I was reading a back copy of Horse and Rider last week and there was an article about careers in the equine industry.
I was shocked, if I`m honest, and I don`t know who to blame. Let me explain.
There were a variety of people interviewed about their jobs; a saddler, dental technician, riding school instructor, veterinary nurse, head girl at a race yard, equine insurance advisor, and physiotherapist. All of those interviewed got up in the early hours to do their horses before work (except for the insurance advisor, who got up to commute to London) and they all worked long hours, six days a week, and most of the self employed did paperwork right into the evening.
I`m a self confessed workaholic, but I don`t know how these people keep it up – they deserve a medal! Whilst I want to make a success of my career and earn enough money to have a good standard of living, I am also acutely aware of the fact I need a non-horse balance in my life. My Dad ran his own garden machinery shop, that was open five and a half days a week, but that was usually six days a week plus the over time. It put a strain on our family – going on holiday was a logistical nightmare, my brother and I used to do two or three hours of work at the shop each evening after school, and later in the evening we were often called upon to hold a “pin in place” so the mower deck could be fitted. If we were being collected from a friends then the journey inevitably involved a detour to deliver someone`s repaired ride-on lawn mower. I`m not complaining; but the business controlled our lives and my parents worked incredibly hard for it, which meant they could give us the best opportunities. But money doesn`t pay for your Dad to go to Awards Evening, and I think both my brother and I were aware of that when we saw our friends with their parents as a set.
Although I`m pretty sure I would have been so embarrassed by my parents at school I`d have banned them after the first outing …
Anyway, because of this experience, I`m really conscious of having at least one day at the weekend when I don`t ride, and I just do the minimum chores for the horses, and don`t spend all morning gossiping at the yard. I go home, I spend time with family and friends, I tidy the house, I weed the flower beds, I read a book, and ultimately try to forget about horses and work. You may have noticed that there tends to be a gap in my blog over the weekends. I like to think that this makes me a more rounded individual, and means I put more effort into my work during the week because I`ve had that little bit of time off.
This brings me back to the interviews I was reading in the magazine. It made me wonder how these professionals managed to have a healthy social life (I don`t mean partying every weekend, I`m talking about seeing a variety of people and keeping in touch with family and friends), and how do they keep in touch with the rest of the world when they`re so shattered after work they fall into bed? It`s a standing joke that horsey people don`t know who the Prime Minister is, or that they haven`t heard about the recent terrorist attacks. It`s sad, really. I love knowledge and learning, so I hate the thought that I could be ignorant to wider society, yet I know I don`t have half the general knowledge that my younger brother has because he has more, but less demanding hobbies, so networks around a larger spider web.
These people interviewed must be in a similar situation to my family as I grew up, being very busy and life revolving around work, which puts pressure on your children and relationships, without you really noticing, and then the individual becomes isolated in their frantic world, and doesn`t realise because they are so busy to-ing and fro-ing until it is too late, and they are alone. Which is a scary thought, and one I`d hate to find myself in.
This brings me round to why. Why do they need to work such long hours?
Finances are the first thing to pop into my head; I find people seem to want something for nothing, and we in the industry and constantly made to feel like we should lower our prices to attract more customers, when really we should stick to our guns and have fewer customers but make the same amount of money. I had a prime example the other week; a client asked if I could look after her horses while she was away. She has two. I said that I would be happy to, although I don`t offer it on my website or adverts, as I`d rather attract lessons and exercising. She asked how much to feed the two of them and poo pick the field, taking about half an hour. I quoted ten pounds, and she looked at me incredulously.
I went away feeling very pricey, but in my head it wasn`t enough. A ten minute drive to the yard, half an hour to feed and poo pick, and ten minutes home. I would have to allow an hour of my day for this job. Ten pounds to a self-employed person is not very much when you consider the cost of fuel and running the car. I ended up shrugging my shoulders, I didn`t need the job, and I certainly wasn`t doing it for less.
She hasn`t asked me to look after the horses while she`s away.
This instance made me think about how people wants something for nothing, and forget about the quality of the service provided, and the aftercare of them as a client (for example, getting that text from me to say how the schooling session was today, or that I noticed a minute cut on the left hind). I`m lucky, I feel my clients find my rates reasonable; they cover my costs, and I know I`m generous with my time; and clients and their horses are in safe hands. But with the public driving down costs everywhere lowers standards of living, and increases the duration of the working day, and encourages a substandard service, which then reflects badly on the industry.
I was talking to a friend last week who told me about a young girl she knew working her way up the equine industry`s steep ladder. This girl was offered great opportunities in her job, in terms of riding lovely horses, going to big competitions. But it came at a price. When you broke down her earnings and her daily working hours including overtime, she was on the hourly rate of a mere one pound an hour. Now, this is an extreme case, but people like her can never improve their expectations from life. You can`t save to go on holiday, you can`t move into your own accommodation, you can`t afford to live, ultimately. Surely it`s time that employers woke up and started paying proper wages to those on the first rung of the ladder, giving them sensible working hours, not exploiting their willingness to stay up all night with the colic case (yes, get them to care for the horse as your priority, but then spoil them with an extra day off or take them out for dinner). If those at the bottom started to be paid more and treated better then they would have more incentive to do a good job, and would be happier in the working environment, which will cause the horses to be happier and healthier and this cheer would move up through the ranks to the yard managers and other professionals.
Another factor that encourages you to overload yourself is that, ultimately, we are a leisure industry, which means that horse owners want our services on weekends. Which is fine, but it`s so important to remember to give yourself time off during the week in lieu, so you can recover physically. I think sometimes the public are at fault too; if you book a dentist appointment for yourself you expect to take time off work, well how about applying the same to your horse`s appointments? Work from home on the day the farrier is due, or take a half day holiday for the dentist. Either way, I think horse owners can do a bit more to help those in the industry have their weekends. But then those in the industry should balance themselves too. The first riding school I worked at had a policy that each member of staff must work one weekend day, be it Saturday or Sunday. This meant everything was fair, and the staff had one day off that the rest of the family had off. I`ve seen other riding schools insist that staff work both weekend days. To me, that`s unhealthy. You can`t spend quality time with partners who work Monday to Friday, you are limited to social events you can attend, like weddings, and it means you become isolated have strained, or absent, relationships. Employers should want their employees to work to the best of their potential, which can only really be reached by them having a healthy work-life balance, and this can be encouraged by having a weekend day off. As a self-employed person I`m lucky enough that I`ve managed to do all my teaching after school, so I have free weekends at the moment so I can spend time with family or compete and enjoy my horses. If I do teach at the weekend, for a pony club rally, for example, I will try to give myself a half day off during the week. Self employed people, who need to work one weekend day should make an effort to give themselves a day off in the week, not lengthen their working week to six days, as in the long run it is unsustainable. In the winter I will move over to teaching on a Saturday morning, but I will work out which day in the week to have off, so I can still do my jobs and mentally rest myself, leaving Sundays to see non-horsey people.
Then we come to the question of long hours. We, in the equine industry, are exploited. Yes, we love our horses and care for all of the ones we work with, but ultimately we cannot work all hours of the day. I have another example of this. I was booking in a new client for a morning, weekday lesson, and said my first slot was 10am. She was surprised. I explained that I worked the yard before hand, and 10 meant it wasn`t too early a start. “Not an early riser?” She asked. This got my back up. Yes, I am an early riser, hence why I rode Otis at 6am every day last week before the sun got too hot. However, my working day starts when I get onto the yard, so if I have a 10am lesson, my working day starts at 8am, regardless of whether I`ve ridden my horses before. If I teach after school, then my working day finishes at 6.30pm. For those who work the office hours, it may seem that I am not around the yard at the same time as them (before 8am and after 6pm), but they are doing their horses before and after work; I`m actually at work and their are doing their hobby.
With that little rant out the way, I can get back on track. Just because we are usually early risers does not mean that we should be expected to be around the yards at all times of day and night. Again, this goes back to the individual monitoring their working day. I split mine into two shifts if possible; today I worked early so I could be home by twelve, and will be going back out at four to teach this evening. Obviously this isn`t possible every day of the week, but giving yourself a couple of siestas a week can really help you feel like you have a better balance on life`s weighing scales and you have chance to pop to the shops or catch up on the cleaning. I sometimes think that horse owners should consider our working day a little more, especially when booking appointments – it`s a two way thing, does the timing work for you, the client, and does it also work with the professional.
Standing my ground is something I find quite difficult; I will always do my best to fit in my clients, and to fit around them, but I have learnt that sometimes you just have to say “sorry I can`t do Wednesday, what other day can you do?” and very often they offer a different day, and everyone is happy.
I think I`ve had my say for the day. It`s really important, in any career, to make sure that work doesn`t consume every aspect of your life, and that you can still spend time with those important to you, and I think the equine industry is one of the biggest culprits for exploiting the willingness of professionals to bend over backwards, but also for the professionals to get carried away with their love of all things horsey and work themselves to the bone, and forget to see the world and learn new things.