‘You’re only as good as your team’: good employers are the ones who will be rewarded

  • THERE are good employers around, it has been stressed, as bosses look at what can be done to make the industry more attractive to prospective staff.

    H&H has reported on the equestrian staffing crisis and on the bad experiences of a number of former grooms, who have left the industry as a result.

    Ali Dane, a rider, judge and coach who owns Hurston Dressage and Eventing in Oxfordshire, contacted H&H having read these pieces “with alarm”.

    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 has a corporate background but moved into running her yard 14 years ago. She believes some people are starting competition or livery yards without knowing the law, and without charging enough so they cannot pay employees properly.

    She 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 stories we’re hearing,” she said.

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

    She offers bespoke livery packages, mainly for cash-rich but time-poor clients.

    “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 horseworld.”

    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”.

    “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 to £15 per hour for someone to take care of your horse, because of the level of knowledge needed.”

    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.

    Eventer Vittoria Panizzon told H&H she was alarmed by some comments under recent articles on grooms that tarred all employers with the same brush.

    “It’s not always such a bad picture,” she said. “Of course there are bad situations, but there are plenty of good ones too, and I wouldn’t want people to be put off from coming into the industry.”

    Vittoria said her staff are all employed within the law. And although she may not be able to pay vast salaries, she believes her employees benefit in other ways.

    “They all live on site, and I provide everything, from sheets and towels to cleaning stuff,” she said. “They get home-cooked Italian food and home-grown veg and I pay for them all to do Pilates every week.

    “I was talking to someone working in another industry the other day who was finding it really hard to fit in training and competing her horse and paying entries, but my staff get to compete in their work hours. They come on fun rides and cross-country schooling, all in work time.

    “I might not pay London office wages but when you think of the cost of keeping a horse; they all share supplies with me and come in my lorries to compete. There’s so much that’s more affordable, and they wouldn’t have access to otherwise.”

    Vittoria added that one repeated comment on social media that has hurt her is that there are professional riders “earning huge amounts of money and not paying staff”.

    “I don’t know who those people are, I don’t know of them,” she said. “I’m lucky if I ever go on holiday, and anything extra is invested back in the business.

    “I’m trying hard to improve and think out of the box. I asked [William Fox-Pitt’s head groom] Jackie Potts to help my team; she watched us work and advised tweaks that made a huge difference to stress and have taken an hour off our day. I’d encourage other employers to think about how to help staff be more efficient and am very grateful for her input.”

    Vittoria pointed out that lower-paid roles and apprenticeships also provide entry-level industry jobs to encourage new faces who would otherwise have insufficient experience.

    “The main point is we’re all trying hard, maybe some harder than others, but I want people to know we’re trying, not winning lots of money and sending our staff off to eat crisps for supper,” she said.

    Equestrian Employers Association president Tullis Matson told H&H the situation is currently “very much a jobseekers’ market”.

    “Businesses are having to put wages up and work harder to retain staff,” he said. “There are plenty of equestrian employers who follow all the codes of conduct and adhere to the regulations, and they’re the ones who keep their employees.

    “We know there are bad employers out there but there are also the good ones, and I think they’re the ones who will shine through and retain their staff.

    “You’ve got to look after your team for your business to flourish as you’re only as good as your team.”

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