There’s an old saying that goes: ‘How do you get a small fortune working with horses? You start with a large one.’ While most of us give a wry smile and pass this by, I do think that we need to seriously look at our sport, our passion and our livelihoods and take stock. It’s not just one discipline or level or aspect of the industry that is economically unsound, the problem is pervasive. There are DIY yards that are staffed by workers paid far less than the living wage, there’s Olympic level athletes forced to sell their top horses in order to eat, and even the 'Sport of Kings' is struggling, with race stakes now at a level that it’s impossible to run even a moderately successful yard without outside help.
So what has gone wrong and can it be helped? The truth is, I don’t know if it can, at least not without a fundamental shift in thinking. What I am passionate about is maintaining the integrity of horse ownership and sports. The welfare of the horse must be the priority and central to everything that we do. They do not choose to live the lives that they do, and from the moment of conception, their welfare is our responsibility. We must do everything in our power to keep them as happy and healthy as possible, and in horse terms happy is the same as us – stress free.
Good care costs money. I’m known for saying that the cheap part of horse ownership is the purchase price, no matter what that price may be. A £3,000 horse will cost you more than the purchase price in a year in grazing costs, feed & supplementation, farriers, covers, gear, and maintenance veterinary care. A £300,000 horse will cost even more to keep – three years ago I wrote a budget to run an international horse on the dressage circuit for a year. There was no change from £38,000. It would doubtless be an even higher figure for a top level eventer or showjumper.
With so much money floating around, someone must be getting rich, right? Not likely. It’s easy to look at people who might win a big cash prize at an event and think that they’ve got it made. Or they sell a great horse for an extraordinary price. A one-off cash injection is a marvellous thing, but when considered against years of living hand to mouth, the hours of blood sweat and tears, and the accumulation of exceptional skill to get to that point, the return on investment is more likely to make an accountant cringe than cheer. There are a few people who make a ‘nice’ living buying and selling horses, however they are the exception. Most have created their businesses very carefully & prudently, concentrating on the higher end of the market and protecting their integrity at all costs. They have almost all established a niche clientele as a result.
What I am most concerned about is the middle and lower end of the market. It seems like every day there is a post on a forum about the costs of livery or grooms’ wages. I know of a number of high-end yards that are struggling to find staff and also plenty of yards that are only kept in the black by the owners working 14-hour days, 7 days a week. I was one of them and I can tell you from personal experience it is not sustainable. Staffing is going to continue to be a problem while the industry will only provide jobs with no progression potential, barely survivable wages and tough conditions. It is not good enough to expect workers to look after our horses ‘for the love of it’. Even those that work in this industry and gain expertise that sees them capable of looking after horses competing on the International circuit barely scrape by. Last time I needed one, a freelance groom up to the demands of this environment was charging £100 a day. If that sounds fair enough, consider the fact that out of that they need to pay tax, insurance, keep their HGV & CPC licences up to date. They’re self-employed so there is no holiday pay, no paid sick leave and while expenses are paid while they’re on the road, they need to maintain a home base for when they’re not working. And these guys are the best of the best – flying all around the world with elite athletes in their care, using their years of knowledge and experience to make sure that horse & rider can perform at their best in a physically demanding role.
What I’d like to see happen is a shift in horse owners’ mindsets. Stop thinking of owning and riding horses as a right and respect it for the privilege it is. Next time you go looking for a yard or trainer take note of the cleanliness, how well the facilities are looked after, the friendliness and camaraderie of the staff. Ask the grooms and the yard owner if they’re happy working there and how many hours they work each week. If all those boxes are ticked, you can be fairly sure that the business is profitable and that they take pride in the care they provide. Be prepared to pay a little more. Grooms, yard owners, trainers and riders are people, too. They deserve to be valued for the services they provide. And our horses deserve to be looked after by people who are not merely surviving.
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