So, you’ve made up your mind to take the plunge and become a working student. You want to become a better dressage rider and maybe even have your own training business someday. You scan job postings for working student positions and you discover some promising ones. They include typical barn duties, horse care, riding opportunities, housing and even regular lessons.
You begin to daydream about working with world class dressage horses and how much fun it will be. Then, someone shatters your fantasy by sharing working student horror stories and suddenly you begin to doubt your decision. Don’t let this deter you! Being a working student is a great way to become a better dressage rider, and it does not have to be a bad experience!
1. Choosing the Right Mentor is Vital
Finding the right trainer to work for and learn from is by far the most important decision you can make. This person will be more than your employer, they’ll be a mentor. You’ll be spending countless hours working for this person, so make sure you do your research before accepting the job.
Check out their website and social media accounts. Who taught them and how long have they been training professionally? Ask people in the local dressage community for their opinions, they may have some helpful insight. Watch videos of their riding to see if you like their style. If they do compete, CenterlineScores.com is a great resource to look up show records of both trainers and their students.
While impressive show records are a plus, we all know that doesn’t always correlate to a rider’s ability to teach. There are some gorgeous riders out there, but ask them how to ride renvers – or better yet, a half halt- and they can’t always verbalize it. That’s perfectly ok because everyone has a different skill set. However, if you are wanting to learn to ride and are working in exchange for lessons, make sure you work for someone who can really teach well!
If possible, try to take at least one lesson with the trainer before committing to a working student position. While it may take a few lessons to adjust to a new trainer, you will get a sense of their teaching style. Another great way to learn more is to shadow the trainer. Visit their farm to observe their teaching and training. Offer to help around the barn and show you’re eager to learn.
This is a great time to get a feel for the
Expectations is Key
Congratulations, you’ve accepted an exciting working student position! Before you start packing, make sure you’ve worked out any gray areas. While working student positions are known to be a catch-all job, try to iron out as many details as reasonably possible.
What exactly are their expectations of you? If you’re starting out only mucking stalls and grooming, will there be opportunities for you to do more in the future? Make sure you have clearly worked out important details like wages, hours, days off, housing and lessons.
“Agreeing on expectations will ensure both parties stay happy in the long run.”
Humbly let them know what your goals are. If they know what your aspirations are, they may be able to provide opportunities for you once you’ve proven yourself. While duties are likely to change, agreeing on expectations will ensure both parties stay happy in the long run. For example, if lessons are your main form of payment, make sure you understand how your lesson hours will accrue.
3. Go Above & Beyond – Always
Let’s face it, there are a ton of beautifully talented dressage riders out there. That means that you’re going to have to do more than ride pretty to stand out. You’re going to have to be the hardest worker your employer has ever had. Want to really make an impression? Have a good attitude and show that you are a team player.
Remember to have fun and always treat everyone with kindness and respect. Look for opportunities to challenge yourself and offer value. If you know how, spend down time massaging and stretching the horses before rides. Offer to bathe the trainer’s dog! Stay late to meet the farrier for the horse that threw a shoe – again. Rack up those brownie points!
“If you prove yourself to be reliable in the small things, you will be entrusted with more.”
Look for ways to improve the lives of the horses and the people around you. If you prove yourself to be reliable in the small things, you will be entrusted with more. During one of my working student jobs, I went from part-time stall cleaner and hand-grazer to managing the barn and training all the horses when the trainer was away.
4. Every Day is a Chance to Improve
Every day as a working student is an
“Every day as a working student is an opportunity to learn something new and to improve your horsemanship.”
You can even ask to sit in on another student’s lesson from time to time or to go with the trainer to a clinic. I was fortunate enough
5. Good Communication is Very Important
It’s not a secret, most horse people are not the best communicators in the world. Most will tell you that they would rather just ride and avoid dealing with people all together. That’s fair, but – NEWSFLASH!!! The horse business is a people business and the professionals who have figured this out are very successful! Observe how your trainer interacts with clients, prospective buyers and other trainers and learn from them.
Many working students have trouble speaking up when they are struggling with something either out of fear of being perceived as weak or “not having what it takes.” If you are unhappy with a situation or feel like you have plateaued, ask your trainer if they have time for a conversation at the end of the day to discuss what’s on your mind.
6. Humility and Gratitude Go a Long Way
No one likes a braggart or a narcissist. Not only is it a character flaw — it’s flat out annoying. You may be an incredible rider or have an amazing resume, but we all know how quickly horses can humble us. It’s always good to stay grounded and grateful for all the horses, trainers and supporters in our lives.
As hard as it is being an opinionated equestrian, only offer your opinion when specifically asked. The trainers that you study under have probably worked their entire lives to build a business and are taking the time to share their knowledge with you. They’ve put in the work, they’ve been where you’re at and they know what it takes. Always remember to be respectful and thank them for every opportunity and lesson that they give you.
7. The Best Friends are Horsey Friends
One of my favorite things about being a working student was the people I met and the friendships I made.There’s nothing like having a friend that you can talk horses with without boring to tears. Not only is it nice to share the same interest, but it’s good to have someone who understands the industry and can be an encouragement when times get tough.
I remember the day I met my friend, Laura, when she came to interview for a working student position at a barn where I was working. We hit it off and ended up working together for over a year and remained friends long after. In fact, she was my maid of honor four years later! Even living hundreds of miles apart, we catch up on each other’s lives without missing a beat, bouncing training ideas off each other, sharing horse ads and of course – reminiscing about the good ol’ working student days!
8. Staying Positive Takes Effort
Being a working student is not a glamorous job. It’s hard, dirty work and there isn’t really anything fancy about it, despite what’s portrayed on Instagram. If you want to get the most out of your time as a working student and make a good impression on the people around you, remember to keep a positive attitude.
Thinking positively and staying focused on the good things in life takes effort and practice. When everything is going right, being positive is not hard. It’s when you’re tired, sunburned, hungry and sick of horse poop and people that you’re going to have to
9. Burning Bridges is Never a Good Idea
In my personal opinion, I believe that the majority of working student positions are not meant to be super long-term situations. Being a working student is an invaluable way to become a better horsewoman, but it is not the most sustainable way to live. It’s meant to prepare you for the next step in your riding career. There are a lot of reasons why working students burn out; it’s a difficult job. But, I believe that even in less than perfect situations, you can learn something – even if it’s what not to do.
The horse world is small and the dressage world is even smaller. There were a
There may come a time when you feel like walking out and never looking back, but burning bridges is never a good idea. If possible, try to handle disagreements before they become a huge problem, and if necessary, make an exit plan. However, if you are in a situation that is abusive or unhealthy, by all
10. No One Can Be Perfect
If you’re like most dressage riders, you’re probably a perfectionist. While we all know that perfection isn’t really attainable, for some reason we still expect it from ourselves. That can result in you putting unnecessary pressure on yourself.
You’re not going to get it right 100% of the time. You’re in a working student position to learn, not to show off how great you are already. When you switch the focus from proving yourself to focusing on learning, you will be able to grow even more.
“You’re in a working student position to learn, not to show off how great you are already.”
Bad rides, disappointing tests and off weeks happen, so don’t beat yourself up about them. Those are all valuable learning moments that will shape you as a rider. As riders, we like to think that we’re in control – especially we dressage riders – but that is rarely the case. There is a lot outside of our control. We are working with living animals after all.
X Halt Salute
As a young rider, I spent many years working for grand prix dressage trainers. In the beginning, I didn’t know what I was doing – I thought I did (as most young riders do). I was very fortunate to work for trainers who gave me incredible opportunities and I owe them a great deal. Still, I wish that I had known some of these tips so I could have gotten even more out of my time as a dressage working student.
So, always do your research, work hard, focus on learning, communicate, stay humble, make friends and remember to have fun! You have what it takes, so set some awesome goals and go chase your dreams!