This is part 1 of a detailed look at the labor shortages and hiring issues in the equestrian sector that was first published in the Chronicle of the Horse issue of June 12 & 19 2023. Tomorrow, we will be addressing the challenges of retaining staff once they are hired.
The equestrian sector is likely to continue to face labor shortages in the near future, especially with the U.S. unemployment hovering at around 3.4 percent. Some equine owners and consultants say that it is time to rethink the labor situation.
“The issue of employment and retention is a concern for the equine sector in the U.S. and it’s a major concern when we consider our sustainability as an equine-related industry,” says Karin Bump. She is the founder of the National Association of Equine Affiliated Academics in Madison County, New York, and of Saddle Up NY.
Since months, the U.S. labor force participation rate has struggled to rise above 62 percent, despite efforts to attract more Americans to the workforce. There are many stories in the news about businesses that struggle to find enough support to stay afloat, and equine operation is no exception.
Margie Hutchison is the owner of Larkin Hill Farm in North Chatham. The farm offers boarding and training for horses. “Every restaurant, store, and everyone is crying out for help.”
She said that everyone has the same story.
Hutchison says, “It is hard to find people and even when they respond and say they’ll come in for an appointment, they often don’t show.” “I hear this from many businesses, not only those in the horse industry.”
Elizabeth David-Zoerhof of Zoerhof Classical Horsemanship, Boyne City Michigan, says it is harder to find experienced people. “It has been difficult for me and my friends in this area,” she says. It doesn’t matter which discipline you are in, the problem is the exact same.
Laws and Logistics
Elisabeth McMillan, an industry consultant with EquestrianProfessional.com, says that, based on surveys she has conducted, the severity of the labor problem varies among equestrian businesses depending on such things as the size of operation, location, types of employees, and how employees are managed and treated.
She says that businesses and barns who are trying to expand their equine business are finding it difficult to find enough grooms at home and to help out at shows. She says that there aren’t enough grooms available. “It’s highly competitive and the cost per day help can be prohibitive.”
McMillan explains that there are also differences in the way employees are classified. She says that “most horse business owners don’t classify their employees” as employees. “They incorrectly classify them private contractors. This exposes them multiple risks.
These risks include an Internal Revenue Service Audit and uninsured workers. McMillan says that the reason for the misclassifications in the horse industry is that even when employees are classified correctly, the costs associated with payroll taxes and workers’ compensation insurance can be so high that the business may end up operating at a loss.
Lois New, the owner of Bon Accord Lusitanos, in Ballston Lake New York, found out that truth when she decided to hire full-time employees. She says, “It is a big decision for a business owner to hire full-time staff because it involves so many responsibilities including employment regulations and costs.”
It can be more difficult for equestrian operations who can’t afford full-time staff or don’t require it. “Part of the issue is that I don’t have enough full-time staff. Hutchison explains that she doesn’t need someone to work all day. “I also need someone local, because no one will drive an hour to do a few hours’ work.”
McMillan says that skirting labor laws is a challenge when using part-time workers, or what some barns refer to as contract work. When it comes to hiring private contractors, some horse show grooms might be an exception – if they’re hired at the show and use their own tools. They can also set their own working hours. But it’s a grey area where penalties and mistakes are high.
Equine industry consultants state that while the ability to offer full-time positions and a good salary may be attractive to some applicants, it is not attractive to all.
David-Zoerhof aims to reach out to retired workers. “I target retired workers who want to remain active, but don’t need a full-time job and prefer a few hours of work here and there,” says David-Zoerhof. Like many barn owners she also relies heavily on her family. “My mother helps as much as she is able to,” she says.
Bump says that barns of all sizes will need to implement staff development programs to attract qualified employees. “When new employees arrive, you should make them feel valued and give them the opportunity to grow, even if that means starting their own business from the stable.”
McMillan concurs: “The horse professionals who report success in hiring and keeping good employees report similar protocols about the way they treat their employees. They onboard their employee. They encourage and educate their employees to keep them engaged. They give feedback. They value the employees as important members of the barn. They pay fairly, but not excessively. Average of $15.00 an hour for work at home, more at horse show. Employee turnover is the worst for those who complain about their workers. They hire them, expect that they will do the job, then punish them if they don’t.”
Holly Fisher, Hilltop Farm Inc.’s operations director in Colora, Maryland, says that part-time work can be more attractive than full-time work in some cases.
She says, “In our recent job searches, we found that we needed to broaden our scope, which also meant adapting our position.” In the past, we looked for full-time employees with some working student/intern roles. We’re now finding that part-time jobs with increased flexibility in scheduling are more successful.
This is part 1 of an article which appeared in the issue of The Chronicle of the Horse, June 12 & 19 2023. Subscribe to the digital version of The Chronicle of the Horse, and enjoy an entire year of the publication. You’re missing out on so much unique content if you only follow COTH online. Each print edition of the Chronicle is packed with in-depth competition information, fascinating features, probing look at issues within the sports hunter/jumper eventing and dressage and stunning photography.
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