‘If you can’t pay staff properly, your business isn’t viable’: yard owner speaks out on ‘self-made’ staffing crisis

  • A livery yard owner who is concerned about the industry’s future believes the staffing crisis is “entirely of our own making”.

    Ali Dane, a rider, judge and coach who owns Hurston Dressage and Eventing in Oxfordshire, contacted H&H having read “with alarm” recent pieces on the plight of grooms in the sector.

    She said the five staff at her small yard are legally and fairly employed, with contracts and paid sick leave, holiday and overtime.

    “But many yards cannot afford to do this, and therein lies the issue,” she told H&H. “Most yards do not have a viable business model.”

    Ali said she came from a corporate background — “working 60-hour weeks while trying to event five horses, which doesn’t work!” — but moved into running her yard 14 years ago.

    “Because of my background, I knew what the law was but what I think is happening is that many people are starting competition or livery yards without any idea what the law actually is,” she said. “They don’t charge enough for their services, so they can’t pay their staff properly, and then the staff get treated really badly and expected to work all hours.

    “I’ve been reading the articles on H&H and it’s horrific what’s been happening, but I think this staffing crisis is entirely of our own making.”

    Ali is keen for as many people as possible to know of the Equestrian Employers Association (EEA), of which she had not heard until she put one of her staff on to its sister organisation, the British Grooms Association.

    “I want people to know that there are employers like me, and the EEA, doing something about the awful stories we’re hearing, and that people can vote with their feet rather than putting up with being treated like that,” she said.

    She cited one example of a rider, who thought he was paying his grooms legally but was not, and who said: “I can’t afford to pay them any more.”

    Ali said: “In what other industry do people run businesses where they exploit staff and still don’t make enough money to live properly? I just don’t understand it.

    “My prices are the highest in the area, I think, but we provide an excellent service, and I know what my unique selling point is.”

    Ali explained that her corporate business-management background may give her an edge in running her yard, adding: “I’m no Alan Sugar but I know what makes a successful business; you’ve got to stand out from the crowd.”

    Ali offers bespoke packages of full and competition livery, mainly for clients who are cash-rich but time-poor.

    “That’s the market I cater for but a lot of yards don’t know what they should charge,” she said. “They cut prices to get people in, then they’re stuck with them, they don’t make money, so they cut back on what they think they can, which is staff costs.

    “Staffing is a big effort but they’re people, who need to be treated with respect, and they’re the heart of your business. I feel we don’t have enough compassion for people, in the horse world.”

    Ali said she has encountered the view that “you work with horses because you can’t do anything else” but that in her view, those who can run a successful equestrian business are “bloody clever”.

    “This is not a minimum-wage job,” she added. “The minimum my staff earn is £11 per hour, and it goes up to £15 because looking after horses properly is not a minimum-wage job.”

    Ali believes many employers need more education, about the relevant laws, but also in business, so they check all their costs frequently, to ensure businesses are viable, because “if you don’t understand the figures, you’re in trouble, and that’s where there’s a big gap”.

    “We have to normalise talking about money and how much it costs to keep horses,” she said. “It’s an industry-wide problem, not just employers and employees, and we need to change the mindset. I think if most horse owners knew the real running costs, they’d be shocked, and you should be paying more like £10-£15 per hour for someone to take care of your horse, because of the level of knowledge needed.”

    Ali added that if a yard cannot afford to pay its staff legally and make money, “your business isn’t viable and you shouldn’t be in business”.

    “I’ve had kick-backs for saying that,” she said. “It’s uncomfortable but the whole industry needs a wake-up call.”

    And she believes grooms and consumers should “vote with their feet”; the former by not working for employers who do not comply with the law, and the latter by calling out any bad practice they see, and realising horses are a luxury, and the true cost of their keep.

    “I’d also welcome the governing bodies taking action to ensure that professional riders, who earn money competing under their umbrella, are employing staff legally,” she said.

    “We need to put pressure on the culprits – they won’t change otherwise. But it’s difficult, expensive, and no one wants to ‘rock the boat’, which is why change is so slow to happen.

    “These riders compete because they have their own competitive goals, and grooms should absolutely not be exploited in order for them to achieve those goals. I think we sometimes forget that leisure and competition horses are not a charitable cause that workers should give their time and energy to for free. It’s hard for grooms not to be dazzled by high-level riders, and the promise of endless support and training, but they absolutely should not waive any of their legal rights, just because they’re working for a ‘name’.

    “Having made contact with the EEA recently, I’m hoping that we can start to work together to make a difference and change the workings, and eventually, the image of the industry.”

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