The Down-and-Dirty Life of Working Students

A Grand Prix dressage rider, now training with Anky van Grunsven, explains how she learned the ropes as a working student.
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A Grand Prix dressage rider, now training with Anky van Grunsven, explains how she learned the ropes as a working student.

Being a working student is sometimes a precarious road to travel. It's a road that could teach you the ins and outs of the horse world, general horse care and even riding. It could establish you for the long term in your community as an equestrian professional or even lead you on a path to the Olympics whether that is riding, judging, coaching, grooming or even the promotional aspects working in media.

Angelea Walkup |

Angelea Walkup |

So what about the young rider or passionate horse person wanting to learn more about the equestrian lifestyle? Whether you're interested in just learning about horses and how to ride or have aspirations fueled to drive you to the international riders circles, beginning that path as a working student is a fabulous way out of the starting gate.

There have been articles written about working students but few have touched on the nitty-gritty lifestyle. Here are a few things to consider, whether you're looking for your first situation or are in one and having some questions.

  • Are you able to work hard and do what you're asked? The trainer puts a huge amount of trust in you being near his or her horses and helping care for them. You should consider this when working with or around them and not be absent-minded. Little things like forgetting to top off the water buckets in a stall on a hot summer afternoon or leaving a box blade in a stall after you've stripped it and replaced the shavings could be devastating, if not fatal, to a horse and its owner or trainer.
  • At appropriate times, can you ask educational questions?
  • Can you watch and learn? When I've worked for other people, even though the days are long and the work is hard, I would ask to take at least some time to watch the trainer work a horse. You can learn so much by simply watching the little things they do with their seat, hands, core and their overall training process. Don't forget the warm-up, cool down and even how the groom handles the horse before and after the ride.
  • Be on time. A manager at McDonald's or the local coffee shop would not be sympathetic that your parents drove you and made you late. When I was a working student in Spain, I had to take the train to a bus to a stop where I walked over a mile to finally get to the stable. In cases like this, planning your time and always allowing for error on the parts of others is crucial. No matter how you got there, if you're late, you're simply late, and with repeat cases you would probably be fired.

Situations vary significantly between working students' positions because the personalities of trainers across even the same discipline have working styles that differ tremendously. However, the basics remain the same with most positions. The work often includes feeding, mucking, cleaning and tack and blanket repair--basically all the dirty work. This is with the hope the working student will receive some lessons in exchange, but in many cases the student position is a paying-your-dues scenario.

If you're not happy with your working student position, the work or lack of lessons, then you might want to reconsider this path, in general. I've never heard of a working student going to a trainer with a set of grievances and the trainer hearing them out and changing his or her ways. It's not a case of counting your lessons against your hours worked but rather counting your blessings to be in an environment where you can learn the entire time about how the trainer does things. For example, watch how they ride, how they tack and how they care for their horses so you can appropriately ask questions to learn even more from your experience. It's not about time in the saddle, but when you do have time to be allowed in the lessons, you better be sure you've trained as much as possible to better yourself during those precious 30 to 45 minutes.

As a working student you should realize you're constantly being watched and evaluated. This is not meant in a bad way, but rather if you're seen as a hard worker who's a quick learner and ambitious, this could lead to more responsible duties, such as learning to wrap a horse's legs and perhaps advancing you into a groom position. You must have personal incentive and be able to handle responsibility to advance. The trainer should not have to follow up on your work to make sure it is done. In short, a working student should be able to make the trainer's and/or barn manager's life easier.

I've learned much about the horse world and industry as a whole from my working student experiences--some good, some bad but all educational and helpful to my long-term career with horses. If you work hard, are ambitious and try with all your might, you can go far!

Angelea Kelly Walkup is currently training with Anky van Grunsven in the Netherlands while her husband is stationed overseas in the military. She is a freelance writer and producer best known for her online video series HorseGirlTV.com.