Whether you or your students speak English, Spanish, or Japanese, your horses still speak the same language. Perhaps that’s why equine industry employers, employees, and students find foreign opportunities so appealing.
Through the use of working exchange programs, hundreds of barn managers and trainers are welcoming students from other countries into their operations. It’s a challenging venture, but one that equine professionals everywhere are turning to again and again for its rewards.
What’s in It for Them?
Young people of all ages and with all ranges of horse experience are seeking the opportunity to explore a different country and immerse themselves in a new culture.
In exchange for working on the farm, hosts most often repay them with room and board as well as a small stipend. Students interested in riding and training experience can be best motivated by the opportunity to ride a range of horses, take lessons, and compete. Some employers offer shared use of a farm vehicle. At Barney and McClain Ward’s Castle Hill Farm in Brewster, N.Y., students also have Internet access and receive membership in a nearby health club.
If you have the ability to bring on more than one student at a time, you’ll find they often form fast bonds with each other, adding to their cultural experience. “They pretty much go as a group everywhere,” says Erica McKeever, manager of Castle Hill Farm.
What’s in It for You?
“At first, I thought, ‘I have more to do than babysit somebody,’ but I got talked into it,” says Lydia Cunningham, manager of Mountaintop Ranch in Elkton, Va. She took on the first foreign student for her Quarter Horse breeding and English and western training operation four years ago, and she quickly realized the rewards were greater than her efforts. Since then, she’s worked with young people from Germany, Denmark and South Africa.
“They are usually very serious, hardworking and dedicated,” traits that trainers have trouble finding in some American students, says international eventer Phyllis Dawson of Windchase in Purcellville, Va. And this has big implications for barn owners. A young person from another country, who goes through the effort and expense of finding employment in the U.S., has already demonstrated a dedication to education. This outstanding ethic has allowed many hosts to take on additional horses when they have apprentices waiting in the wings.
At Shiloh Quarter Horses in Santa Rosa, N.M., trainer Mike Foth’s current apprentice has even shown him a groundwork technique she learned at home in Germany. Her background in dressage differs from Foth’s natural horsemanship techniques, but he enjoys hearing about her ideas, as well: “She opens me up to things that maybe I know but that I’ve forgotten or have gotten away from.”
Consider the big picture, too. Aside from the immediate reward of having additional help on the farm, you’re also setting yourself up with valuable international contacts and opening yourself up to a different culture. “Instead of the day-to-day grind and seeing the same people every day, the apprentices add an extra spark,” Cunningham says.
“I think it’s great for the industry as a whole when people come here,” McKeever says. “Your students will take the practical experience they gain at your farm and carry it over to their future careers.”
“I feel we can all learn from being around people from other cultures. Learning tolerance and acceptance for those who are different from us is an important life lesson, not just a lesson for the horse world,” says international dressage rider Dr. Cesar Parra of Performance Farms in Whitehouse Station, N.J.
How to Make It Work
With all of the international travel restrictions imposed today, many foreign exchange hosts turn to exchange organizations for assistance in setting up their own exchange program. Communicating for Agriculture (CA), which has an equine exchange office based in Lexington, Ky., is one such organization.
For a nominal fee, groups like CA offer structure and support for equine professionals exploring the possibility of hosting exchange students. They take care of the visa requirements, are the central contact for issues that arise with a student, and can assist in finding and screening applicants.
Repeat hosts will say you can’t know enough about a person before they show up at your door: “It’s not really worth going into unless you’ve found someone who’s going to stay with you the whole time,” Cunningham says. Hosts who organize their own exchange program utilize video—which is becoming much easier via the Internet—interviews, and thorough reference checks.
Working students, says Dawson, usually “have to come and spend two days to interview normally, but…for overseas students I will waive that and do it by telephone.” Dawson usually has four or five working students at a time.
Character issues are paramount. “I look more for the individual than I do for where they came from,” Foth says. Parra agrees: “My most important prerequisites for the exchange students are that they have a positive attitude and a desire to learn. With those qualities, I am able to teach the riders a lot.”
On the flip side of that coin, CA screens hosts to determine compatibility with the program and workplace suitability and safety.
Before and throughout the exchange, communication is vital to the success of your program. Students who are considering joining on with your facility need to know up front what’s expected of them. Clear explanations of working hours, compensation, duties, and any educational or training expectations need to be outlined at the beginning for the best outcome. One example: Cunningham gives her foreign students ample opportunity to explore the country and take trips with others on the farm, but adds that “it’s very clear that it’s not a vacation.”
The length of stay varies between hosts and how the students fit into the barn’s program. “I encourage all participants to stay a minimum of six months, because it takes that long for us to get them working in our system. Most, however, come for one year and then want to extend their visa
to 18 months,” Parra says.
Language differences are a concern for many hosts and students alike. For hosts and students with little or no understanding of another language, a lot of patience and cooperation plus some help from a foreign dictionary are in order.
“They learn because they have to learn,” says McKeever, who finds her foreign employees gain a quick understanding of English. Some students even choose to work in the United States with the goal of improving their English.
Regardless of the level of horse experience they have before they arrive, it’s important to remember that the exchange student’s aim is largely educational. “You’re responsible for what they learn. They’ve spent a lot of money and given this part of their life to be here,” Cunningham says.
If you’re looking for cheap labor, a working exchange program isn’t the way to go. “It’s a hard job. You have to reward people, and not just financially,” McKeever says. As with all of your students and employees, fair compensation is important, as is respect and mentorship.