Do we respect our stable staff asks Nicholas O’Hare
Working with horses has traditionally been a low pay economy. Things have changed to some extent in recent years. The sheer shortage of staff has driven wages up and in the case of riding schools in particular, operators have been able to charge fees for treks and lessons which more adequately reflect the costs involved in running such an enterprise.
There is no doubt, however, that any young people after the first flush of teenage enthusiasm has been spent, turn away from working with horses as a preferred option. The hours are long, the work is largely repetitive, and the conditions are often such as would not be tolerated in another form of employment.
The fact that so many young people are disillusioned is reflected in the large numbers of foreign nationals to be found in our yards. Even the racing industry which has structured pay rates and negotiated working conditions now employs many hundreds of young immigrants. They will not perhaps get very far in the pecking order there. The breakthrough rate even for jockeys is small. Only the most talented actually get to ride on the track. But the racing sector is a better place to be in terms of pay and conditions than the private sport horse yard or the riding school or trekking centre.
One of the reasons for this is that there is a Stable Staff Association that has plenty of clout when it comes to talking turkey with the employers. There is also a formal educational structure through RACE which gives young people a start to their careers. We have no real qualification structure for people taking ordinary jobs in ordinary yards. There are, of course, the BHS qualifications and the ICES, but these are targeted at middle-class students with higher employment ambitions than becoming grooms or stable workers.
The BHSAI qualification is popular but most of the young people who pass the exam don’t in fact go to work in yards. It has a social cachet to some extent and offers very little as far as the employer is concerned apart from filling out a line on the insurance applications. Seventeen or eighteen year olds may be able to put letters after their names but they all too often lack the kind of experience that makes them really valuable employees.
Riding centres are probably the worst offenders when it comes to low pay scales. The traditional argument, of course, was that the profits just weren’t there. Yards relied on local voluntary labour, mainly youngsters coming round after school hours, and unashamedly exploited them. That day is over, or it should be. Young volunteers should be given at the very least payment in kind for their services. Rides, lessons, outside of yard experiences, all should come into their remuneration even if there is no actual cash payment.
We need people to work in the industry, but if they are going to do so, then they must be properly paid. There is no excuse, in these good times, for paying mediocre wages, and as many employers do, deliberately circumventing the minimum wage legislation. The tax people are taking an interest in the riding school industry. The social welfare people are on the march. The time has come for serious self regulation and the introduction of proper standards for employees.
The staff situation will only get worse for yard operators. People now expect a fair return for their working week. Young people want money in their hands and will not be content to work for a pittance when there are better options in other walks of life. But the industry needs practical qualifications to build up a long term labour force. Fancy certificates, no matter how well crafted and intentioned, will do little or nothing to keep a workforce in training if workers see no light at the end of the tunnel. No improvement in wages, no qualification ladder on which they can aspire to earn an acceptable standard of living.
No one denies that horses are a difficult game, particularly in the commercial sector. Profit is not easily earned, but every enterprise of any kind of reasonable size depends on its workforce. Customers are more discerning now, a factor which has come into play with the fall off in tourism revenue. They expect to meet up with staff who know their business, have an interest in their work, and will ensure their safety. Such staff must be happy about what they do, have a long term interest and should earn a proper wage.
No one objects to employers demanding qualified help. The problem is that the avenues for meaningful qualification in the ordinary course of stable work are just not there. The industry is at fault for this situation. It has not paid sufficient attention to the necessity, the vital necessity, of providing career structures for the people it employs. One of the reasons for this is that it does not really respect its workforce. Mucking out stables, brushing down horses or leading beginner riders on a lesson, may not rate very highly on the normal productivity scale, but these are essential tasks in a riding school. Operators would be nowhere if there were not people to do these things.
Private and competition yards too must recognise that staff have to be adequately paid and that there must be a career path in front of them. There is a difference between the young person who goes to a competition rider to learn the business and study with a master, and the worker in the yard whose routine keeps everything going and is just as indispensable as the fee paying pupil. Every competition rider knows the value of a good groom who will not only turn out his horses to perfection but will work ride them and ensure that they are sound and adequately fed. Such people are worth every penny they earn, but the ordinary Joe should not be forgotten.
One of the reasons for the constant drift of workers out of the industry is perhaps the fact that they have no voice. Racing has its stable staff organisation, and in Britain, there is a Grooms Association which has nearly 1,000 members. Perhaps such a body is needed here. Employers need to be straightened up a little. Standards need to be improved at all levels in the Irish horse industry. The calibre of stable staff is a vital part of a successful horse economy. Employers would have fewer headaches if there was a career structure in place, and young people were attracted to the industry and were happy to stay there because they were being offered the right conditions.