Thursday 10th January
I’m sorry that it’s been so long, I’ve missed you all, although amazingly some of you still log on and check my blog on a regular basis seemingly. Thanks for that! Rarely a day goes by without this digital diary getting any views. I’m not sure how people find it, or what they’re actually looking for (adult entertainment perhaps?), or what the hell they think when they get here, but at least the loyal few and those attempting to surf to the end of the Internet will now have a little something fresh to read, even if it’s completely off topic from the rest of this eclectic blog.
Truth be told I actually quite miss pouring all the randomness out of my head and on to these pages. Some of the things I get up to really do deserve to be commemorated in print, but lack of spare time, having sausages for fingers and feeling like I’m already taking up more than my fair share of the world wide digital filing cabinets, persuaded me to stop, or at least press pause.
However a recent discussion from the world of horse racing, an industry where I worked about three former lives ago, about the “stable staff crisis”, has led me to put pen to paper again, or more accurately, bash my sausage fingers earnestly on my phone for a few hours.
Over the past week, I have been reading with interest as many of the views of the great and not so great of the racing world that I could get my hands on. I certainly wasn’t planning to weigh in on a subject in which I no longer have a direct involvement, but having formally devoted over 20 years of my life to the sport, from teenage Saturday girl to Newmarket trainer, I at least feel qualified to give my tuppence worth, and one particular piece inspired me to do so.
If you haven’t read it yet, please please read Jo Davis’s frank, eloquent and concise summary of the reasons behind the problem and also some of the best advise to advert the potential crisis. Click here to read.
When I read the article, I wholeheartedly agreed with everything that she said. It also reminded me of the reasons why I left the sport and why, while I’m so glad that I was a trainer, that I’m also glad that I’m no longer a racehorse trainer! I had a brilliant time working in racing, from useless work experience kid, to humble stable girl, to assistant trainer, to finally reaching the pinnacle and opening my own yard in sunny Suffolk, amongst some of the finest trainers and best bred bloodstock in the world.
My story echoes Jo’s, no silver spoon, no legacy handed down through the generations, not even a helpful significant other to lend a hand when things got tight (marry a blacksmith or a vet was always the advice given, but I’ve never been one to follow the easy path!). I can only say thank goodness I only had myself to look after, huge respect to Jo for raising a daughter in amongst the other myriad of daily tasks.
I was delighted to see that one of the first responses to Jo’s post on Twitter was congratulatory Tweet from my former Head Girl. Sarah was with me nearly from the beginning, the first few months I went it alone until my numbers got above six and my BMI dropped perilously low, and I’m proud to say that she was still there until the very last day, despite being about 7 months pregnant.
I might not have broken any records in my 8 years as a trainer, but I’m immensely proud of my record of employing staff, consistently having a wonderful team of cheerful, hard working, horse loving staff, who showed up every day, got stuck in and only left when it was time to go on to bigger and better things. If only some of the horses could have taken a leaf out of their ethical books…
Being in Newmarket was a double edged sword, on one hand there was always some waif or stray knocking on the gates during evening stables to see if there were any jobs going, having earlier that day either walked out of one bigger yards, or been gently shoved. On the other side of the coin, it meant competing with the big boys (and girls #MeToo) wage wise.
Pulling out on 2nd lot and seeing the lads drive out of the Godolphin gates in their flashy cars just after 10am, knowing we still had 2 more lots to go, 1 to lunge, 1 to lead out, the spares to muck out, the yards to be swept, waters to be topped up and horses to be fed, was a bitter pill to swallow for me, I can only imagine how my staff felt.
I’ll be honest sending my CV to Sheikh Mo crossed my mind more than once. Writing this now I’m genuinely concerned that my staff didn’t leave me for the lush green grass on the other side of the fence. What the hell was wrong with them the idiots?!
But thankfully I never had to roll the dice and take on one of the aforementioned waifs or strays as I always had my loyal and trusted staff by my side. It certainly wasn’t for the renumeration package that I offered, which whilst well above the official minimums, was far from the best paying job in town. And the hours must have been some of the longest in the country, at least that’s how they felt to me anyway.
The horses were moderate in the main, which meant that the pool money and bonuses were virtually guaranteed to be modest, whereas a job at a big establishment promises the chance of looking after a champion and the windfalls to go with it. So why was I fully stocked with *long-standing/long-suffering staff (*delete as appropriate), while the merry-go-round of riders hoped from one yard to the next until as the expression goes “they’d worked in every stable bar Bethlehem”?
I’d like to think that one of the reasons is because I cared. Sure it’s much easier to do in a small yard when you’re riding out and mucking out alongside your comrades, and I agree if you only need 3 or 4 members of staff, it’s easier to hand pick the good ones, train them and keep them sweet.
What I couldn’t give them in money (my figures were much like Jo’s; where does that mythical £1k go every month???), I tried to make up for in other ways. And afternoon off if we’d finished late, OK extra late because I don’t think that we ever finished on time, but in the unlikely event that we were finished early, I was always at pains to let them go early. I’d worked in yards where we’d sat on buckets in the tack room watching the clock tick by waiting to be allowed to let the horses down and go home.
We also had Team outings, ranging from regular lunches in the pub, to outdoor laser paintballing, from a trip to the Paralympic Dressage to an outing to the roller disco and pretty much everything in between. Even the horses got in on the act as we packed up a big picnic and loaded the lorry for days riding on the beach. I even remember on hideously filthy wet day when I told them all to stop tacking up second lots, put their saddles and bridles away and instead we’d finish doing up the yards, give the horses the day off as it was winter and there were no races for them coming up, and off we went afternoon racing at Fakenham, doing more for moral with one small gesture than you could put a price on, yet still back in time for evening stables, where everyone merrily pitched in.
I always tried hard to encourage training and staff progression too, utilising relevant courses held at the nearby British Racing School, such as the work riding course and NVQ Level 3s. It might seem counterintuitive to train up staff in an industry where there is very limited chance of promotion in a yard due to lack of positions, but in my opinion holding people back is selfish and creates resentment, causing them to leave or at least decrease their work rate due to dissatisfaction.
I’m sure there were plenty of times the staff hated the sight of me and were sick if the sound of my voice, but I tried wherever I could to give them a break, both metaphorically and physically, trying to keep them paired up with horses that they got on well with, letting them miss a lot or 2 to attend an appointment, giving them 2 weekends off out of 3, plus an afternoon in the week wherever possible. It wasn’t always easy for any of us, but our small successes made it very special and I hope that they can look back and remember fondly some of the good times that we had. I really and truly appreciated them and did my best to make them feel worthy and valued. They’re all still speaking to me at least!
One of Jo’s points for racing failing to attract new, young people into the game is the demise of the local riding school. This is one area that I felt very strongly about whilst training and literally accepted any Tom, Dick or Harriet on work experience, regardless if they had ever seen a horse before or could even spell the word.
I was inundated with floods letters, calls and emails, as I became known as the one of the few who would allow them through the gates. Not only did I let them through the gates, I think all bar maybe 1 got to sit on a horse and at least get led around the yard in return for their efforts. Thank you to my wonderful old hack and ex racehorse Piggy or Bold Phoenix as he was known in his Barney Curly days!
More often than not those with the relevant experience got to ride a real racehorse, when a so called “quiet” horse would be summoned into action and proceed to give the kid the best day of his/her life. Either that or they’d behave like Red Rum in that well worn footage off him galloping on the beach and give me and Sarah grey hairs and heart attacks in the process.
Sarah and I always joked that we should write a book about the “future of racing” with a chapter dedicated to each child, but quite honestly I think even the toned down version would sound far fetched. There were those that didn’t last the morning, let alone the week. There were those who spent more time sending selfies than sweeping the yard. Of the few that lived locally, some stayed for years, getting dropped off by bleary eyed but dedicated parents on a Sunday morning until they were old enough to go to the racing school.
For those sceptics thinking that I was just after free labour, well you’re not too far off the mark, at least that was the initial plan. “I haven’t met one that can’t at least fill a water bucket!” was the phrase that I trotted out every time Sarah rolled her eyes at the mention of the next victim to the slaughter on the horizon. But joking aside, they cost us a lot more than they put in, in both time and money.
I would pay for their accommodation for the week if they were from out of town, which they invariably were. Plus there were the “learning costs” involved, like when they failed to remember to tuck the reins away, leaving some fortunate colt to happily chew his way through the most important part of the bridle and saddling me with a lunchtime trip to the saddlers to buy a new pair, or the “lost” hoof picks and dandy brushes that were never seen again after having been discarded in the horse’s bed and then mucked out, before rotting at the bottom of the muck heap for the rest of eternity.
And then there’s the cost of our time. Having some help around the yard might sound appealing but by goodness it’s time consuming. Some were genuinely useful and from Day 1 became an asset. Of the rest some had effort if not aptitude and were rewarded with our patience as we tried to impart our knowledge on them, taking time to explain things that might be of interest, whilst showing them and helping them with how things got done. The ones with aptitude but little effort we attempted to cajole into enjoying the job, rewarding them for things done well and making them repeat tasks that were insufficient or incomplete.
Thankfully there weren’t many that lacked both effort and aptitude, but there were a few and they came close to putting holes in my water bucket theory…
Yes they were painful, yes it was mostly more hassle than it’s worth, but those golden few made it and the ones that didn’t at least got weeded out by us for free, saving the Racing Schools time and money by enrolling them on a course that they’d never finish or train them for an industry in which they’d never work in.
As far as I’m aware, in my time anyway, very few big yards would even reply to their emails, let alone take them on trial. Imagine being a young teenager, wide eyed, full of zest and showing a passion for horse racing, you write to a big racing yard, or DM them on Facebook, and check your inbox waiting for a reply. When you hear back nothing, what message does that send out? That racing is a closed sport and that you’re not included? What if you got a response offering a week’s work in the yard? A day even? Especially in those big yards, the heroes that they watch winning races on ITV every weekend. Give people a chance to give racing a chance. It’s certainly not for the fainthearted but what if we’re turning people away before they’ve even had a chance to get started?
Like Jo’s example of riding schools, extortionate insurance and the fear or being sued is keeping people from opening their doors. But not every 15 year old letter writer is a potential law suit, and maybe I just got lucky, or the pushy parents figured I wasn’t worth pursuing in court, but I honestly never had anything but praise from people connected with what I can only call my “outreach programme”.
Thanks to Jim Wilson, of 1981 Little Owl Gold Cup fame it’s how I started, as a completely pointless 13 year old. I spilt more water down the legs of my jeans than I ever got to the stables in those heavy water buckets that I staggered around the yard with. I was like a clumsy backward yearling, slow to learn, always in the way, forever asking stupid questions, but 3 years of weekends and holidays and I was on my way, from humble beginnings to the trainers’ table.
It’s not going to single-handedly stop the rot, but take a chance and you might just be pleasantly surprised.
P.S. This post is dedicated to Sarah, Kelly, Amber, Emily, Liz, Suzanne, Michelle, Faisal, Dave and Maddy. Long live Team Weaver!!