Experience is usually the best education for barn managers, but what better way is there to begin a lifetime of learning than with a two- or four-year degree in equine science, equine studies or stable management? As more colleges and universities begin to offer such programs, more graduates are entering the workforce. These graduates tend to be very knowledgeable from their intensive classroom studies and textbooks, but not from hands-on experience. Students can only be taught so much, at college.
Prospective employers should be aware that while all graduates may hold the same diploma in their hand, no two will be equal in their actual horse and stable skills. Equine graduates may have a solid foundation for further learning, but are a long way from being masters of the horse world.
The Goal of Equine Programs
It is not the general goal of equine college programs to prepare every student for a career in the barn. According to Andrea Wells, the director of the Equestrian Center at Centenary College in Hackettstown, N.J., the goal of college-level equine programs is to “try to turn out viable and good professionals, no matter what their avenue of choice.” This avenue may be to work for an equine supplier, a horse-related publication or some completely different equine field.
Every college will require its students to complete a variety of core requirements in horse classes, such as riding instruction, stable management and horse training and care, but they also must complete general classes in business, English, science and education. The results are going to vary greatly. One program may require summer internships while another requires students to give full care to one or more horses for a semester. Still, other programs may require very little hands on experience. Schools can differ so much that it may be wise for employers to research exact programs when hiring.
Graduates, even those from the same college, can have very different educational backgrounds. One student may arrive for their first semester with years of show experience, while another may arrive with little more than a summer or two at horse camp. Even after a degree is earned, it is not expected that both of these students will have an equal knowledge of horses.
Graduation is Only the Beginning
As graduates, they should be aware that even for the most seasoned students, they have only just begun their experience in the horse world. “When it comes to students in equine programs,” says Karin Bump, a professor at Cazenovia College, in Cazenovia, N.Y., who recently retired from her 12-year position as the director of the Equestrian Program, “the more you know, the more you know you don’t know.”
“An honest equine program will tell the student they can’t give them all the information,” says Laura Ward, the division chair for Equine Studies at William Woods University in Fulton, Missouri. “Students must back up their education with their own blood, sweat and tears.”
And when graduates start a barn career, they must be able to demonstrate their skills. “Students need to make their own luck,” continues Ward, “They may get a sheepskin, but the degree still needs to be proved in the horse industry. They can’t hide behind a diploma.”
Experience is Everything
Graduates of equine programs have proved themselves to potential employers in one way: That they are dedicated enough to horses to have completed a degree on the subject. Unfortunately, this is all they have proven.
“I care less about their education and more about the things they really can’t be taught in school, like attitude, interest, passion, intelligence and their ability to learn,” says John Madden, the owner of John Madden Sales, a successful show jumping stable in northern New York that has hired equine graduates from several colleges.
Louise Knoski, a 1992 graduate of Cazenovia College and the present assistant manager of yearlings at Three Chimneys Farm in Lexington, Ky., has had similar findings in her post-graduate years. “You have to start at the bottom in the horse industry,” she says, “no matter what your education.”
Keep on Learning
Graduates must be prepared to continue their education in the work place and employers should be prepared to teach them. Both will find there are many lessons that cannot be learned in the classroom.
“One thing you don’t learn in school and you have to get on the job,” states Melissa Hughes, a 1995 graduate from William Woods University, “is how to deal with the amount of responsibility and the pressure and short amount of time you have to get the best from your horses and riders.” Hughes has learned firsthand about pressure at Biggins Stables, Inc., an American Saddlebred Farm in Simpsonville, Ky., where she is the assistant trainer and riding instructor.
“[Graduates] have a basic understanding about some things,” adds Madden, “but they still need to be trained for life and work in a competitive show stable. It’s a faster pace than they’re used to.”
Hughes also found that the book knowledge she received in college went well with the hands-on experience she received in summer internships. She believes that she was as prepared as she could have been for the post-graduate horse world that she encountered.
Christina Foster, a 1995 graduate of Centenary College, who currently owns and operates New Venture Equestrian Center in Broadway, N.J., feels that she got much of the education she uses in daily barn activities from her many tough hours as a working student in the school barn. Fellow students who relied solely on their classroom education may have had a more difficult time in her position. “In order to make it in this business, you have to work at it,” she says, “and the students who didn’t really work at their educations probably weren’t ready for careers in the barn. I worked at my education by learning as much as I could as a working student. The classroom couldn’t have prepared me for owning a barn.”
Every employer knows that not all employees work up to expectations, but there are many ways to protect against particularly disappointing hires (see sidebar.) To make sure hiring is as successful as possible, employers need to be attentive to the actual skills, knowledge and personality of every applicant. A post-graduate may arrive for an interview with an impressive education, but the interview should be far from over. As with any college major, a degree in the hand does not equal a master. College-level horse programs should be treated and considered for what they are: A steppingstone to more experience and a lifetime of learning.
Four Suggestions for Hiring the Right Graduate
1. Interviews should be as thorough as possible by covering all aspects of the applicant’s past and what the job will truly entail. Always explain the job as it is and don’t make false promises.
2. Make a complete investigation into the applicant’s past by calling all of the references, especially if college professors are included. As much as schools enjoy seeing their graduates hired, they usually won’t give false impressions that will lead to an unhappy employer. Inquire about the graduate’s knowledge, skills and personality.
3. Look into the school program from which they graduated. Schools vary so much that this research may help you with a final decision about hiring or passing on the applicant.
4. If at all possible, “consider letting the potential employee work for a week as a trial,” suggests Bump. “Just be aware that the employer will need to offer compensation for the time worked.” This will help protect each party from making a bad decision and assure that the applicant is a good fit for the job.—EK