When I was in college I knew that I wanted to be around horses and I was willing to do almost anything in order to get to ride. Unfortunately, I had a lot of things working against me. I was in college so didn't have the most flexible schedule in the world, my riding skills were really rusty (it had been five years since I had ridden, I had almost zero basic horse care skills (because my barn in Paraguay did not have the riders actually take care of the horses, just ride them), and I had no money to really spend on lessons. And so I decided that the best route for me to take was to work off riding time, or, in other words, become a working student. I am not the ultimate source of knowledge on working student gigs, but I know something and so will share my knowledge here. I have framed my information around a series of questions that I know that I had before becoming a working student; hopefully these questions and answers will be relevant to you!
What is a working student? Working student gigs vary widely in terms of work-load, expectations, benefits of the job, and riding options. The basic concept of a working student is that a person works and in exchange, they get to ride horses and possibly get lessons. Working student jobs seem to differ significantly based on the area that they are located in. I live in Oregon and so there are not many high-level trainers in the area. Due to this, the working student jobs are a lot more casual. I know that on the East Coast, where there are lots of high-level trainers, there are some working student jobs that are almost like full-time jobs and can involve housing and board for horses. If you are serious about wanting to become a working student, then it is vital that you do some research into what equestrian community surrounds you in order to be able to evaluate your options in an informed way.
What do I need to become a working student? In order to be a working student you really just need to have a good personality and work ethic. You may or may not need to have experience with horses, but you do need to be willing to learn, willing to work hard, and willing to become a part of a barn community. In order to get a job, you will probably need to compile a list of barns & trainers in your area (in order to look for a job) and you will need a resume. Even if you have no experience with horses, having a resume that highlights your best attributes and skills shows trainers that you are serious about wanting to become a working student. You might have an interview before you get a working student job, so it is also important to have proper attire (this will vary based on the barn and type of riding, but the two basics are boots and a helmet).
How do I find a working student gig? Once you have collected all of your research and prepared your resume, then it is time to start reaching out. The first working student gig I got was through word-of-mouth and mutual friends. For that reason, if you have any friends or family who are a part of an equestrian community, ask them to spread the word that you are looking for a working student job. You never know what might pop up. I got my second working student job by sending an inquiry e-mail to every single barn I was interested in. Basically, my e-mail just gave basic information about me, explained what I was looking for, thanked them for their time, and had my resume attached. I heard back from two different barns and went out in person to meet with the main trainer. I went with the barn that best fit with what I wanted. Not every barn has an e-mail address, so another option could be calling barns to ask around. This process will take time, so don't freak out if you don't hear back from people right away. I spent a month looking before I got my first working student job, and the second job I looked for two weeks. If you really think that it is not going to work out then consider building your knowledge and skill set. Find an equestrian organization to volunteer at in order to learn more about horse care. Maybe take some lessons to build your riding competence (the benefit of this is that you could potentially get a working student job at the barn you take lessons at). Then add those things to your resume and try again. Be patient!
What do I do if I am nervous about reaching out to barns/trainers about a working student job? The best thing I can say in response to this is that being able to pursue your passion is worth a little discomfort. The worst thing that could happen is that you get rejected for a job or ignored. But if that happens, then don't feel defeated, there are always more barns and more trainers you can talk to. The best thing that could happen is that you get a working student job at a barn that you love. I am an anxious person and it was definitely uncomfortable to put myself out there in order to try to find a working student job, but it was completely worth it in the end.
Once I have a working student job, what do I do? Among the things that you should do as a new working students are: make sure you have the proper equipment (again, proper boots and a helmet), learn about your new duties (what are you doing, how should you be doing it, what is your schedule), and get to know your new barn climate (who are the people, who are the animals, how do lessons work, etc). Ask any and all of your questions, because it is better to ask a perhaps silly question than to do something incorrectly. The most important thing is to take your new job seriously. Always show up when you say you are going to, work hard, and just be a good staff member. I often see people get the opportunity to work off lessons and they just don't take it seriously. They call in "sick" the day that they are supposed to be cleaning the barn or they just don't do a good job when they do show up. It is easy to think that an unpaid job is a joke or that it matters less than a paid job, but a little professionalism goes a long way. When I first started working at my current barn, I was the lowest ranking worker. I had to scramble to get any shifts and I was often passed up if someone with more seniority wanted to do the work, BUT I always showed up and I always worked hard, and so after a few months I had top rank and so had my pick of the schedules and the duties. Your trainer will appreciate your hard work, and they will give more opportunities to those who try and are always there.
Is a working student job hard work? Yes. No getting around this. Working student often do a lot of physical labor (think shoveling horse manure, wheeling wheelbarrows, sweeping aisles, free lunging horses, etc. You have to show up whether it is 100 degrees or freezing cold and rainy. You will also have to work long hours at times. I have been at the barn for 10 hours straight before. I am often there earlier than the boarders come out and stay after it gets dark. Sometimes this can feel like the worst thing ever, but when you think about the fact that so few people are actually able to work with and be around horses, I think that it is totally worth it.
What is the most important thing to remember as a working student? Take the "student" part of your role very seriously. Try to learn everything you can about everything related to horses. Ask questions if you don't know something. Watch other people's lessons (you can learn a lot from this). Get to know the boarders at your barn and ask them about horse ownership. If the farrier or vet comes out watch them do their job (but don't get in the way!). Volunteer to do as many things as you can, because you can only learn skills from practicing them. If you are able to ride, ride as many horses as possible. Take as many lessons as you can. I learned so much from being a working student and I grew so much as a horse enthusiast and a rider.
How do I know when to move on from a working student gig? At some point, you may come to realize that a working student job is just not working out for you. This could be due to many different reasons. I have worked at two barns, and the reason that I left the first barn is that I really just outgrew it. It was a tiny barn and I so appreciate the opportunity that I had to work there, but I had limited options for horses to ride, I wasn't able to take lessons there, it was a far commute for me, and I wasn't able to get the specific higher-level training that I really wanted. The decision to switch to a different barn was difficult, mostly because I had such an emotional connection to my first barn and the people there, but it was the best decision for me. When moving on from a barn it is important to remember to be kind and considerate to the people that you are leaving. I told the barn owner in advance that I was going to be looking at other barns, I told her how much I appreciated her, and I have kept in contact with her. Equestrian communities are tiny and so burnt bridges can really hurt you later in your equestrian career. Although it is hard to leave a barn, if you feel in your gut that you are not getting what you need from your working student job, then you should leave it. Staying in a situation that is not right for you is just a waste of your time and energy and can burn out your passion (something none of us want to happen).
Being a working student is hard work, no joke, but it is so rewarding. Getting a working student job was the only way that I was able to be around horses while I was in college and it gave me some of the best experiences of my life. If you have any questions that I did not address, please ask them in the comments and I will respond! If anyone else was a working student and has relevant information to provide, please leave that in the comments as well.