Follow Your Heart: Careers in the Horse Industry
Story: Kim Izzo | First posted January 26, 2022 by Horse-Canada.com
There are countless young women and men who would embrace a career in the horse industry. But some either do not come from a horse background or didn’t grow up on a farm in a rural area and working with equines may seem like an unattainable goal. But that’s about to change for Ontario residents with the introduction this January of the Ontario Equine Education & Employment Program (OEEEP).
The program, which includes online courses followed by job placement, was created by the Ontario Harness Horse Association in response to a dearth of skilled horse labour. Back in 2012, the provincial government of the day decimated the industry by ending the revenue from slots and other gambling machines installed at the tracks. “The industry lost approximately $345 million per year in revenue,” explains OHHA president Jim Whelan, referring to both harness racing and Thoroughbred racing. And with that lost revenue came lost jobs, with many skilled horse women and men forced out of an industry they loved to take other employment.
But now the racing industry is stabilized and according to Whelan, there was a need to replace workers for the various jobs that have been historically challenging to fill. After all, it takes a certain person to want to work long hours in all sorts of weather, filling buckets, mucking stalls, and dealing with unpredictable animals. We know these types of people; we are those types of people: horse people.
But the industry needed a new crop of labour and Whelan saw an opportunity to create it. “The program was created through the provincial government and the Ministry of Labour, who recognized that there was a need in the horse industry for workers, and also a need for job creation,” Whelan explains. Out of the OHHA’s conversations with the various levels of local government, the OEEEP was born.
The program involves Equine Guelph, which was contracted to deliver the online portion of the program through The Horse Portal (University of Guelph). Equine Guelph’s six-week program is an introduction to horses and the equine industry. Qualified students are given sign-up information once accepted into the program and then they spend six weeks online to learn about the basics of horse care and daily management, and other topics including behaviour, safety, fire prevention, and information about the industry. The course includes online discussions, videos, interactive learning objects, self-assessment and review, quizzes and more. Successful candidates who complete all online learning activities and the quizzes then receive a Certificate of Completion from Equine Guelph.
Part of the curriculum also includes VPI Working Solutions (VPI), an employment service provider for the Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development. “We work closely with OHHA and Equine Guelph on all levels of the Ontario Equine Education and Employment Program (OEEEP) and we’re thrilled to be able to introduce the equine industry to so many job seekers who would otherwise not have this opportunity to work with horses,” says Nancy Fisher, manager, independent examinations and vocational services at VPI. “Our role in the OEEEP is to get program participants ready for their new careers by providing fundamental employment preparation, and essential skills training. This employment training compliments the industry-specific training that Equine Guelph provides and was designed in consult.”
Ashley MacDonald is the OEEEP program coordinator, and she provided Horse-Canada with a full breakdown of the eight-week program. “OHHA administers the program and I work with our partners VPI and Equine Guelph throughout the eight-weeks,” she says. MacDonald is also a guest speaker/career specialist in the information sessions that VPI holds for interested applicants before they enroll in the program and the intake assessments to make sure the potential candidates for the program have placement opportunities.
The program unfolds as follows:
- Week 1 – at VPI Working Solutions.
- Week 2 – 7 – virtual learning course at Equine Guelph’s The Horse Portal (University of Guelph).
- Week 8 – head back to VPI for placement prep workshops such as resume building and mock interviews.
Another of MacDonald’s roles is to secure job placements with potential equine employers. “I reach out to equestrians who have ads needing grooms/caretakers/barn hands and contact stables that are close to our student’s addresses,” she explains.
The placements run the gamut of Standardbred/Thoroughbred/Quarter Horse race stables, hunter/jumper, dressage, eventing, western, polo, pleasure boarding, and breeding barns. There are also placements available at human therapeutic rehabilitation and riding stables, equine rehabilitation and equine hospitals.
The first OEEEP placement began on Friday, January 21st, at the Whelan Racing Stables, a standardbred horse racing barn in Flamborough, Ontario.
MacDonald says she was also there to answer any questions and help with more complex tasks like polo wrapping and bandaging while she becomes more comfortable and confident to ask her new boss and co-workers for help.
“Our student, Hannah Knowles, is having a great time learning about all the steps that go into caring for the Standardbred equine athlete. She learned how to muck a stall, clean water buckets, basic tack-up routine and bathing protocol. Then after the horses were cooled out, she brought them onto the cross ties and began learning the put away routine; brushing, picking out feet and blanketing,” says MacDonald. “I was with her for her first day of work to help her settle into her new work placement, guide her through a sometimes fast-paced work environment with horses coming and going through the barn.”
Knowles, 23, is from Mount Hope, and admits she had virtually no experience in horses when she enrolled in the program. “I went to a summer camp as a kid that had horses. That is pretty much it,” she says. “I have always liked horses; I’ve always found them really interesting animals. I find animals a lot easier to understand than people.”
That’s a statement that most horse people can relate to. Knowles said the program was excellent at giving her the theoretical information she needed, but felt that one area of improvement would be the use of more videos on subjects such as horse body language instead of still images. As for her work placement at the Standardbred racing stable, “All the people are really nice and understanding of the newbie,” she says. Knowles’ short-term goal is to become independent doing her tasks and not need as much supervision. “Having a ‘stable’ income would be nice,” she quips.
Each student receives a OEEEP placement outfit when they go to worksite that consists of an Ariat Jacket (suitable for the season they start their placement in) and a pair of Blundstone boots. The gear is provided by System Equine in Rockwood, which are very supportive of the program. And they’re not the only one.
MacDonald says she’s had an overwhelming amount of support from the equine community. “Many trainers are offering to take on students with absolutely no equine-related experience to fill job openings,” she says. “There are so many barns that are struggling to find help and although the training at Equine Guelph and VPI is virtual they are willing to educate and develop skills to those wanting to learn.”
The initial roll-out of the OEEEP has proven to be a winner. The first cohort had 12 students, and the second cohort has 40. In total, there will be five cohorts in 2022. The program is an initial 15-month pilot project. Intakes happen every three months, and there are five cohorts in total, and each cohort can take up to sixty people. If the program proves successful, organizers hope it will be renewed on an annual basis.
If you’re interested in the program, contact MacDonald at the Ontario Harness Horse Association to discuss your interests, career goals, experience and more. Employers who have spots open are encouraged to post these opportunities on EquineJobTrack.ca, a central, free job listing service offered by Equine Guelph in support of the equine industry.