We are forever being told that Ireland is a world-leader in the production and training of competition horses, be they on the racecourse, in the showjumping ring or over the Olympic Games cross-country course.
The racing authorities say there are 14,000 working in the thoroughbred sector – for instance in training yards and on stud farms – and that it is worth €1bn annually to the economy. Another 11,000 are said to work full-time in the sport-horse sector, in show jumping, riding centres and hunting.
While these numbers are hard to verify, there is no doubt that the majority of jobs in this area involve long hours of manual labour in all kinds of weather. And let’s be clear: working with horses is not something you would choose for the money. You do it because you love it.
The Irish Stable Staff Association recently negotiated an increase in the hourly pay-rate for its members to €10.75 – approximately the same as you would get for stacking shelves in a warm and cosy supermarket.
For those mad about horses, a job in Tesco would be hell anyway. They would much prefer to be out in the fresh air, feeding and exercising their noble equines. Many will aspire to one day having their own training yard, stud farm or riding centre. But first they have to learn the ropes – and it involves huge commitment. High-performance horses need to be trained every day and the job can’t easily be passed over to somebody else at weekends or on bank holidays.
Finding high-calibre employees, who are prepared to put in the hard yards, is getting more difficult. In racing, a good exercise rider is worth their weight in gold and even the top trainers are constantly looking for talent.
Horsemanship is a skill that can take you around the world. Being Irish is a bonus, such is our reputation for producing legions of star jockeys, trainers, breeders and show jumpers. Look at the racing pages any day of the week and you will see perhaps two-thirds of the professional jockeys riding in Britain are Irish. America and Australia, even Japan, are constantly trying to woo staff.
It’s a big problem and one recognised only recently here by Horse Racing Ireland (HRI). The semi-state body now has a careers department that aims to improve the flow of people into the industry and stop the ones already working in the game from leaving.
Keith Rowe, director of the Racing Academy and Centre of Education (RACE) in Kildare, understands the situation better than most. RACE is where future jockeys are trained, and Rowe is constantly fielding enquires from trainers hungry for new blood.
“Many more trainers have been advertising across a range of media for capable riders and yard staff, where before they might have been able to source people by personal contact or word of mouth,” he said.
“We have seen a growth in demand for suitable staff from the industry and this prompted the initiation of a new entry-level programme last year for grooms and exercise riders, which was supported by HRI and which will hopefully be expanded this year.”
Rowe reckons there are a number of reasons why the racing industry is short on staff.
“As the economy picks up, people have a greater range of employment options open to them, and we are in a more competitive labour market.
“While working in racing can be exciting and rewarding, it can be a physically demanding, 24/7 job with limited time off and relatively low pay, so it can be tough to compete with other sectors.
“We cannot ignore the dramatic shifts in Irish society over the past 30 years and the fact that less people are growing up around animals and horses. Young people now have a greater level of education and very different expectations around future careers.
“Technology has radically changed people’s lifestyles and contributed to them being less physically resilient. We need to adopt a more strategic approach to the sourcing of future workers for the industry.”
It’s a fact that horseracing in Ireland is, to a large extent, dominated by a small number of powerful stables. They pay well and there are bonuses on offer, but opportunities for career progression are fairly limited.
Often the employer is a family business and – while some senior roles need to be filled by employees – the name over the door, or stables, is not going to change. And starting your own training operation is going to be expensive unless you have some very wealthy investors behind you.
So, what can be done to improve the career path for new entrants to the industry, or to retain people?
Rowe says: “While there are some good educational and other supports available around the country, things are still not joined up in a coherent fashion to enable entrants identify appropriate career pathways for themselves.
“In recent times, the work being done by HRI through their careers department has been a very positive development and will hopefully make a big difference in this area.
“I would love to see a situation whereby everyone who comes into racing benefits from an industry induction process to include some basic practical training, an introduction to lifelong learning options and a career path consultation.
“Most people realise they are unlikely to ever get rich while working in racing but at certain points they do want to get recognition for their skills and feel that they are progressing in their career and, when the time comes, that they have some certified credits which will enable them to move on to another career if that is what they desire.”
Rowe has some excellent advice to those seeking to work in the equine industry:• Research carefully to establish what type of work or place of employment you are most interested in.• Identify the most suitable training course or educational programme that will give you the best grounding for your chosen path.• Get lots of practical hands-on experience.
He added: “Offer yourself for work experience or internship and be prepared to start right at the bottom and see how everything works from the ground up. The rest will follow if you have the right level of application and are open to lifelong learning opportunities. The most important thing is to set your standards high, aim to work with the best people and learn from them.”
So, we’ve outlined the pitfalls but it’s important to stress that there are great opportunities and amazing success stories out there.
“Racing is a global industry with many interesting opportunities for anyone who is prepared to keep learning, improving and is open to new things,” says Rowe.
“With a great network of Irish people in the horse business worldwide, once you have a good initial training and education completed, and some solid work experience with good employers under your belt, the opportunity to travel is a great opportunity to build your skills and experience and then return with a broader preparation for your future career.
“There is no substitute for practical experience, but an openness to accredited qualifications throughout one’s career will ensure there is always an option for progression. Those who have a strong mix of practical horsemanship skills, people skills and recognised educational attainment will be best placed to be the managers, employers, owners and leaders of the industry in the future.”