home Mrs. Kitty invited me to stay -as a working student- providing I worked as I had the week before. From then on summers were spent at Southwinds.

The Good

I was immersed in eventing. Ate, drank and slept it. I was given one lesson on my horse each day along with the opportunity to ride straight of the track green beans to advanced level horses. I learned all aspects of the care and feeding of the upper level horse.

In addition to horse lessons I got life lessons. Southwinds was as much about the person as it was about the horses. I was a shy teenager lacking in self-confidence. I was taught to live with a positive attitude and moral character. I left the farm having learned to smile, look others in the eye and to live with a positive motivation.

This sums it up (from the Southwinds website)-

"With our horses our students have learned communication, confidence, responsibility, discipline, tenacity, persistence, initiative and an overall better attitude toward life. In our Life Management Skills Program, we take it a step further and teach the student how to use these characteristics learned from the horse and apply them to everyday life."

The Bad

Being a working student is hard work. I can't remember what time we began work but I do know it was dark out when we left and dark when we came in. I fed, watered, cleaned. Rode horses, gave lessons, pulled weeds and repaired fences. Not a day went by when I was not exhausted. The work you do as a working student compares to nothing else you will do as work in your life.

The Ugly

I put in the ugly because it fits with the good and bad format. But it was not ugly. It was a choice. And yes it was a sacrifice.

I was a minor and was lucky enough to have my family support me. They helped every way they could but we were and are are far from rich. I won't bore you with an "I'm poorer that you" story but have you ever eaten government surplus? I did as a child.

But yet I was still able -again with the support of my family-to make my dreams come true.  Even as a kid I had jobs -tack cleaning, baby sitting and giving riding lessons to the up-downers. When I was 16 I got a regular job (yet continued with the tack cleaning, baby sitting and giving riding lessons ). I also started working off my board by cleaning stalls - 20+ a day- so I could save money for my summers as a working student when I couldn't work.

The ugly is that sacrifice. I don't regret it a bit. But I missed a lot of normal teenage things because I was working. People often laugh when they talk about pop-culture from their childhood because I have nary a clue -while they were at the mall, watching TV, going to the movies-I was at the barn.

Did I miss out? I don't know. I am happy has an adult and don't actively miss those things.

The Memories

I cherish memories from my time at Southwinds. I hold grooming at Rolex (twice!) close to my heart. It gave me my first experience in Europe (also as a groom). And it gave me people I love today.

One memory in particular has me giggling still. Somehow Jill and I finished chores early and took the time to catch up on grocery shopping and a dinner out. We arrived home late...and as we were getting into bed realized we had skipped Winston's scheduled trot set (advanced horse prepping for a 3-day). Our PJ's were stripped off. I jumped on Winston with Jill following behind in the 4-wheeler shining a light on our path. We made our way through the south Georgia woods at near midnight laughing and cussing our mistake. But the horse got his needed work in.

And in the end it is all about the choice

So in the end it is all about choices and attitude. What are you willing to sacrifice? Your time? Your money? A comfortable, stable career? Social events or your family? There is no right or wrong answer. Only what is right for you.

And if you truly want to be a working student for Boyd or another trainer do it. I am not interested in why you can't -I want to hear about how you can. Your "can" list may not be pretty. It may not make you,your family, or others happy. But I believe anything can be done. It's very simply making a choice and deciding to do it.

And instead of worrying about what others have and do - count your blessings. Open your eyes to our world...if you are reading this you are at least literate. And have a computer and electricity. 
If you find yourself feeling slighted or envious over the advantages of others remember yours.  
And get to work on something -there is a lot to do.
On our worst days it's these things that seem so trivial that can mean the most. On my worst days I can always find something to be thankful for. I challenge you to do the same.


  1. I'm glad it worked out for you. You were 14, not an adult with other responsibilities. I think the discussion has been about that. The way Boyd does his working students does not work for adults. I know of one trainer, Denny Emerson, who has (or had, I'm not sure if he still does it) a separate program for adults where they get some time off to work a paying part time job to take care of their expenses since they don't have parents to do this. I think the opportunities for working adults in the world of horses are very limited without unlimited funds. I empathize with the frustration, not necessarily the specifics. Eventing has, in the last 10-15 years moved into a way of running that is more like hunters than eventing used to be, I am sad to see this happen.

  2. hi Barbara. Thank you for reading & commenting.
    Even at 14 being a ws was a sacrifice & choice.
    As an adult w/responsibilities I do believe I could be a ws if was important enough. But it's not. To be a ws would mean selling everything & then saving for a year or 2. I don't want it that badly. My choice.
    I do agree w/ the evening hunter comparison. For what it's worth I have encountered a few that still let folks pay w/ sweat equity. Wish there were more :-D

  3. And sorry for typos. Finger pecking on my phone :-P

  4. I agree with you on one point. If you want to be a pro and you are not rich then you need to sell every last thing you own except your horse and become a working student of the pro that you think can teach you the most. It is the only toe hold into professional ranks left for most people.
    But the people being left out of this sport, are the very competitive adults who have one or two horses, work hard at riding, do not live down the road from a pro, and have careers that pay for the horses, families, mortgages and all the rest. I know several who would gladly take a few months leave of absence from a job to go and be a slave and learn every thing possible. But there is no way to be a slave AND pay rent and board and food and get no break for anything.
    Horse sports used to be for the wealthy, then they were for the middle class, now they are moving back to the wealthy. I partly blame trainers who want to take all they can get and give back nothing. That did not used to be acceptable, now it is.
    This is my personal pet peeve about the demise of the sport - I can jump on a soapbox at the blink of an eye.
    Thanks for your post.

  5. So Barb -and I intend this for the sake of discussion & not antagonist at all - how are these trainers supposed to make a living? Especially if they do not come from money or own land? In my youth I had the thought of my own business but when I did the math it wasn't even close. With mortgage,insurance,& direct costs there was no way to make ends meet
    Should we begrudge trainers from making a living or perhaps even a highly profitable living because the average cannot afford it?

  6. I don't begrudge the trainers anything. There ARE trainers who want to give back to the sport and spend SOME time teaching, training, hiring people who can't afford their full rates but have the dedication to the sport. They have received a lot from the sport and the fans and they want the sport to continue for everyone, not just the wealthy.
    And then there are the others.
    It used to be expected that if you were a successful in your field - ANY field, not just horses - then you also dedicated a certain amount of time to pay back for your success.
    That has become a quaint, old fashioned idea that is generally ignored because there is not a lot of money attached.
    There are lots of riders who give back to the sport and always have, for years and years. Unfortunately most of them are in the 50+ age group. They have been doing this since they were in their 30s, but you don't see the next generation of competitors doing this as much.
    It's a matter of wanted the SPORT to continue vs making every dime possible no matter what.
    Idiotic, I know.

  7. Not idiotic at all;)
    Maybe if we as individuals give back & then support the trainers that do as well we can make a difference. Or maybe I am overly optimistic this holiday.
    Happy thanksgiving!