If I had my life to live again I would ride ponies as a child, leave school without any qualifications, join the British Racing School and then advance into a career with racehorses, breaking the odd bone now and again just to prove I was properly living the life.
A life with horses is a life well lived.
So why the staffing crisis?
To ride racehorses you need to be a certain size and a certain weight. And that is where part of the problem lies. Image.
In America, where admittedly the majority of horses are trained from barns surrounding a racetrack, they have work riders and they have what we would terms grooms or stable staff, many big muscular Negroes. I suspect the work riders never muck out a stable and the grooms never ride a horse. If a similar system were to be adopted here it would open up opportunities to employ people who do not meet the size and weight criteria to ride racehorses on the gallops.
Although it is relatively easy to teach someone to ride, to acquire the skill and confidence to be considered a ‘work-rider’ takes many years and is probably more a case of innate ability than anything that can be taught. It is far easier to teach someone to muck out a stable, to lead a horse, to groom it, to pick out its feet, to fill a hay-net, to sweep a yard etc. Being seven-foot tall and weighing twenty-stone does not preclude someone from looking after a horse. Indeed in some instances it would be an advantage. Most of the work in a training yard is done from ground level and not from a saddle and from first-hand experience I can assure you that those who are irreplaceable in the saddle can be less readily disposed to be helpful on the ground. Some people love riding, some people are satisfied just being around and looking after horses. It takes all sorts.
Top class work-riders are worth their weight in gold not only to those lucky enough to employ them but also to the industry. Racing cannot afford to lose them to duller but better paid jobs. There is a bigger picture here and the powers-that-be must wake-up to the fact.
In my new order a stable would employ three distinct levels of staff: Ground staff to muck-out, groom, go racing etc. These people would not need to be able to ride. Racehorses have a reputation for being wild, unpredictable beasts and I suspect many horse-orientated people are put off working in the racing environment because of this perception.
Then there would be mainly young people with ambitions to be jockeys or work-riders who would take horses to the gallops to exchange for horses already galloped by the work-riders. These employees would be expected to work as grooms and as they progress they would be taught to become work-riders.
The industry might be best advised to introduce skills certificates so when applying for a job a trainer can easily judge what abilities an individual can bring to the yard. These skills certificates should advance someone into higher paid jobs such as head-lad, travelling head-lad, assistant trainer and so on.
I believe there are nearly 2-million people unemployed in this country. That is a work-pool that is generally ignored by the industry. If a trainer took on three people with no experience of working with horses and taught them the skills of a yardman and groom this would release most of his or her work-riders from the dull routine of mucking out and allow them more time to ride more horses on the gallops. National Hunt trainers could take on and train these people during the summer and a flat trainer during the winter.
There are two more ideas I would like to put forward. One is simplistic yet vital. Listen to the people who currently work in the industry and seek out the reasons why people leave. And secondly, and this is revolutionary yet doable. Treat everyone who work in racing stables as one universal workforce and take 2 or 3 or perhaps 5% from prize money to put into a pot to be divided equally amongst every member of every stable. This should not be a substitute for the prize money that already goes to individual stables but an additional reward.
The racing industry must have a spread of people covering every generation from school-leaver to O.A.P. so that knowledge gained over decades can be passed on and preserved. Read a stable management book written prior to 1914 and it can easily be gleaned how much knowledge and how many skills have either been lost or abandoned during the intervening years.
It should not be left to individual trainers to solve this crisis. The powers-that-be must be persuaded to do their bit. Without the bread and butter workers we would not have an industry. To protect the future of the sport we must look after these people. They deserve a Living Wage not the Basic Minimum and they deserve a day off every week and weekends off more than just occasionally. Stable staff are taken advantage of but only because trainers have no other option. Horses are living creatures, they need constant care and attention.
This situation needs to be addressed today, the future of our sport may just depend on it.
Keith Knight is a workaday writer of fiction, worker in the real world but foremost a horse racing fanatic. The joy of the sport is the horse - all horses.