Sometimes timing is everything. Young people graduating from equine programs a few years ago had their pick of jobs at good salaries. It was certainly a time of good economy, and that was true in the horse industry. Qualified graduates had their choice of good jobs. Now graduating students, through no fault of their own, are facing a much tighter job market in all areas.
New grads are competing against each other for the same jobs, and there are fewer jobs to go around. It all sounds pretty bleak, but if we look at the demands of the equine business, we can see there are numerous areas where a job seeker can add value by offering more than what has been the traditional definition of a new graduate. It is not enough to be able to ride horses or manage a barn. Today’s farm or stable manager needs flexibility, broad-based technical skills, business and marketing skills, emotional intelligence, and, probably most importantly, excellent communication skills.
This sounds daunting, but as we explore this list further, we will see that many people already have many of these abilities, but likely they never thought of them as valuable. In today’s economy and job market, it is not enough to be an excellent horse person. Successful job seekers know that the more value they can add to the position, the easier it is to positively distinguish themselves from their peers.
In a dream world, we would all love to have jobs in our home towns, regions where we want to live, or perhaps even where our spouses have jobs. Even better, we would all love to work at top barns with regular schedules that are the same every week.
There is likely not a dream job where you want it. Simply put, if you want a job as a stable or farm manager, you need to go where the jobs are. That might be across the state, the nation or even to another country.
North America is struggling to recover from the recession, but other areas in the world are doing well. For example, the horse industries in China and South America are booming. In the case of China, in particular, there are some people in the horse industry who have already forged relationships and are either training, selling horses, or working with Chinese businesses who are associated with the horse industry. This might offer a great opportunity to explore another country while you are young and without family obligations.
Many progressive stables and farms are also using flex time to offer expanded hours to clients. Instead of having the barn open 7-5 with staff there, some facilities are offering later hours through the week or on Saturday and Sunday to accommodate owners who have full-time jobs and board their horses with you.
Some farms are even hiring part-time outside trainers or assistant managers to allow the owner or manager to extend business operations without having to be there themselves to oversee or train. These scenarios might not be ideal, but they can give you a foot in the door for later opportunities. In the meantime, you are able to gain valuable experience and add to your resume and client list.
Broad-Based Technical Skills
For several years students have been graduating from equine programs with few hands-on skills outside of riding horses in your discipline. Of course this varies by school, but in general this is true. It is not the fault of the colleges as they suffer from declining budgets and increased student interest in equine programs.
It has become essential for someone who wants to be an equine professional to do an internship. Without one, the vast majority of new grads will not have the skills to begin a new job without the need for constant mentorship.
Your stock will rise in the job market if you can handle multiple disciplines, have experience foaling, understand (or can do basic maintenance on) farm equipment, and work on marketing for the business. This is not to say that you can’t expect any mentorship in a new job, but keep in mind that the farm or stable for which you will work is a business. The more time that a productive and busy owner or manager spends engaged in “non-billable” activities (such as teaching you something), the less revenue the business generates. If the hiring choice is between a new grad and someone who has completed a comprehensive internship, the choice is easy.
In the good old days before the Great Recession, it was a reasonable expectation that graduate from an equine program could specialize in particular English or Western disciplines, but today’s farms or boarding operations might have a wide variety of clients, all of whom might want your help and understanding.
There are still numerous farms that specialize, but as a new manager or trainer you can make yourself much more employable by not specializing too soon in your career.
When pursuing an internship, find one that offers you exposure to all areas of equine business. You might have your heart set on being a dressage barn trainer and manager, but in this time of decreasing horse ownership, you might find more opportunities in a job where you use more diverse skills.
You might be surprised to hear this, but many graduates have more business skills than seasoned farm and stable managers and owners. Many colleges are realizing the importance of business skills for the graduating student, and that training can be a differentiating factor that gets you hired. For example, if you have the knowledge to offer suggestions on improving marketing, you have increased your value to the business.
While most people under the age of 30 are very familiar with social media, older farm and barn managers are just now realizing social media is something their business needs, but they have no idea how to do it.
How can this affect you?
Perhaps you work as a trainer or assistant manager four days a week, and on the fifth day you manage the farm’s Facebook page or you write a weekly blog for the farm’s website. Maybe one of your first jobs will be to train the manager or owner how to use Facebook or Twitter for the purpose of promoting the equine business.
Other skills you can offer include creating client education presentations on PowerPoint, or writing the farm’s newsletter. These are all marketing areas the average farm or stable knows they need, but often there hasn’t been someone with the skills needed to handle that marketing work.
A person has emotional intelligence if he is able to identify, assess and control her own emotions and (to some extent) the emotions of others. Simply put: You do not cause drama in the workplace, you help decrease it.
In general, most people avoid conflict. Nobody likes having a difficult conversation where the negative or disruptive actions of a person need to be addressed. At the same time, venting about co-workers or triangulating where two employees talk about each other to a third person can really contribute to a toxic work environment.
If you work toward having a good sense of your own emotional intelligence, you will be the kind of co-worker with whom everyone wants to work. Usually this is something that people identify once they’ve worked with someone awhile, so it is something that will be reflected in your letters of reference.
The equine industry today is stressful enough given that we deal with animals that seem bent on self-destruction and owners who often are unskilled in handling their own horse. We don’t need to be lashing out at co-workers or clients because we are frustrated.
Emotional intelligence is an essential skill for all people, but it is even more important in those who have to handle the extreme emotions of others.
Being a People Person
Probably the most important trait required in managing a farm or stable is being a people person. Contrary to what some people think who want to train horses or manage horse operations, we are in the people business, with the animals as an excuse for personal interactions.
For many people who entered the equine profession because they preferred the company of animals to that of people, this might hard to accept. The reality is that our ability to communicate effectively with empathy is key to a horse owner or trainer having faith in our ability to care for that horse on a daily basis.
You need to be able to have an easy conversation with your clients about them or their horses, especially if there are problems.
You don’t talk about yourself all of the time. We are there for our clients, not the other way around.
You remember the names of kids and spouses and significant recent events of your clients.
You let owners know how the horse is doing and to find out if the client has any questions about the horse or your services.
In essence, we must demonstrate that we care about our clients as much as we care about their horses. And as we all might know, that often is the hard part of running a farm or stable.
For you don’t particularly like dealing with people, it might be worthwhile to attend a Dale Carnegie course or get involved with Toastmasters to help you develop the skills to deal effortlessly with clients.
There is phenomenal competition in the equine job market today, but those individuals who can offer more than basic training or horse skills will have huge opportunities presented to them.
Those who can differentiate themselves with valuable traits or abilities will have an easier time getting a job.
Think of yourself as a stand-alone business that is offering professional services to the market. Many of the products and services our profession uses every day are generally the same, so the only way we determine the value of one over another is by price or convenience.
If every coffee tastes the same, you will go for the cheapest one or the one nearest to you. Why spend more for an equivalent product? Starbucks, on the other hand, offers more than the generic coffee from the fast food chains. The customer service, comfortable environment and unique products enable Starbucks to charge far more than their competitors. They are different and valued by their customers.
It is unlikely in this competitive job market that your differentiating features will translate into a higher pay offer, but it can mean the difference between getting hired or not getting the job you want.