The problems surrounding the recruitment, training and retention of stable staff in horseracing extend beyond the early starts.
For at least half a century, the multi-billion-pound horseracing industry in the UK has had a hard time keeping staff on board. And that’s not because of the early morning hours or even the modest salaries.
According to a new study, issues like poor team management, long and unpredictable hours, an increasing number of horses, negative media portrayal, and a lack of praise for a job well done are contributing to high turnover rates in racing yards.
“Racing has experienced issues retaining staff for a number of years, anecdotally this has been linked to long working hours, which are often seven days a week,” said Jane Williams, PhD, professor in the Equine Department at Hartpury University, in the UK.
“But a strong, resilient team who are skilled, experienced, and feel appreciated in their roles will inevitably lead to them having greater job satisfaction and the business having less staff turn-over, a huge cost saving for any business,” she said.
Elizabeth Juckes, MSc supported by Williams, and Emma Davies in Hartpury University’s Equine Department led semi-structured focus group discussions with 30 trainers and staff, including senior staff, involved in the UK horseracing industry. They heard concerns about topics like skills gaps, work ethic differences, job conditions, and media portrayal that the staff members believed contribute to high job turnover.
Generally, they found that the staff had a passion for the horses and the sport, Williams and Juckes said. And that was the main thing that kept them holding on to a job which could otherwise be fraught with challenges and frustration.
“Predominantly, my motivation for carrying out the research was because I was working closely with racing staff through my role at the British Racing School and regularly having conversations where the issues were being identified,” said Juckes.
“The strong commitment shown by the staff was not surprising to me, but the feeling of not being appreciated and the lack of work-life balance were huge factors in their lack of job satisfaction and their risk of leaving the industry.”
Race yard employees generally start the day very early—often around 4:30 a.m.—but as long as they can establish a balance in their work and home life, the employees don’t really mind the early hours.
“Individuals working across racing and equestrian sport demonstrate a strong commitment and bond to the horses they care for, and while they may like a more positive work-life balance, they will go and above and beyond for the horses in their care, and I don’t think the early starts would put them off,” Williams said.
However, they do want to be appreciated for that devotion, she added. “I have observed the commitment of racing staff to their jobs, and this coming through (in our study) was not surprising,” she said.
“What was unexpected was how much staff valued recognition for the high standard of work they do, and that they don’t perceive this happening very often, even though that can make all the difference to how valued they feel.”
Generally, there seemed to be a concern among their study participants that senior staff knew how to manage horses, but were less skilled when it came to managing people, the researchers said.
The respondents also expressed disappointment about the number of hours they put in—including nights and weekends, often around 50 hours a week—without always being thanked for such effort.
Alongside this, those hours weren’t always even reliable, they said. They could change from week to week, with racing schedules varying and including more night racing for example, making it difficult for employees to make any personal plans or even program medical visits.
A significant increase in the number of racehorses—about 7% more than in 2014—without an increase in staff also created challenges for the workers. Whereas grooms used to ride two horses a morning, they were now riding three or sometimes four. And while they remained committed to the horses, there’s a risk that riding that many horses and accumulating that much fatigue could make them “disconnect” from the horses.
Some of the staff members evoked a lack of skills, especially among younger employees. But this probably reflects a greater problem of overwork and overly high expectations rather than poor education and training, according to Juckes.
“The UK has a robust education system for young starters to the industry through the British Racing School and Northern Horseracing College,” she said.
“I would say this ‘lack of skills’ issue is a consequence of the reactive, crisis management approach many yards feel they have to use ‘to get through the day,’ which in turn leaves little room to nurture less experienced staff, and it results in senior staff having higher expectations of younger and/or less experienced staff sooner.”
Meanwhile, media portrayal of the horseracing industry has been threatening racing’s social license to operate, and that’s led to employee frustration, especially in trying to manage the use of mobile phones on the yards. Shared images on social media don’t reflect the reality of the industry—for better or for worse—the staff told the researchers.
But where the media creates more issues for the staff is its portrayal of the life of people working in the industry, they said.
“The media may have had a history of framing racing as a hard, poorly paid job, but this is changing,” Juckes explained. “When you compare racing hours and pay, et cetera, to other areas of equestrianism, it compares very favourably.”
This probably stems from new initiatives by British racing authorities to ensuring human and horse welfare, moving forward, according to Williams. “There has been a lot of media coverage of this push, related in particular to the publication of the Horse Welfare Board’s “A Life Well Lived” strategy,” she said. “These initiatives will challenge some traditional practices, but I am confident will result in a more sustainable and positive industry.”
People considering jobs in the industry should seek reliable information directly from people working in the field, Williams said.
“Gain a good understanding of what working in it is like, chat with existing staff, and try and undertake some work experience as well,” she recommended. “I would also suggest that individuals upskill themselves as much as possible. There are some amazing degree programmes that have the flexibility to be completed alongside working on a part-time basis. This approach makes for a very employable individual with strong interpersonal, academic, and practical industry skills.”
The article is published by Wageningen Academic Publishers in the journal Comparative Exercise Physiology. It is titled: Racing to a staffing solution: an investigation into the current staffing crisis within the UK horseracing industry. By Elizabeth Juckes, Jane Williams, C. Challinor and Emma Davies.
The abstract can be found here: https://www.wageningenacademic.com/doi/epdf/10.3920/CEP200018