A Stable Education

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Phyllis Dawson is a former Olympic rider who runs Windchase, an eventing barn in Purcellville, Virginia. John Dean is a world champion Quarter Horse trainer who runs his namesake farm in Tioga, Texas. Each of these very different equestrians is a successful competitor with two other things in common: Each was once a working student, and each now offers that same educational opportunity to other young people. Each knows first-hand that student work programs deliver win-win results to employers and employees.

Here, Dawson, Dean’s wife Kim, and Jay Faircloth—apprenticeship coordinator and breeding manager for Al-Marah Arabians in Tucson, Arizona—share insights on how your farm, too, can reap the benefits of a well-run working student program.

What’s in it for me?

“I have a working student program because that’s how I staff my stable,” says Dawson. “For economic reasons, it makes sense. I also think you get more truly dedicated horse people than if you hire minimum-wage workers.”

Kim Dean and Faircloth also note that these programs allow farms to create their own specialized labor pool. For example, when an assistant breeding manager position recently opened at Al-Marah, an internship graduate was an easy pick.

From a student’s perspective, the arrangement is equally beneficial. “It’s the best way to get an education if you want a career with horses,” says Dawson, who was a working student for Olympic eventer Bruce Davidson. Dean, whose husband was a student of training legend Tommy Manion, adds, “It gives students hands-on experience that they often don’t get in ‘horse colleges.’ ”

Dean notes that another asset for students is that “so many doors open. Students have the opportunity to meet and get to know top trainers and judges.” To top it off, working students get the equivalent of a college education without paying tuition and, in many cases, while earning wages.

Understand the Realities

All that said, certain misconceptions on both sides can sour the working student set-up. For instance, says Dean, applicants who think they’re signing on for an 9-to-5 job are in for a rude awakening. “You ride until you’re finished, and you work until everything is done,” she says. “If a horse is sick in the middle of the night, you stay up.” Another challenge, she says, is students who “expect to earn what the trainers earn.”

Employers, too, may have the wrong idea about their role, which changes from “boss” to “teacher” when you have working students. And that, notes Faircloth, is not a position that suits everybody. “Some people are great at what they do, but are lousy at teaching someone else to do it,” he explains. “You’ve got to consider yourself an educator first.”

Furthermore, says Dawson, “If you do it right, you put a lot of effort into it—helping them fulfill their goals. There can be great mutual benefits, but you’ve got to be willing to give them as much back as they’re willing to put into it.”

Working student programs can take many different forms. You have the flexibility to create an arrangement that best suits your talents, your farm goals and even your budget. The common key to success, though, is for both employer and employee to have realistic expectations, then follow through on their promises. Use the programs followed for years by Dawson, Dean and Al-Marah, outlined here, as food for thought.

Al-Marah Arabians

This Arabian breeding and training facility in Tucson, Arizona (www.al-marah.com), offers a federal- and state-accredited apprenticeship program. The 40-year-old program includes training and breeding tracks and employs about 12 interns at a time.

Chores: In the training track, students take two- and three-year-old horses from day one of training through the first ride, the finished horse and on to showing. In the breeding track, students learn all aspects of breeding as well as mare, stallion and foal care and handling. All interns handle farm chores such as feeding, mucking, deworming and pasture management.

Instruction: Al-Marah full-time employees offer instruction and hands-on learning throughout the day.

Time commitment: Two years.

Pay & perks: Housing and utilities are provided in dorm-style accommodations. First-year take-home pay runs $580 to $630 per month. Apprentices are covered under workmen’s comp. Plus, says Faircloth, “A big selling point is that about 90 percent of our graduates have a job waiting.”

Age: 19, on average, but the farm now seeks slightly older, more educated applicants.

Background: Some college education preferred; apprentices can also earn an associate’s degree in equine science through a cooperative program with nearby Pima Community College. “If applicants lack the discipline to succeed in college, then they will have difficulty completing our program.” says Faircloth.

John Dean, Inc.

A Western performance horse training facility in Tioga, Texas (www.johndeaninc.com), Dean provides apprentice and intern programs for two full-time apprentices, plus an internship once or twice a year. Programs are about 13 years old.

Chores: No stall cleaning or maintenance, but otherwise total care of the horses in training, including feeding, medicating, grooming, lunging and clipping. Apprentices assist with training and help at shows; interns have limited riding time.

Instruction: John rides alongside the students every day, working with them on everything from training skills to equitation. “They’re never turned loose [totally],” says Dean. “The horses are sent here to be in training with John, and we have to make sure that our clients get their money’s worth.”

Time commitment: One-year minimum for apprentices, three-month minimum for interns. “They’re welcome to leave any time if things aren’t working out for them or for us, but we want them to come with that one-year commitment in mind,” says Dean. “At a year, they’re just becoming an asset to us.”

Pay & perks: Students live in a furnished two-bedroom duplex that includes utilities and local phone; health insurance is also included. Monthly apprentice pay ranges from $600 to $800 for newbies to $1,200 plus half show winnings for veteran apprentices. “Our biggest payment is teaching them how to train horses,” says Dean. Interns are not paid, but receive the other benefits.

Age: 18 to 25.

Background: For apprentices, competitive experience is a must. “They’ll be helping to train horses whose prices are $25,000 to $150,000. If they’re not used to showing, they are no help,” says Dean. A horse-college degree is not seen as an advantage, because graduates often lack practical experience. Interns need a solid knowledge of basic horse care.

Windchase

An event horse breeding and training facility in Purcellville, Virginia (www.teamwindchase.com), Windchase employs three to five students at a time. The program is more than 15 years old.

Chores: All types of horse care and stable work, including feeding, grooming, mucking, cleaning tack and saddling Dawson’s mounts. Students with suitable skills ride one to two horses daily, usually for conditioning work.

Instruction: Students get a lesson from Dawson nearly every day, usually in small groups. Dawson closely supervises other riding time and barn work. Students are encouraged to bring their own horses.

Time commitment: Six-month minimum.

Pay & perks: Position is not paid, but offers half-price board for student’s horse, plus housing and lessons. Students are not covered by workmen’s compensation and must provide their own health insurance.

Age: 17, minimum.

Background: Applicants must be competent riders, have experience caring for horses and be high school graduates. “A desire to learn, and a willingness to work hard and do things the Windchase way are essential,” says Dawson.