Navigating the Working Student World

By Elizabeth Tarumianz

Photos by Shelley Paulson

Additional Photos courtesy of Hazel Taylor and Caroline Foto

Take it from Karen Kelley, who is the head trainer at Waxhaw-based Silver Hill Farm and has successfully coached numerous students and horses to prestigious year-end awards and wins on the National level. Her first working student position was with Barbra Lindsay and Gerry Barden at Wayside Farm in New York.  They had a large operation with a show barn as well as a school program, so there were opportunities to learn all aspects of the business. Her typical day would begin before sunrise, when she and her close group of friends and fellow working students would begin their day by feeding and watering the two main barns. They would then bring in the tractor and spreader and begin mucking and re-bedding, after which they would turn out, groom, tack and untack the school horses, then clean all the tack.  When shavings or hay were delivered, the working students were responsible for unloading. They assisted the vet and farrier, and essentially familiarized themselves with all aspects of horse care. As Karen explains, “We learned how to cook oats in the winter, body clip, pull manes, clean sheaths, poultice, wrap, spider bandage a knee or hock, soak and pack an abscess, detect a colic or lameness, foal a mare, break a baby, and so much more. There was always something to do, and we learned how to do it all.” 

Karen’s favorite aspects of the working student life were being around the horses, as well as the life-long relationships she established at the barn.  She says that she and her group of fellow working students truly grew up together in every sense and are still in touch to this day. The camaraderie they share is evident in this anecdote from her time at Wayside Farm: “ We had an extensive trail system at the farm and, in the summer, we would pack our lunch and ride our horses to a place where we would swim them across a body of water to a very small island of land.  We would dismount, let them graze while we ate our lunch, and then swim back to the trails and return to the barn. One day, we were laughing so loudly about something that we spooked the horses and they took off towards home, leaving us to swim through the water and then walk the trails back home.” As Karen’s story, illustrates, there is never a dull moment in the life of a working student.

Karen emphasizes that the most significant lesson she learned during her time as a working student was the value of a strong work ethic.  She explained that anyone who wants to be successful in the horse business needs to work hard, and that the importance of diligence, consistency and attention to detail as a working student really carry over into all aspects of life.

Similarly, Ava Svatos, who is currently a working student at Cedarhill Farm in Waxhaw, believes that her willingness to work hard has been the key to success in her position.  Ava believes that her dedication and eagerness to assist in all aspects of horsemanship and riding are what allowed her to stand out to head trainer Andrea Guzinski and secure the working student job.  “I think my effort and hard work as well as my success in leadership roles such as camp counselor and coordinator for our IEA team really helped me stand out as someone worthy of this position. Always asking to help more and going the extra mile in and out of the saddle were probably the greatest deciding factors.  For me, it started with merely flatting an extra couple horses every week but I think my willingness to do just about any task set me apart from the group, which is where opportunities arose,” Ava explains. She asserted that the sense of accomplishment that she feels when all the work she has put in has paid off is her favorite aspect of the working student world. She advises anyone who aspires to become a working student to do what they can to gain notice and appreciation from the trainer with whom they are riding. This philosophy is clearly working for her, since in her short time at Cedarhill she has ridden to numerous championships in the children’s hunters and fourth place at IEA Nationals.  She recently won the EJ Haun Medal on a horse making his 3’3” debut, as well.

Another working student with ties to the Carolinas that has been accomplishing her goals—and then some–is Hazel Taylor.  As a working student for Aiken, SC-based DFG Stables, Hazel was afforded the opportunity to ride numerous horses with varied experience levels and abilities.  She was able to show hunters, jumpers and equitation horses in this position as well as prepare horses for clients and sales. This experience culminated in her attaining a spot on the University of Georgia Equestrian Team.  As Hazel puts it, “Without the working student position, I would not be the person I am today. It taught me how to put my head down and work; it taught me how to handle clients and different bosses as well as exposing me to the behind-the-scenes life of a professional.  My transition into college was not difficult at all because I have already lived away from home. The team is a ton of work and I am positive that without my working student background I would not be able to juggle all of the moving parts. As a Division I athlete, it is my job to work hard for my team and to put all of my energy and effort into that.  My experience as a working student taught me how to be a hard worker and how to not complain when things get tough or uncomfortable.”

Hazel grew up on a small farm in the tiny town of Rising Fawn, GA and dreamed of one day garnering a spot on a college equestrian team.  Without owning her own horse, this goal seemed unattainable until she was offered the working student position at DFG Stables. Hazel emphasizes that she would not be where she is today without this opportunity; in her communications with the UGA coaches, she would explain how much she was learning, how much she had honed her staunch work ethic, and what a variety of horses she was able to ride.  She is confident that these factors secured her a position on the team. They certainly contributed to her numerous wins and successes during her junior career, which included qualifying for the 2018 USEF Hunter Seat Medal Finals, champion in the 15-17 Equitation division at the Southeast Regionals Horse Show, and winner of the $10,000 HITS Ocala children’s-adult jumper classic.

The common factor for all of these working students—present and prior—is that they would do it all over again and believe that the lessons they learned have been invaluable for preparing them both for their riding careers and for life.  As Hazel put it, “My advice for anyone hoping to secure a working student position would be to absolutely go for it because it was the best experience I could have asked for as far as maturing into the person I am today.” Ava agrees, and advises that the most important tool for a working student is a positive attitude and willingness to learn.  Karen echoes this sentiment, and her best advice for an aspiring working student is to work harder than what is expected. In sum, a working student position can be an incredibly rewarding and mutually beneficial arrangement that pays big dividends, and we are fortunate here in the Carolinas to have accomplished trainers willing to share their substantial knowledge and wisdom with their students in this capacity.

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