Work riding: can anybody do it?

You will be expected to ride a variety of horses, so being a capable rider in your own right is important

Most young and upcoming riders will take on work riding as a part- or full-time job as a means to gain experience and earn a little extra cash. Working a variety of horses can do wonders for your riding as well as teach you to be versatile and adaptable. It’s a first start for most talented South African riders looking to make a career in the equestrian sport, but it should also be treated as you would any other starting job in another industry or field.

How do you know if you can work ride?

There’s no studying or qualification involved in becoming a work rider, and so simply speaking, anyone could do it – but that’s not to say that everyone should. Most riders go into work riding because they are naturally talented and show a promising future as a professional rider. If you’re looking to take up work riding, these are a few qualities you should be able to identify in yourself.

You should be advanced in your own riding. You will be expected to ride a variety of horses – young and old, green and experienced, easy and difficult – and so being a capable rider in your own right is important. You will be trusted to provide a constructive education to each horse you ride, as well as give them confidence and guidance.

You should have excellent practical and theoretical knowledge of riding so that you can diagnose a horse’s behaviour and train him accordingly. For example, you should be able to interpret why a horse snatches at the reins, or pulls the rider onto the forehand, or has a tendency to stop. From there, you need to apply theoretical knowledge to the problem so that you can decide on the best way to improve unwanted behaviour. Most work riders are delegated young horses to ride, so an understanding of and patience with green horses is of paramount importance.

You should also have excellent knowledge of horses and their wellbeing in general. As the horse’s work rider, you need to be able to detect any signs of lameness or sickness that maybe are not obvious when the horse is not under saddle. If an accident were to occur and you were unsupervised by the owner or a stable manager, you should be able to think on your feet and treat the horse with basic first aid if he has sustained an injury. You should then have a contact list of the relevant people to call according to the circumstances. You should also have good knowledge of tack so that you can inform the horse’s owner if you want to change a bit, bridle or saddle in order to improve the horse’s training, understanding or comfort.

A few formalities

Most owners take on work riders to train green or inexperienced horses

Once you’ve got a good idea of for whom or where you can work, you need to have a clear idea of what you can offer. Decide what kind of horses you are comfortable working, and where you draw the line. Some work riders purely assist in keeping horses fit, whereas others are keen to tackle difficult or inexperienced horses and help the owner work towards a solution. You can choose to be discipline specific, although this mostly applies to dressage and endurance riders who prefer not to jump. Some work riders specialise in the schooling of young horses, whereas others can offer a going horse more advanced or higher-level training. You may also need to consider if you’re willing to compete an owner’s horse, as this could be something they would like if your partnership with the horse proves to be working.
Be very careful not to advertise yourself as something you are not, as owners will be able to pick it up very quickly. It’s very common that work riders sell themselves as Grand Prix riders, but when it comes to delivering the horse with the education, the rider’s skills tell a different story. Rather be honest about your capabilities and find work that suits your level of riding. You don’t want to disappoint the owner’s expectations and you will want to build a good reputation for yourself.

Sitting down with the owner

Before you start work riding for an individual owner or for a yard, make sure that you sit down and discuss the finer details so that you can make sure both parties are on the same page. Be clear about:

  • the period of commitment, if applicable.
  • the horse’s level of schooling and anything that you as the work rider should be aware of.
  • the number of times per week that you need to ride the horse.
  • the length of time you are expected to ride the horse.
  • your fee.
  • the areas you are expected to focus on or the type of schooling the owner expects.
  • any pre- or post-training care that needs to be taken as per the horse’s individual needs.
  • whether you are expected to compete the horse, and if so, what level and how often.
  • the dos and don’ts when schooling the horse.
  • a list of contact details in the event of an emergency.

It’s important to have a written document, signed and dated by the owner and rider, so that both parties are protected. For your convenience, we have attached an example of a contract that you can copy for your own work riding.