Education or Exploitation? The Alarming Financial Realities of Grooms and Working Students

by Tilly Berendt /

Published on

T

he path to becoming a top-level competition groom is a familiar one, with the best roles hard-won through working student positions. But are these roles an invaluable education — or just exploitation?

It’s a tale as old as time: the plucky young equestrian leaves home, with horse in tow and a pittance in the bank, to work under their idol and develop from an enthusiast to a professional. Sometimes, the end result is a career as a rider. More often, the goal is to become head groom, traveling around the world in pursuit of glory as an essential cog in the machine. But for every story of success and symbiosis, there are countless more of endless hours, vanishing pay checks, and unclear career progression.

It’s within that murky delineation between working student and groom that the waters get muddied. In theory, at least, the difference should be clear: a working student is effectively an apprentice, whose primary aim is to build their skillset and gain valuable experience. Working for a top rider is the equestrian’s equivalent of undertaking a college degree — or, more often, an unpaid internship. A groom or, indeed, a second rider, has been through this process and, armed with sufficient experience to be left unsupervised and with significant responsibilities, they’re a senior member of the team and a crucial part of the long-term infrastructure.

Simple, right? Not so much. What happens when the groom has a horse of their own and wants to train and compete? How is the gap bridged when a fast-learning working student starts to spend more time on the road helping their employer at international competitions? And how, exactly, are the thorny issues of accommodation, sick pay, and employee insurance dealt with?

The Good, the Bad, and the Unlawful

“I started working for my employer as a working student,” Sarah* recalls, “but when I was offered the position, I was told that there would be no housing included, which is unheard of. Six months later, I was asked if I wanted to step up into the head groom’s job.”

Sarah was working for a leading U.S. event rider, with whom she was able to keep her own competition horse. But if the line between responsibility and benefit was blurred when she was a working student, they were only to get less clear as she took over the head groom mantel.

Sarah’s responsibilities included all the ordinary stable duties for up to 10 horses, arena maintenance, national and international competition grooming, sponsor liaisons, hay, feed, and bedding orders, and, of course, riding. Her remittance for her work, which included six days of indeterminate length per week, was about $352 every two weeks after taxes. For 10 months, Sarah would undertake all these duties alone as she and her employer searched for a suitable working student. Along the way, she began to take on more tasks outside the usual remit.

“I started working with my boss’s accountant on a daily basis, mowing fields, doing taxes, and hauling horses.” As her role began to include more and more personal assistant duties, her obligations on the yard never lessened — and nor did her pay increase.

There were, she admits, “a lot of perks. I was given tack that my boss didn’t need, my horse was living there for free, I was getting lessons for free whenever I wanted, and I was able to get discounts from sponsors, too.”

But free lessons and discounted saddlery doesn’t pay the rent, and so Sarah begged her boss for a pay rise. It was successful: her formerly biweekly paycheck became a weekly one.

Grooming is a legitimate career. Find out why.

“When I started comparing my experience with those of other professional grooms, I realized just how much I was doing for absolutely no money,” she says. “At some point, the labor becomes too much for the bad pay.”

Although Sarah eventually decided to leave her job to focus on her own competitive endeavors, she looks back at the experience as an invaluable part of her professional development. “The education and experience was priceless, and I had an amazing experience. My former boss and I remain great friends, and the job was worth every minute.”

Sarah’s situation certainly isn’t unique, but while she was provided with support and benefits to make up for her meagre pay, other grooms in similar situations have been taken for granted, at best — and exploited, at worst.

Alex* is one such person, and her experiences eventually led her to hang up her grooming hat. These days, she campaigns her own horses alongside working an office job that allows her a predictable — and legal — income. Before that, though, she, like Sarah, worked for a leading U.S. event rider.

“The financial agreement was that I was to work six days a week in exchange for housing and a lesson a week,” she says. “I had to pay for my own horse’s board, and my ‘housing’ often consisted of an air mattress or a bed in a three-season room, rather than a bedroom.”

But where the housing stipulated failed to live up to expectations, Alex was pleasantly surprised by the training: “I often received two to six lessons per week,” she recalls, “and the training I received as a groom was extensive. I was encouraged to learn from some of the best in the business, ask questions, and work with and learn from the vets, too. For a while I was riding 10 horses a day, competing one of the owner’s horses, and traveling as a show groom, too. My days off were consistent, too, for the first six months.”

Get the 411 on how to be a top international groom.

After that, though, they began to fall by the wayside, and when Alex broke several ribs on the job, she wasn’t able to take time off to recuperate. Unlike Sarah, when Alex asked for a stipend to cover some of her bills and food, she was told she “hadn’t paid [her] dues yet.”

“It was made clear I would never get anything more than what I started with, even after two years of solid work, dedication, and loyalty.” Alex’s role, which had clearly shifted from working student to competition groom and second rider, was still only reimbursed with housing and training. She’d picked up an extra responsibility, too: “I was frequently the designated driver, without ever being asked. I’d receive phone calls at 2 a.m. to pick my boss up from the bar or a house party, which was never communicated to me ahead of time and typically happened on a night when I had to work the next morning.”

Alex, like Sarah, eventually left her role — but the experience had soured grooming as a career for her.

The Changing Tides of the Industry

Over the last few years, the working student concept as an employment model has found itself under fire. Traditionally, a working student provides labor in exchange for training, board, and accommodation, with some employers offering a small, token subsidy or offering extra work — clipping, braiding, or extra care for liveries (boarding) — for a nominal sum. Otherwise, there’s no real income stream — and thus, no paper trail, no tax or National Insurance payments, and often, no formalized insurance in case of injury or disability. In many cases, the training promised also isn’t forthcoming — nor is this employment model technically legal.

But aspiring grooms and riders are seldom left with much choice: although there are innumerable college courses on offer, ostensibly designed to cover all the bases for successful stable management, few employers look for these on a potential employee’s resume. In fact, many actively shy away from ‘qualified’ grooms, arguing that horsemanship can only be learned from practical experience. The flip side of this is that entry-level employees in search of this experience are ordinarily considered a considerable, but necessary, time investment, rather than an asset in and of themselves.

“Most working pupils have to be taught, or at least supervised through, the most basic tasks,” says one leading British rider, who relies on a small team of working students and temporary work-experience staff, led by a long-term head girl, to keep his business afloat. “It’s so necessary to strike a balance. We’d love to have a team of experienced, qualified employees — but balancing the books in equestrian sport is almost impossible as it is. Paying multiple full salaries would sink the boat — and in the case of working pupils, who are generally being trained in a variety of ways throughout the day, it just isn’t practical or sensible.”

What it's really like to be a working student at Heritage Farm.

In the United Kingdom, employment law states that an employee has the right to a full wage, sick pay, and annual leave. Training fees can be docked from the contracted salary, but they must be invoiced properly — in other words, there needs to be a clear and consistent link between the worth of the work provided and the training received.

When accommodation and utility bills are factored in, the issue becomes even thornier, as an employer can legally apply accommodation offset rates and satisfy the national minimum wage — if the employee is under 25 — or the national living wage, if they’re 25 or older. Those offset rates are surprisingly low — they top out at £7.55 per day or £52.85 per week.

But how does that add up in real world terms? Let’s say that you’re British, 22 years old and heading, with horse in tow, to work for an Olympian. Once you’re there, you’ll be provided with a bedroom in a shared cottage, in which you’ll be supplied with broadband, satellite television, heat, electricity, and water. You’ll work five-and-a-half days a week, and although your average day will begin at 7:00 a.m. and conclude at 5:00 p.m., you’ve committed to the role knowing that some days will be considerably longer. As a benchmark, though, and with an hour-long lunch break factored in, you’ll work an average of 49.5 hours per week. You’ll also benefit from three lessons per week with the Olympian, and your horse’s board will be provided. How much would you have to be paid for the situation to be legal?

The U.K. National Minimum Wage for the role would stipulate a weekly wage of £417.72 — a vast sum by industry standards. But some more unscrupulous employers can fiddle with the numbers on your pay packet, turning what has been classified as ‘free training’ into something that you’re paying for without realizing it. Deduct the cost of those three lessons — which could be worth £75 a pop to an external client, but which we’ll assume your new employer charges you a discounted rate of £50 — your weekly wage suddenly drops to £267.72. The value of that ‘free’ bedroom might then be leveraged against what’s left in your pocket at the end of the week. Find yourself in the clutches of a particularly savvy — or stingy — employer, and you could lose out on even more in livery rates, offset against your pay packet and invoiced with your lessons. And that’s all pre-taxes.

£7.70 per hour x 40 hours + 9.5 hours overtime = £417.72

In the U.S., your rights as an employee may vary depending on the state in which you live, but under Federal legislation, the number of hours you work each week is crucially important. Unless you’re classified as an exempt employee, you must be paid your state’s minimum wage — at least — and you’re eligible for overtime pay, too. This works out at one-and-a-half times your ordinary rate of pay for any hours worked over 40 per week.

Chances are, you should be classed as non-exempt. An exempt employee must earn a salary of at least $455 per week and fall into one of three primary categories. For an administrative exemption, they must fulfill a high-level office-based role in which they take responsibility for major decisions within the business — for example, a salaried office manager who not only processes entries and feed, hay, and bedding orders, but makes accounting judgment calls and takes control of financial decisions and taxes. Or, the employee might be given an executive exemption. Again, they must meet the minimum salary requirements, and in this case, they’d need to be in a management type of role, with at least two employees under their direction and with the power to hire or fire staff. A head groom could qualify for this exemption; in Sarah’s case, she didn’t because she often found herself in sole charge and, at most, had one working pupil to manage. As such, she was legally owed overtime pay for each hour over 40 per week. The third — a professional exemption — requires the employee to possess a learned skill, and is ordinarily granted to engineers, scientists, teachers, and so on.

Following the Money

While it’s true that wages can vary widely between disciplines and, indeed, between countries, this tends to be indicative of a general lack of regulation across the industry. But when considering wage differences, it’s important to also consider the relative costs of keeping horses in each country — employer income inarguably has an enormous impact on staff salaries.

AA circuit grooms may enjoy some of the best wage packets in the industry, but this is coupled with working on what is perhaps the most expensive circuit around. A week of showing at the Winter Equestrian Festival (WEF) in Wellington, Florida, can cost four figures — for riders competing in FEI classes, like the festival’s CSI5* finale, the nomination, entry, and stall fees total nearly $2,000. When these top riders are also looking after fee-paying clients, the potential income is staggering. Though the fees charged can vary widely from barn to barn, an owner can expect to pay around $4,000 per horse per month when based at the home facility on full-service and full-training livery.

AA circuit grooms report average wages of $400-$600 per week.

On the road, the fees become astronomical: many top AA circuit stables charge upwards of $125 per day for basic board and care, with feed, bedding, and staff expenses charged on top of this. Then, of course, there’s the additional expense of braiding, which is often outsourced for sums of $100 or more. At long-term ‘away’ shows like WEF, board is charged in weekly or monthly rates, and industry practice is to assume that winter circuit prices will be double — or even triple — the home fees. When the boss is cashing in invoices of $10,000 or more per horse each month, it stands to reason that the grooms who keep the ship afloat should profit handsomely, too. And they can, certainly — if your definition of profiting handsomely is relative, of course.

Industry grooms report average wages of $400-$600 per week, or a minimum wage of $100 per day or $50 per head per day. Then, there are the tips — more, usually, if the client has had a good day’s showing. Hotel rooms are covered, food is usually paid for — either on a tab or by a lump sum of cash at the start of the week — and there are always ways to pocket a little extra on the side, especially if the groom in question is a dab hand at braiding and doesn’t mind an early start. But days off? Often non-existent during the circuit, or cashed in once the barn moves north in the spring. Set hours? Laughable. 

Beating the System

If employee wages and benefits in the equine industry at large seem like a free-for-all, there’s a good reason for it. Many employers opt not to put their employees through the books, instead paying even full-time members of staff as though they’re freelancers. All too often, these members of staff don’t realize that they’re effectively being paid cash-in-hand, which means that income taxes and social security go unpaid. It ordinarily means, too, that the employee is uninsured, putting them at enormous risk in the case of a debilitating injury.

But how can an aspiring career groom ensure they receive the highest standard of training, while protecting themselves and their right to a fair income?

Joining a union or similar organization is a great first step. The British Grooms Association (BGA) is one such option, and although it mirrors the model of a professional body more than that of a union, the BGA works tirelessly to try to educate its members on their rights. But though comparisons have been made between the BGA and the National Association of Racing Staff and its international equivalents, the organization is quick to point out that the difference in the industry it serves is the amount of government support offered. In racing, with its huge stakes and clear links to the heavily regulated gambling industry, grooms are offered progressive and legal pathways into the industry. Once they attain professional status, they’re afforded the same rights as an employee in a ‘mainstream’ industry.

In the wider equestrian industry, though, it’s far easier for workers to slip through the cracks. A survey carried out by the BGA suggested that 56% of its members didn’t have any form of contract with their employer, and 70% had never received any overtime, despite working an average of 49 hours per week. 55% of those who identified as working pupils didn’t receive any training.

56% of BGA members have no contract with their employer
70% of BGA members have never received overtime pay
55% of BGA members who are working pupils received no training

The BGA’s director, Lucy Katan, said: “Unfortunately, these results come as no surprise to us; the current situation is clearly untenable. We clearly need to offer further education to both grooms and employers. We simply cannot ignore and tolerate these illegal working conditions, and with this evidence, the industry must make the changes it needs to in order to modernize. Improved employment conditions for grooms will have a positive impact on the industry as a whole and are very long overdue.”

Though the BGA currently only serves British grooms, efforts are being made to establish similar organizations in other countries. For a better regulated early education, there are apprenticeship programs on offer, which pair a placement on a professional yard with a diploma system run by a scheme or college, allowing aspiring grooms to receive hands-on training without the risk of being exploited. Though Britain leads the charge in the fight for change, all isn’t lost for those in other countries: prospective employees need only know their rights, and insist upon them, for a positive change to start to slowly spread throughout the industry.

*All names have been changed to protect the anonymity of the grooms and their employers.

The information provided in this article is for informational purposes only and should not be considered legal advice.

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Photography by Sophie Harris/SEH Photography for NoelleFloyd.com.

Written by Tilly Berendt

Fueled by caffeine and an insatiable appetite for adventure, freelance writer and photographer Tilly Berendt loves nothing more than a life lived on the road — particularly if that road leads to a three-day event. Based just south of London, she's on a mission to see the world — or every part of the world that has horses, at least. When she's not sprinting around cross-country courses with her camera and a dictaphone held aloft, Tilly can be found tackling them herself with her beloved mare, the ineffable Arabella.