The horses in your barn depend on their caretakers. Inattentive or inexperienced workers can jeopardize their health and well-being and may even cost you valued clients. But you have a hard time just getting people to work for you at all, much less keeping them around long enough for them to learn the ropes and become valued staff members. Is it simply impossible to find and retain good help these days?
Thankfully, no, say experts. Some top barns have worker-retention rates other outfits would envy—five years, eight years or more—and receive more applications than they have available positions. How do they do it? Through a combination of good management skills, realistic expectations and awareness that short-term investing such as paying better wages or offering better benefits may be most cost-effective in the long run.
The Employer’s Side
Seth Burgess owned and operated an Arabian breeding farm for 10 years, during which time, he says, he experienced many personnel-related difficulties. One year he distributed 17 W-2 forms for just five positions.
Spotting an unfulfilled niche in the horse industry, Burgess went on to found Equimax, an equine-employment service headquartered in Alpine, Texas, that serves as a clearinghouse for job-seekers and employers. He has written articles and spoken on the topic of finding good barn help, including some common complaints and misconceptions of both employers and employees.
The happiness factor. Burgess says he’s found that struggling, inexperienced stable and barn managers—most of whom tend to have little or no management experience—may well feel disillusioned or let down. “Unhappy bosses make unhappy employees, and unhappy employees are unreliable and [likely to] leave the job,” he says.
Reacting, not proacting. Another common hiring error, says Burgess, is to take a “crisis management” approach. “Many barns think the hiring process consists of just two steps: advertising an opening when someone quits and hiring the first likely candidate who comes along.” Actually, Burgess says, the employment process consists of five stages:
- Planning: Consider your needs; formulate clear, realistic job descriptions; design a work environment and an employment package to attract the types of workers you want.
- Advertising: Notify the appropriate marketplace(s) of your personnel needs.
- Interviewing: Screen likely candidates; field questions; sell yourself as an employer and sell your operation.
- Investigating: Check a candidate’s references and other considerations, such as the person’s right to work in the U.S.
- Career-building: Create opportunities for professional development by giving appropriate and well-timed feedback, increase responsibilities as performance warrants and offer learning opportunities.
Undercompensation. We all know that making a living in the horse business can be tough, especially starting out. Nevertheless, quality workers are in demand and those people can reasonably expect to receive a competitive wage-and-benefits package. As Burgess points out, “Consider the costs to your business of not paying more. Constant turnover and the effort and stress of replacing workers are a drain on your business.”
Unrealistic expectations. “Some farm managers are plagued with rapid turnover as a result of employee burnout,” says Burgess. “The problem may stem from the manager’s inability to evaluate how much work a person can reasonably do in a day: He wants one person to do five people’s jobs. Or workers may be given insufficient time off: Some farms expect their employees to work seven days a week; others give a half-day off once a week. That’s simply not enough. You might get people to come to work for you, but you’ll lose them quickly.”
The Employee’s Side
While stable managers can make poor personnel-related decisions, some employees have such unrealistic expectations that they’re almost destined not to stay long, says Burgess. “Impatience tends to be an issue with young people,” he explains. “A recent graduate, for example, may take a job as a groom. Six months later, that person wonders why he or she hasn’t been promoted to barn manager yet. The person may blame the job or the employer and leave. Many employers shy away from hiring job-hoppers because they assume the employee won’t stay long and soon the worker may find that he or she is having trouble getting hired at all. It would have been far better for that person to find a reputable, fair employer and build a future with that business. As an employee, you want your employer to worry about how to keep you, and that’s what leads to raises and promotions.”
Job-satisfaction surveys have shown that money alone usually doesn’t make for contentment in the workplace. And let’s face it, few people get into the horse business for the money. According to the 1998 National Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates, the average annual wage of stable workers is barely above $16,000. Most people who work in this industry do so because they like working with horses. But no matter how wonderful the horses are, the job still won’t draw rave reviews if the employer is perceived as someone who doesn’t respect employees or who’s unfair or excessively cheap.
Tips from Master Managers
Top reining-horse trainer Ed Fear, who with partner Dottie Smith operates Ed Fear Quarter Horses in Beecher, Ill., runs a tight ship yet manages to create a rewarding and relaxed working environment. He has a lot to oversee: a 48-stall barn at his home base, a second barnful of young horses located 18 miles away and a large staff of assistant trainers, grooms and farm-maintenance workers. He puts in 12- to 14-hour days, seven days a week and his workers don’t put in much less. Yet, 15 of his employees, including Barn Manager Jimmy Lewis, have been on staff for eight or more years. Fear rarely has to put up a “help wanted” sign because of his excellent reputation as a trainer, a teacher and a manager.
“The best way for me to keep good help is to teach them,” Fear says. “I don’t hold secrets back.” He speaks proudly of Assistant Trainer Tracer Gilson, an employee for two years, who came to the operation a relatively inexperienced rider and trainer and who last year took home $14,000 in National Reining Horse Association winnings. To give them well-rounded equine educations, Fear involves Gilson and his other assistants in breeding and sales decisions as well as in the riding and training.
Of Lewis, Fear says, “He has the authority to hire and fire in that department. I give him good equipment and I pay him well.” With Fear’s extensive show schedule, having someone at home he can depend on is a must—and the trainer considers Lewis and his crew every bit as important as his assistant trainers.
“So often [barn and maintenance workers] get treated like underlings,” Fear says. “There’s none of that here.”
Fear describes himself as a “very demanding” manager who tries to lead by example and who expects people to pull their own weight around the barn. “I’m not a drill sergeant and I’m not a motivator,” he says, explaining that he expects employees to be self-starters and independent thinkers. At the same time, he says, “We do a lot of laughing and joking around.”
The hours may be long at Ed Fear Quarter Horses, but the boss tries to let workers know they’re appreciated. Fear realizes that “It’s hard to get good help for five-fifty or six dollars an hour. I pay a good salary. I give a Christmas bonus, we have a Christmas party and I give my people a nice lunch room. If I sell a high-priced horse and I get a big commission, I’ll give everybody a bonus.”
Many of Fear’s philosophies are echoed by Robert Croteau, equine manager for Iron Spring Farm in Coatesville, Pa., one of the best-known warmblood breeding farms in the U.S. The farm employs between 20 and 25 people during its peak season and Croteau is in charge of reviewing résumés, interviewing and hiring all personnel.
“I look at [managing and training employees] as a work in progress,” Croteau explains. “When I hire, I look for communication skills and a good work ethic. I’m not impressed by an equine-science degree or stable-management certification; I’ve found it’s easier to take someone with little or no horse experience and teach them the way I want things done.” Iron Spring employs a number of Mexican workers—all authorized to work in the U.S.—and he’s pleased to see many of them progress from stall-mucker to groom over a period of four or five years. “We help them with a career path,” he says. “They learn sophisticated horse-management skills, such as taking temperatures, applying spider bandages and handling all types of horses.”
As a manager, Croteau says, “It’s important to let people know what they’ve done well, and to treat people equally. If I have to reprimand someone, I let them know their mistake and then let it go.” He “touches base daily” with all his employees and holds staff meetings at least once a week. He says he strives to give clear directions and to let employees know what’s expected of them and he uses written goals as an aid in establishing performance benchmarks.
In return, Iron Spring employees receive competitive compensation packages. Hourly workers, such as stall cleaners, can rent housing for “a reasonable rate” and also have some flexibility in their schedules. Salaried workers, such as administrative assistants and some breeding-laboratory technicians, get housing, annual merit-based raises, health and dental insurance after they’ve been employed for about six months and greatly reduced board for a horse after about two years on the job.
Croteau dislikes rapid turnover as much as the next manager (“I like for [employees] to stay for at least a year”), but he says he realizes that “Some turnover is good. People grow and learn and eventually outgrow the position and move on.”