Hiring Trainers

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Most boarding and training facilities have at least one in-house instructor/trainer. In many cases, the trainer is also the farm owner. But at some stables, the trainers work for or with the owners.

Every business relationship has its advantages as well as its potential pitfalls. More than one stable owner has brought a trainer on board with high expectations, only to discover later on that it’s much easier to hire than to fire. On the other hand, many stable owners have been delighted with trainer performance and thriving clientele, only to watch helplessly when the trainer leaves for another facility, taking much or all of the clientele along in the process.

Can you, the stable owner, take precautions to avoid being stuck with a bum trainer or left high and dry if he or she leaves? Yes—if you learn to choose wisely and to negotiate solid contracts. The old saw about an ounce of prevention was never more true than in the hiring game, so do your homework before you start.

The Trainer Search

Not all business relationships represent the traditional employer-employee model. Independent contractors, for instance, are self-employed individuals who are responsible for their own insurance, taxes and work schedule. Consider both types of arrangements to widen the pool of potential trainers.

Find qualified applicants. The horse world is a small place. If you’ve been in the business for a while, you probably already know the trainers in your area. If you don’t, then learn about them by going to horse shows and watching them and their students. If your current or prospective clientele focuses on a particular breed or riding discipline, then make the rounds at those kinds of shows. Look for trainers whose conduct and operation you admire, keeping in mind that the winningest trainer is not necessarily the best horseman, the best businessperson or the easiest person to get along with.

You may not be able to hire away a top trainer, but most professionals of that caliber employ at least one assistant trainer and perhaps some working students. The underlings are there to learn from the master, but someday they will likely strike out on their own. If you are lucky, you may stumble across an assistant trainer who’s as good as the boss, but who lacks the name recognition and is hungry for a chance to build his or her own business.

Help-wanted ads and equine employment agencies also can be sources. Whatever trainer search method you use, though, decide what you’re looking for.

Write a job description. Many businesses rely on written job descriptions to establish an employee’s duties, to distinguish among seniority levels and to justify the job’s salary level or range, among other reasons. As a stable owner, you might think you don’t need to write or update job descriptions for your employees, but doing so will help you clarify what you’re looking for if you decide to use the services of an employment agency or place a help-wanted ad.

Begin by listing the skills, experience or other qualifications that the candidate must possess in order to be considered for the position. Let’s say you’re looking to hire a dressage instructor. Your list might read:

  • U.S. Dressage Federation instructor certification through Second Level
  • Competed through at least Fourth Level
  • Experience working with novice riders and horses as well as with more experienced pairs

Next, list any “pluses” that would make a qualified candidate stand out from the crowd, but that aren’t essential. Using our dressage-instructor example, these might include:

  • Competed at the FEI levels
  • Extensive study with one or more nationally or internationally regarded dressage trainers

Last, write down the characteristics you’d like to see in your trainer, such as self-starter, dedicated and a team player.

Turn your “wanted” list into a string of sentences, add the basic information about your facility and violà! you have a tidy job description or help-wanted ad.

Develop a competitive compensation package. Of course, before you can discuss salary and benefits, you have to decide what you are offering. Many jobs in the equine field are notoriously low-paying, but the very best people tend to make a handsome living. In order to attract better-than-average candidates, you’ll need to offer a better-than-average wage and benefits package, especially in these times of low unemployment and a thriving economy.

If you’re not sure what constitutes a competitive compensation package in your area and for your size facility, do some research. Fellow stable owners might be willing to share some data with you. If you’re on friendly terms with some area trainers, they might be willing to give you some guidelines. An equine-employment agency might be willing to share salary data—for a fee, of course.

Keep in mind that salary alone is just one part of the total compensation package. Such benefits as employer-paid health and life insurance, paid vacation and holidays, and complimentary or discounted housing and horse boarding easily can add 30 percent or more to the base salary or wage structure. More difficult to put a price on, but just as important to many workers, are the intangible benefits. They might be reasonable working hours, well-maintained facilities, congenial working atmosphere and opportunities for advancement and additional earnings.

The Interview Process

A thorough, careful interview process is essential to your success in choosing—and retaining—quality people.

If you call an applicant in for an interview, you presumably like his or her background, experience and credentials. Now, you need to find out whether the person is a good fit with your operation. You’re trying to learn the answers to the following: Do the two of you get along? Will he or she do a good job with your clients? Will he or she be happy working for you? Is the opportunity sufficiently challenging and potentially rewarding to encourage him or her to stay on?

Be aware that some types of interview questions are illegal. It’s off-limits, for instance, to ask a candidate’s age, race, national origin or marital status. An employment lawyer in your state can provide you with specific do’s and don’ts.

Most employers ask candidates to provide professional references and it’s a good idea to check them out before you make a job offer. For legal reasons, many employers today will do little more than verify the candidate’s former job title and dates of employment. At the very least, though, you will know that the resume isn’t fabricated.

Ultimately, the decision about a candidate may come down to your gut feeling about the person. Although they’re not infallible, your instincts may serve you well.

“Make sure you share similar values,” advises Judy Donaldson, owner of Fox Hill Farm, a 48-stall dressage, eventing and breeding facility in Unionville, Pa. Donaldson is “friends first” with the farm’s trainer, Sharon Best, and says that their like views and values have worked to their advantage over the course of their 20-year relationship.

Being close friends isn’t a prerequisite for a successful owner/trainer relationship, but it certainly helps if the two get along. Sharing similar views on everything from horse care and training to the best ways of handling problems and disagreements will go a long way toward making the partnership work.

Employee or Contractor?

Some stables utilize the traditional employer-employee arrangement, but others have found that an independent contractor setup affords the parties the greatest protection, as well as an added measure of motivation to collaborate and be productive.

The nature of the position may indicate what arrangement makes sense. In the case of Fox Hill Farm, Donaldson works with both employees and contractors. Her barn manager and young-horse trainer, Karen Karkow, is an employee and receives a compensation package that includes housing, wages and paid health insurance. But Best, Fox Hill’s resident instructor, is a contractor. Students pay Best directly for lessons, and she is responsible for her own taxes and insurance. Boarders pay for arena and facilities use and maintenance as part of their monthly fees. A ring-use fee for clients who don’t board at Fox Hill goes directly to Donaldson.

Another facility of similar size, Saddlebrook Ridge Equestrian Center in Shamong, N.J., also has different types of arrangements with its three resident trainers. Two, including manager and head trainer Lisa Lewis, have lease agreements whereby they pay a commission in exchange for the use of the facility, according to Saddlebrook owner Dr. Gail Pratt. The third, a beginner-rider instructor, is a farm employee.

Some stable owners prefer to work with all trainers on a contract basis. High Prairie Farms in Parker, Colo., is a 105-stall, multi-discipline equestrian center that has hosted such prestigious events as this year’s North American Young Riders Championships. Eight trainers—four hunter/jumper, one eventing, and three dressage—currently base their operations at High Prairie. None is an employee, says High Prairie owner Helen Krieble.

“I rent space to trainers,” Krieble explains. “Trainers must rent at least 12 stalls but may not rent more than 24. I do not regulate the fees that they charge; that income is their own.” Trainers at High Prairie must carry their own liability and care, custody and control insurance, she says; they also sign contracts agreeing to abide by a set of general rules.

The Fine Print

The stable owners we talked to all advise putting agreements with trainers in writing. Written contracts spell out the terms of the agreement, ­clarify duties and responsibilities, help to avert misunderstandings and protect the farm owner and the trainer.

High Prairie’s Krieble uses an attorney who specializes in employment law to draw up her contracts.

“It’s friction-free,” Krieble says of the contractual agreements with her resident trainers. “You give up some income [by not taking a share of trainers’ proceeds], but you also give up the hassles” of dealing with employees.

Fox Hill’s trainer, Sharon Best, signs an annual contract that spells out her agreement with the farm. Her current contract specifies that she is in charge of the boarding business.

Fox Hill owner Judy Donaldson and Best keep each other in the loop regarding activities and decisions that affect their respective businesses. Best submits monthly written reports of lessons taught and horses ridden. In return, Donaldson has Best attend her corporate board meetings and the two take part in a weekly meeting also attended by the barn manager, the bookkeeper and the breeding manager.

Saddlebrook’s Pratt handles her farm’s bookkeeping, advertising and other administrative duties while ­delegating responsibility for the boarding and training programs to Lewis, who herself is aided by an assistant manager. Pratt points out the importance of selecting a trainer whose experience and goals are compatible with the farm owner’s and whom the owner respects, and then allowing that person to do the job.

“Don’t undermine the trainer’s authority,” Pratt advises. She says she is careful to consult with Lewis if a boarder comes to her with an issue, so that boarders cannot pit owner and trainer against each other.

To protect themselves and their trainers, Fox Hill and Saddlebrook both have rules regarding the use of outside instructors. Best is the only instructor allowed to teach at Fox Hill, a policy she says “was part of my initial agreement with Judy.” The farm occasionally hosts clinics with guest instructors, and boarders may trailer their horses out to take clinics with Best’s permission. Likewise, almost all of Fox Hill’s boarders are required to take regular lessons with Best; the handful who don’t, says Donaldson, lend their horses to working students or otherwise contribute to the training program.

Saddlebrook’s policies are a bit less restrictive: Boarders may ship out as much as they please for outside lessons and clinics, says Pratt. Still, only its three resident trainers are permitted to teach on-site, with the exception of special guest clinicians.

But what would happen to the boarding businesses if those resident trainers decided to set up shop elsewhere? Donaldson and Pratt have few concerns about the possibility.

“We have had both boarders and trainers who have decided that it was time to move on,” says Donaldson, “but Sharon and I have worked very hard to build up this farm and its programs to what they are today. We know each other so well and are such close friends that [her leaving] isn’t really an issue.”

In addition, Donaldson adds, “I’m very lucky, having my barn in the Unionville area, where there are so many horses.” (The area’s carefully preserved open space is a Mecca for foxhunters, eventers and drivers.) “I could fill the barn many times over, even if for some reason Sharon’s clients were to leave.”

Saddlebrook’s Pratt is similarly unconcerned, citing her equestrian center’s state-of-the-art facilities and top-notch horse care as surefire client draws. “Even if Lisa were to go to another local facility, I think most of our boarders would keep their horses here and trailer over to her place for their lessons,” she says.

Although there are many differences among the facilities discussed in this article, their owners have similar advice for colleagues who are looking to establish long-lasting, mutually beneficial relationships with trainers. Choose your business partners wisely. Put everything in writing and have a knowledgeable employment lawyer advise you and draw up the paperwork. Get to know the trainer’s equestrian background, professional goals and personality before you extend the offer. Look for a person of integrity and honesty, and someone whose methods and values mesh with your own. Establish client policies that will protect your business and your trainer’s. Support your trainer by backing up his or her authority, by hiring any additional help needed to keep the operation running smoothly with minimal risk of “trainer burnout” due to work overload and by either paying a fair wage or giving the trainer the freedom to set competitive rates. Finally, keep the lines of communication open and make sure your trainer knows that he or she can and should come to you with any issues, complaints or problems. You and your trainer are in business together and you should share the same set of goals. If you work together and offer quality services that have value to your clients, you both stand to benefit.

Keeping Employees Motivated

Attracting and holding good employees takes more than equitable salaries, appropriate raises and good benefits, say employment specialists. Today’s employees want to feel vested in their company’s mission and both respected and appreciated for their contribution to it.

Small horse businesses commonly have no strategy for motivating their workforce. “Horse industry employers tend to fall into two camps,” says equine employment specialist Seth Burgess of Equimax Alpine, Texas. Some want to treat employees as members of their family. This paternalistic approach boxes employees in and smothers incentive. Other employers treat their employees as though they were just another piece of equipment. Employees feel powerless and unappreciated. Neither approach works.

The best workplace motivators, says human resources consultant Mary Jo Leahy of Leahy Resources in Tolland, Conn., are actions that make people feel appreciated. “The number-one motivator is not money,” she says. Burgess agrees, “Job satisfaction is first on the list of things employees want. Then salaries and benefits fall into place.” Appreciation can take many forms and does not have to be expensive. It can be as simple as:

  • a birthday card
  • a gift certificate for dinner
  • a pizza party in honor of the employee of the month
  • recognition in a farm ad
  • a pleasant place to eat lunch or change clothes
  • tickets to a special event
  • thanks for a job well done

Incentive consultant Joel Culmone of Joel R. Culmone Associates in Burlington, Conn., makes the point that timing can be as important as choosing the right motivators. The rewards must be given immediately, they must be given publicly and the rewards must be given consistently.

All of the experts note that in today’s work environment, employees want to feel like they are part of a team. To build a good team, employers first need a clear business mission. Then they should be concerned about helping employees build their careers within this mission. That means:

  • making sure employees have the right tools for the job
  • giving employees appropriate authority
  • encouraging feedback, suggestions or criticism
  • discussing employees’ personal career goals
  • setting goals jointly with employees

“Showing employees they are needed, valued and appreciated takes an investment of time,” says Burgess, “but it will save you time in the long run.”

—Bonnie Kreitler