H&H’s amateur survey has uncovered which jobs are most compatible with a competitive lifestyle – or do riders simply make it work? Martha Terry crunches the data
One of our sport’s USPs is that even amateur riders who work full time and not with horses can compete against an Olympic athlete – albeit on an inexperienced horse. And most amateurs do need to work hard at their “real job” to earn enough to compete. It’s about finding a career that’s compatible with our passion, with a decent salary (and boss) but without a crippling workload or commute.
H&H ran a survey of our readers to find out which “day jobs” were the most common among working riders competing at affiliated level. While the survey will gain no PhD for breadth of research, thanks to the 170 riders who contributed we can see some interesting trends. Mostly though, it’s a case of the rider’s will finding the way – whatever their situation, they make it work.
Our heroes of the hour, NHS workers, were the most prolific, accounting for 14% of the total range of jobs. But there’s no set pattern – while doctors and nurses typically need to log set hours within a workplace, those in accountancy and marketing, the second and third-most popular careers, can often work flexible hours from home. A surprising finding was how few riders work part time – just 8% of those surveyed – presumably the consequence of such a costly hobby necessitating a full-time pay packet.
Teachers feature in fourth, benefiting from longer spells of school holidays when they can devote more time to their competition life, while HGV drivers also make the top 10 – for them the “day job” often happens at night, and they do the horses in the day.
Although jobs within the equestrian industry feature in the top 10 – vets (fifth) and grooms (ninth) – respondents tend to work long hours with horses other than their own, so in terms of training your own competition horse, it’s not as convenient as some perceive.
A huge amount of organisation
Each job has its own compatibilities with riding and training. Those working in healthcare formed the largest proportion of survey respondents, and require a huge amount of organisation to juxtapose long shifts with hours at the yard.
Judith Johnson works full time as a GP partner and keeps her three dressage horses at home, training up to prix st georges (PSG)/inter I, doing most of the yard work herself. Judith says the yard is “super well organised”, with the horses fed and on the walker while she mucks out, then she leaves for work by 7.30am.
“I try to get back by 4–5pm three times a week to ride all three, but sometimes I can only ride for 20 minutes,” she says. “I try to make those 20 minutes count, and do simple things well, even if it’s just walk and halt. I also accept that if it’s foul weather, it doesn’t matter if they have (another) day off. Neither of us will enjoy trotting in circles in the pouring rain and a howling gale. Nor does it matter if the tack isn’t spotless or the pony has hay in its tail.”
Over the course of 18 years, Judith has put in various facilities to make her life easier, such as the walker, hay steamer, washbox and solarium, plus an arena with lights.
“I have a very long-suffering husband, so when I sold a pony it financed an arena rather than a holiday in the Maldives,” she says.
As far as making a success of the competitions, Judith is a realist. “My PSG horse is 13, and we’re hoping to do inter I this year – years slower than proper dressage people!” she says. “But I consider myself to be very fortunate to be able to juggle my hobby – my other half would say obsession – home and fulfilling career.”
IT project manager Sam Turpitt is another dressage rider with realistic ambitions, which she channels into energy. She has four horses, and although she works mostly from home, she can’t get out to ride before 5pm.
“I need to set goals to keep me motivated,” says Sam, who has been to the nationals seven times. “If you are aiming for a certain competition, it drives you to ride on those horrible winter nights, or makes you drag yourself out of bed early in the mornings.”
Sam tends to ride just once during the week, plus weekends, and admits it isn’t easy summoning up the enthusiasm to travel an hour by trailer to weekly training sessions on a cold winter’s night, returning at 10pm. But her ambition is strong.
“I do struggle with being realistic about my expectations, but there is no point trying to ‘keep up’ with people who have more money, more time and more facilities. Do your own thing, and accept that if you can only ride two or three times a week on the side of a windy hill in Scotland, your horse isn’t going to be at grand prix when it’s 10.”
Abigail Groves also thrives on the thrill of challenging competition. She usually works part time as an NHS senior commissioning manager for cancer and end-of-life care, giving her time to compete her two Grade A showjumpers, while her 82-year-old mother feeds them and does other yard chores. During the pandemic, Abigail has been working full time, but has “retained her sanity by continuing to ride”.
“Competing is very important to me,” says Abigail, talking of the “buzz” of being back out at shows since the lockdown was eased. “Hacking was better than nothing, but competing is so much better.”
It’s not just about ticking off the day job: Abigail is as passionate about patient care as about riding. “I like having different parts of my life and doing well at them all,” she says.
No nine to five
For some riders, having just one job and a competition horse isn’t enough. The survey showed that half of the respondents had two or more horses. Darcy Eagle keeps 13 horses at home, including a showjumper, a show pony and a dressage horse. She has shown at county level and used to compete in British Showjumping, but is now venturing into dressage.
Darcy, 22, works full time in the accounts department of her father’s electrical company, runs a livery yard and last year launched her own equestrian business.
“Anyone who has worked for family will tell you there is no such thing as nine to five, more like all day, every day,” she says. “Somewhere in the early mornings and late evenings I ride, muck out, and do the jobs. It’s not rare for me to be mucking out at 10pm before I’ve had tea.”
Showjumper Henrietta Forrest used to lead a similar lifestyle, commuting to work as a magazine creative editor and running a livery yard alongside raising a family. But two years ago she took the “scary decision” to leave her job of 20 years, and has found it liberating.
“I’d had to downscale competition ambitions – I was too knackered,” says Henrietta, who now works freelance as a website designer and social media expert alongside keeping seven horses and the DIY livery yard. “I last jumped decent height classes in 2012, but I’m now producing an 18hh horse who I hope will take me once more to jump 1.20m-plus.
“I work from home, full-time hours and I’m very busy, but it’s up to me if I want to take time off or work early or late,” she says. “The downside is no set salary and no holiday pay, but I’m so glad I made the move to freelance.
“It made it worthwhile getting a nice young horse again. When I was mega busy I could not have enjoyed taking the time to produce him slowly. And I can now train during the day rather than when I’m tired after work.”
Insurance was seventh on the list of careers, and full-time equine underwriter Alycia Port is thriving on the double lifestyle. The 29-year-old events three horses and has a dressage horse, and was on the silver medal-winning British team at last season’s CCI3* European Cup on her upcoming advanced eventer, Klotilde. As do many working riders, she relies on help to bolster her hard work.
“I commute every day after mucking out, and ride two or three nights a week, while weekends are training or competing days,” says Alycia, a “Todd Squad” scholar, meaning she has been selected for training with Mark Todd, plus sponsorship. “A great girl hacks and does the fitness for me, and Mum does the evening stables while I ride. It’s a massive effort from everyone but a year like last year makes it all worth it. I also have an amazing boss who appreciates I will get the work done even if it’s emails off a horse late at night in the dark.”
Clocking up 340 miles a day
The riders who strike a balance love both their job and the horses. It’s not enough simply to have the former to pay for the latter or you end up resenting both. HGV driver Milla Stevens is away for up to 70 hours a week, clocking up 340 miles a day, alongside dressage up to regional level.
“I’d be lying if I said there was never a moment when I wonder what on earth I am doing,” says Milla, who often has 4am starts and 10pm finishes and rides with a headtorch. “It’s tough when the weather is awful and it always seems to be dark, but I wouldn’t change it. It all seems worthwhile when my trainer says I’ve improved or a regional qualification email pings into my inbox.
“I love both the lorry and the horse, which is why I work so hard to make it all work.”
For Sam Turpitt, qualifying for a major championship “makes every minute of work, riding and travelling worthwhile”.
A highlight was finishing sixth at the nationals at elementary level. “I remember before the prize-giving having an emotional moment, thinking how tricky my horse had been, that I’d had her since she was two and paid just £2,500, how hard I had worked. It was one of those moments when everything – the blood, sweat, tears and financial hardship – were all worth it.”
And that is precisely why we do it.
Top 10 jobs
10 HGV driver
Ref Horse & Hound; 16 July 2020