Where Did The Workers Go? Rethinking Hiring In The Equestrian WorldSep 08, 2022
Every day, I talk to equestrian entrepreneurs who tell me things aren’t working in their business for one big reason: staffing woes. They struggle to find employees who can work independently and be relied on to show up. Higher pay might help, but their profit margin doesn’t allow them to pay more.
These difficulties in finding, hiring, and keeping good staff aren’t exclusive to the horse world. Right now, industries across North America are grappling with the same problems that equine businesses and entrepreneurs face. Employers can’t find good employees, and employees can’t find good employers. Both sides of the equation feel stuck, frustrated, and taken advantage of.
Equestrian employers ask me: where did the workers go? The horse world used to be filled with people who would work from sunrise to sunset for little to no pay just to be around horses. As a teenager and young adult, I was one of those people. If I wasn’t at school, I was either at my part-time job or at the barn working off board and lessons.
But the world has changed. Today, people are seeking sustainable, fulfilling jobs that provide them with a living wage and work-life balance. The horse world’s traditional triple whammy of low pay, long hours and intense physical labor has become a sacrifice many aren’t willing to make for the sake of being near horses. Employees today are simply not willing to work themselves into the dirt for someone else's dream.
Instead of pointing fingers at the employees or the employers, we need to be willing to have conversations without ego. Employers aren’t withholding increased wages because they’re greedy — it’s normally because they can’t afford it. Employees aren’t lacking work ethic — they are burnt out and undervalued.
As both a bookkeeper and business analyst, I have some suggestions for best practices to incorporate into hiring to begin to shift this paradigm. These aren’t guaranteed to solve the problem entirely, but they are a starting point that anyone hiring in the horse world should keep in mind.
Sign Employment Contracts
The horse industry has always been a bit behind the times compared to other industries. Many employees are still paid under the table, so it’s no wonder that employment contracts are often non-existent. But if you’re hiring an employee without a contract, neither party in the relationship is being set up for success.
Employment contracts communicate your expectations as a business to the worker. They also demonstrate that you, as the employer, have a formal structure for your business and employees. (Take yourself seriously, and others will take you seriously, too.) Plus, it covers your rear should things go sideways.
Clarify Payroll Processes
Communicate to your employees the process by which they will receive their wages and outline this in your employment contract. A consistent and streamlined payroll process brings security to your employees, and they don’t have to wonder when (or if!) they are being paid for their efforts.
Be sure to get all payroll information at the very beginning of a worker’s tenure with you — that very first morning, if you can. As a bookkeeper, there is nothing worse than running payroll for a company only to have a straggler message a week later that they are just now being told about payroll and are submitting their hours.
And please, make your payroll legal and above-board. Paying employees under the table does not help your business or your employees.
Focus On Morale
As employers, you want employees who are invested in your business. That means you’re going to have to invest in your employees, too. If an employee feels valued and supported, their work will reflect that.
Raising wages is a great way to invest in your staff. But if you’ve run the numbers and you cannot pay your employees more per hour, look into other ways you can support them. Maybe you can give them free lessons a certain number of times a week, or offer discounts to clinics held at your facility. And never underestimate the importance of asking them for their input, their ideas, or where they need more support. When in doubt, a gesture such as new brooms or wheelbarrows will not go unnoticed. Proper equipment in working order makes the job less strenuous.
These are only three examples of areas of improvement employers can make to bring the workers out of hiding. They’re working in other industries, ones they might leave if they felt the benefits of working with horses outweighed the cost.
The horse industry feels like it’s at a crossroads right now. Employees need better pay and conditions, but many barns are barely making enough to scrape by, much less raise pay. No one wins here, especially not the horses. The industry needs us to move away from the hobbyist approach of running barns to create stable, profitable businesses where employers and employees alike can thrive.
Written by Christa Myers exclusively for On Course Equestrian.
Christa Myers is a professional bookkeeper specializing in the equestrian space. and an On Course Equestrian instructor teaching courses on financial management, bookkeeping, budgeting, QuickBooks, pricing strategy, and more.
You can connect with Christa at https://christamyers.com
Cover photo by Farm & Fir Co.