Equestrianism is often behind the times when it comes to employment practices. Racing leads the way, with the majority of yards administering modern practices, but there are still a number of small livery yards and private stables around the country employing staff without contracts and paying them cash in hand.
While it is not illegal to work without a contract, it can be fraught with problems that could be solved if everyone knew where they stood from the outset. Take Nicky Williams as an example. Nicky, 21, has been working with horses since she left school five years ago. Her first job was at a small livery yard, where she helped out previously on weekends and in the holidays.
“At first I enjoyed the job and was thrilled to be away from studying. It was hard work but I loved working with the horses,” she says.
Nicky was initially in charge of five livery horses, but this increased to eight within a year. “I had to get to the yard at 7am and often stayed past seven at night. I was exhausted.”
It was then that Nicky decided to leave and find a more manageable role. She told her boss she was looking for a new job and would go in four weeks. But her employer found a replacement immediately and told Nicky to leave that week.
“I had two days to find a new job and stables for my horse,” says Nicky. “I didn’t think that I had any choice because I had no contract.”
But Rachel Flynn, an associate at Taylor Vinters Solicitors who specialises in employment law and that relating to equestrian interests, says all employees have certain rights “whether or not there’s anything written down”.
“It’s a common misconception that you have no contract of employment if you have nothing in writing,” she says.
It would have helped Nicky to know employers are obliged to allow notice periods of one week for every year of employment up to 12 years.
In an industry that is notoriously low paid, those working with horses should also be aware that with or without a contract they are entitled to earn a legal minimum wage.
“In addition to notice periods, there are laws relating to both the national minimum wage and redundancy payments that apply even without a written agreement,” explains Rachel.
Employees are not forced to provide written contracts for their workers. But Duncan Brown, chairman of the Association of British Riding Schools (ABRS), says: “Many of our members are major employers within the equine industry. We give each of them a template for a contract, which they are strongly encouraged to follow.”
The British Horse Society (BHS) also provides employment guidelines for its members via a business support helpline. An independent employment consultant will answer any queries relating to employment issues, for example, dealing with tax and national insurance payment.
The BHS says it is important for yards to provide contracts so that everyone knows where they stand. Rachel Flynn echoes this sentiment. “Finer points such as sick pay arrangements, holiday entitlement and notice periods can be extended in writing beyond what is compulsory without a contract,” she says.
“The problem with not having a written contract is that nobody knows exactly what their rights are,” adds Rachel, who points out that the problems can affect both sides.
“There are occasions when the downside of having no written contract can affect the employer more than the employee. For example, it might be the employer who requires an employee to serve a longer notice period,” she explains.
All you need to know
Join Horse & Hound’s NAGS
Membership of the National Association of Grooms and Students (NAGS) is free to all bona fide grooms and students. NAGS is sponsored by training provider KEITS, which offers Modern Apprenticeships, for those aged 16-25, as well as work-based training in equine, animal care and agricultural businesses.
Benefits of being a NAGS member include: Horse & Hound subscription at £1 per copy, £3 discount voucher on a sack of Blue Chip Dynamic, 10% discount on Splash Equestrian equipment and clothing, no P&P charges from Equestrian Vision mail order and eligibility for NAGS-only competitions and offers.
If you are interested in becoming a member, write to: NAGS, Room 2018, Kings Reach Tower, Stamford Street, London SE1 9LS (tel: 020 7261 6993), e-mail: email@example.com, or click here to download an application form in PDF format.
And remember, the club is open to all students, not just those studying for an equine qualification.