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Ten Questions to Ask Before Taking an Equine Job

Professional horse grooms

And why you might want to consider a paid-trial in some cases.

We’ve all seen the Facebook posts going around for equine jobs: 

  • “No One Wants to Work Anymore”
  • “ISO Full Time Groom; Housing Included and Competitive Salary Based on Experience”
  • “We have a fun and hard-working group with time off opportunities in the off-season”.

What does this all mean, though? For the seasoned pros, we can sniff out when a deal sounds too good to be true; we’ve all seen the language used to bring people in. For some unknown reason, when a horse job doesn’t work out, it is conveniently always because of the employee and their work ethic or level of knowledge, never at the fault of the employer. While I fully believe that both parties are typically responsible, one of the biggest problems with new employees and their employers is a lack of clarity before the job is even accepted.

No one is saying that grooming is a typical 9-5 job. Anyone who wants to work in the horse industry knows that it is going to be long days, the weather is going to be blistering hot or miserably cold. You will work in the rain, in the wind, in the snow, and in the summertime. You’re going to work 6 or 7 days a week, a horse is going to colic at midnight, a shipper is going to show up at 5am, or a storm is going to blow in the minute you get to sleep.

But there are also major qualities in life that need to be respected by an employer, or else we aren’t going to even have the employees passionate about the industry working here much longer.

When employers are looking to hire a new candidate, the job description always paints their program and facility in the best light to get a body in the barn. Just because they lost an employee doesn’t mean that they have any fewer horses, so any hands are better than no hands. I’ve heard that more times than I can count.

If you’re really looking to get into the equine industry, here are some of the biggest questions that I wish I had asked before I took my first job.

1. When you say I will make ‘x’ dollars a week, is this before or after taxes?

Employers love to paint the picture of great pay by saying you will make a certain amount of money a week. Usually, this amount of money sounds like a good deal until you work for a couple of weeks or a month and get your first paycheck which is grossly less than what you thought you were bringing home. While offering you a set amount before taxes isn’t a bad thing, it is just worth understanding up front, especially because this is a big thing when it comes to tax situations later on as well.

W2 or Independent Contractor?

You also need to know if you are going to be receiving a W2 at the end of the year or if you are acting as an independent contractor. That will depend on how you negotiate your salary from the start. If you need to be saving a portion of each paycheck in order to file taxes independently, then you need to be taking home more on the front side. Asking this ahead of time will save a lot of headaches at a later date if you’re hit with a large tax bill you didn’t know you would be receiving.

2. What are my equine job responsibilities?

One would think that this is a given, considering you’re going to work in a barn, but it varies a lot from program to program. Some grooms don’t clean stalls unless they are at a horse show. Many farms will have a farm maintenance employee who drives the tractors, empties manure dumpsters, drags fields, fixes boards, etc. But I have worked in several situations where I have also been that person in addition to being in charge of day-to-day horse care.

There is nothing wrong with having more or fewer responsibilities. If you’re not looking to clean stalls, though, and you just want to groom horses and clean tack, it is best to establish that part of the job description before showing up for day one.

The Chain of Command

What is the chain of command in the barn? Are you coming in as a head groom, and your supervisor is the rider? Is there a barn manager who you work with, but they stay home and run things while you travel? Are you coming in as an assistant? Who is in charge of ordering grain, hay, shavings, and equipment? Who is in charge of scheduling days and time off? These are all questions to ask – and get answers to – before accepting a role.

3. What is the cost of living for the area, and will my salary be equivalent to that?

This is probably the biggest question employers don’t want to answer in my experience. They want to tell you that they are going to pay you a set amount a week, provide your housing, and then call it even. Before taking the job, be sure to do some research on the area where the facility is located before accepting any number.

For instance, horse jobs in a rich environment such as Wellington, Middleburg, or New York are going to need to pay more than jobs located even in Ocala or Aiken, South Carolina. The basic cost of living, down to basics such as gas and groceries, is incredibly different between these geographical areas.

If your employer is going to include your housing in your salary, then make sure it is comfortable. I’ll go over this more in the next question, but make sure you know what the cost of a one-bedroom apartment without roaches is going to be in the area, if the offered employee housing is in good condition, or how much of a stipend you’ll receive to cover the costs of your rent and all living expenses.

4. What is the housing situation, and ask to see pictures or a video walk-through.

If your potential employer tells you that they are going to provide housing for you, ask detailed questions. Some employers have something simple such as a camper on site, which is fine as long as it is large enough to feel like home, provides privacy, and you have good heat and air conditioning. 

Your employer may provide a house for you and other employees. Is this house a multi-bed and bath? Or are you sharing a bathroom with four others? If you’re being hired as a head groom, are you in shared housing with peers or working student-type employees? You have already been a boss at the barn all day long; you don’t need to chase around a bunch of teenagers who don’t wash their dishes or pick up their laundry in your off time as well.

5. What is the horse v. employee ratio?

I’ve found that every horse takes about an hour of care a day. This is basic care – bringing in, feeding, mucking stalls, cleaning and filling water buckets, tacking up, untacking, and bathing or grooming before being returned to their stall. The higher the level a horse is competing, then naturally, the longer and more intensive the care is going to be. If you have a barn with 15-20 FEI horses in it, you can’t have three employees trying to make everything work. You need to have enough barn staff so that the horses can get properly cared for, so as an employer, they need to have realistic expectations of what that care is.

Ask if their horses get shipped to an Aquatred, walk on a treadmill, stand on a theraplate, live inside or outside, do a lot of hacking, etc. These are all time-consuming tasks that one person cannot do alone for safety reasons. If each horse is going to require three hours of handling a day, including mucking and feeding, then the barn needs to be staffed appropriately for those tasks to be completed. The barn also needs to have enough staff so employees can take a day off and the barn and horse care does not suffer because the staff is so short.

6. What is your protocol for when we are short-staffed?

It will happen – the plague will run through the barn, someone will quit unexpectedly, someone will get hurt, or something will happen where you are short-staffed. How does the employer or trainer plan to help with this? Are they going to step up and help muck stalls in the morning before they begin riding? Will a young horse get the day off to lighten the load on the employees?

What is their planning situation when it comes to hiring more staff? If your barn runs on working students, then how far out do your employers plan to start looking for new ones to replace who is there currently? If the kids are going back to school in August, you don’t want to be working for someone who doesn’t even post an ad until August 1. 

7. What is the protocol for holidays and vacations?

Ask how they handle vacation and holiday time. With the season that never ends in the United States, when is considered the off-season? And who is a priority when it comes to vacations? Are you guaranteed a day off a week because your barn is staffed well enough? Are you able to stack days off to build up a week of paid vacation or a long weekend?

When it comes to holidays such as Thanksgiving and Christmas, how many employees are allowed to be gone? Do you pick one or the other? If you are in charge of scheduling these holidays for your staff, how do you make sure that you get time off as well and don’t sacrifice that to take care of your employees. Remember, the rider is responsible for making sure the employees are happy; you are not the sole person responsible for that as a barn manager, trainer, or groom.

8. What is the protocol for pay raises and bonuses?

Ask what their pay increase protocol is. If you stay with them for a year, you should receive a raise. Are they planning to give raises at the beginning of the year? At your work anniversary? Based on performance? Asking these questions upfront paints a clear set of expectations from everyone and holds your employer accountable.

Tips from Clients?

Bonuses are a nice little bit of the job as well. If you’re working in a barn with many clients, ask if those clients are expected to tip for things like body clipping or grooming at a horse show, among other things. Ask how those tips are divided among the grooms at the shows. If your employer wins a big class with a lot of prize money, will you be given something extra? If there is a sale of a top horse in the barn for a significant amount of money, and you were involved in that horse’s day-to-day routine, helped facilitate the sale, etc., are you going to be given a small commission for doing so? All of these small things are best to ask about in the open.

Offer Services on Your Own Time

Another big thing that I’ve found in horse jobs with clients – are you going to be paid for things such as body clipping and cleaning up client’s horses? If you’re doing the work during work hours and using the barn’s clippers or materials, then do you split the money charged to the client? Do you receive 50% of that money? 30%? Are you allowed to offer your services on your own time and with your own materials to make some extra cash from the clients in the barn?

It may not seem like much, but when you find out the barn manager is charging $150 a body clip or more and you’re the one doing all the work, but you can clip 7 horses for the cost of one set of blades, it starts to make you think that you should get paid for the wear and tear on your own body.

9. What are my options for health insurance?

This is probably my biggest point that needs to be asked about. Any other full-time job in the United States is required to provide insurance or pay employees a stipend to go out and get their own health insurance, but the horse industry seems to be behind on this. I don’t understand why because we are in a high-risk career. Your employees need to be covered. And we are also not in this to get rich, so being able to afford health care later on in life is a big thing as well. 

There are many options for health insurance – USEF offers a discount on some plans, and small businesses can run health insurance through organizations if they have more than three employees. Don’t let your boss tell you there aren’t options to have you covered. Anything can happen, and you shouldn’t not be covered because someone doesn’t want to pay you a couple hundred more a month.

10. Why should I work for you?

This one, for me, is a personal one I ask all of my potential employers in interviews. I don’t care if you’ve been to the Olympics or six World Championships and taught every rising star in the world. What am I getting out of this position that someone else can’t offer me? Are you going to allow me to do continuing education clinics and enhance my skill with other top grooms? Am I going to be allowed to attend training sessions and lessons that you attend as a rider? Am I going to get to ride your horses if I am capable? Am I going to have a work-life balance, and will the business be able to grow along with my own personal needs? Are there advancement opportunities and options to make more money, such as body clipping and grooming for different horses?

Any employer worth working for will be more than willing to answer any and all of these questions. Yes, I could probably come up with 50 more questions you should ask, but these are ones I’ve seen people quit over more times than I can count.

Know what kind of program you want to be a part of. Have other questions prepared about the job hours, how many weeks a year you may be at competitions, and if the time on the road is split between multiple grooms. There are a million things you can ask but be prepared with your questions before going into the interview.

Paid Trials for Equine Jobs

If you’re worried about some things, ask about coming to do a trial. But this trial should be paid! Do not go work for someone for free, even if it is just working for a couple of hours. If you are visiting the farm for an in-person interview, that is one thing, but don’t jump in and work for a half day for your own health. 

The industry is a great one; I’ve learned more from my time in horses than from any other job. I’ve met some of my best friends there, and I love my previous employers and the horses I was lucky enough to work with. But had I laid out boundaries and expectations earlier in these relationships, it would have helped to sustain my career for even longer, and I want the next generation to be prepared.

Have questions for Courtney about taking a job in the equine industry? Ask below in the comments or on social media.

March 7, 2023

Courtney Carson 🇺🇸

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  1. Cynthia Levin says:

    Great article and wonderful purpose. I am finding Liability and Care & Custody insurance is expensive for U.S. freelance grooms (and so many want to pay on a 1099-misc.) The British Groom’s Society and InstraGroom in Canada provide affordable coverage. Can you suggest where a freelance groom may go for adequate insurance other than the health insurance you mentioned. Thanks!

  2. Courtney says:

    Hi there Cynthia!
    I know it is incredibly expensive here in the US for freelancers. I know a couple of friends who have gone through Blue Cross/Blue Shield, but that is unfortunately an expensive option. Several people that I know have AFLAC as a very affordable supplemental option and I believe that you can add in certain coverages.

    I also know some people who have gone through the Christian based health insurance companies and have found that to be the most affordable for the coverage you receive. I believe that this is just a quick interview and if you consider yourself a Christian then you are approved, but I have not looked into this insurance myself.

    Hope this helps!

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