Countless young equestrians around the world dream of successful careers with horses and making it to the top of their chosen sport. There is no one formula to break into the circle of elite international competitors, and only a select few will eventually represent their nation in international competition. However, many of today’s top international riders share one thing in common: they began their careers as working students and —as they have ascended in their respective careers—have in turn employed future generations of riders in working student positions.
Riders choose working student positions for a variety of reasons. Many take on positions specifically as springboards to a career in riding, training and managing their own businesses. Others make this decision based on finances. Some are fortunate enough to have the resources necessary to cover the costs associated with the sport, while others must find different and often creative ways to pursue their dreams. Equestrian activities are costly, and working student arrangements often lessen the burden serious riders must assume in order to ride, train and compete on a regular basis. At the same time, top riders and trainers find their barns full, their already full schedules tighter, and they must fill the need for staff to keep their businesses running smoothly. Working student programs offer a way for professionals to address some of their businesses’ needs while providing opportunities for dedicated and talented individuals to delve deeply into new opportunities and challenges.
“I receive about six e-mail inquiries about my working student program every week,” says Olympic Three Day Event veteran Phyllis Dawson, who owns and runs Windchase Farm in Purcellville, Virginia. “A very small percentage of those that e-mail actually make it to the farm for the interview, which involves spending two full days working at the farm.”
The interview process is just one of the first challenges prospective working students face and, as Dawson has found, is one of the best ways to evaluate whether or not an arrangement will work out. “The working students have long hours; they are how I staff my stable,” continues Dawson, who also runs sporthorse breeding and sales programs. “They have a lot of opportunities to ride and learn, but they have to want it. Good attitudes are essential.”
Dawson usually has four or five working students at a time, and they must be able to commit to a period of at least six months. Working students are involved in every facet of Windchase’s daily operations, ranging from mucking stalls, feeding and turning out the horses, to grooming and riding. In exchange for working at the farm, students receive daily lessons, free housing, discounted board (should they bring their own horse), as well as opportunities to exercise other horses and expand their overall knowledge and horsemanship.
In addition to students from the United States, Dawson also accepts students from abroad and has taught young riders from Ireland, England, Australia, Switzerland, Mexico, Canada, Finland and Sweden. She will provide written documentation of their position at Windchase, but it is up to each individual student to properly file necessary visa paperwork to ensure their entry and stay period in the United States.
While Dawson is able to provide much of what students have come to experience, they remain responsible for multiple personal items, such as meals, entry fees for competitions, and providing their own health insurance. “Because working students are not salaried employees, I do not carry any workers’ compensation on them.”
Julie Hagen of Bascule Farm in Poolesville, Md., has run an active “resident student” program for over 18 years. In addition to housing, riding lessons, and opportunities to train and compete, Hagen’s students are given an educational stipend between $100 and $150 per week to assist with their individual expenses, similar to a stipend a university student might earn in a work-study program. “Our resident students are not our employees. We view this as an educational program and treat it as such,” Hagen says.
Hagen, a former instructor at the International Equestrian Center at Morven Park in Leesburg, Virginia, emphasizes the importance of knowing your state’s individual workers’ compensation laws, which provide money and medical benefits to an employee who has an injury as a result of an accident or who becomes ill due to job-related disease. Workers’ compensation is intended to benefit the employee and employer alike. The employee receives money (usually on a weekly or biweekly basis) and medical benefits in exchange for forfeiting the common law right to sue the employer. The employer benefits by receiving immunity from court actions against them by the employee in exchange for accepting liability that is limited and determined. “Each state is different and there is a very fine line between what defines a full-time employee and a working student,” she says.
Hagen requires each resident student to carry their own medical insurance and sign a very detailed release holding she, her business and her permanent employees harmless in the event of an accident, whether it occurs while riding or during another activity on the farm.
Professional trainers can further protect themselves through purchasing riding instructor/trainer insurance policies, which are available through most major agricultural insurance providers. These policies protect the instructor should an accident occur while teaching a lesson.
We suggest you check with your attorney for any laws governing working students in your state.