Wanting more pay and respect are two of the top three reasons workers leave their jobs in the equine industry in Canada, a new report has found.
In the first-ever research of its kind, the study by Canada’s Brock University Labour Studies professor Kendra Coulter examined labour issues for Ontarians working with horses.
The result is a mixed picture of the province’s equine industries, with half of stable staff respondents saying they’re paid minimum wage — or less.
This week Coulter released her report, Work in Ontario Horse Stables, which presents key findings from a survey of 1000 people including stable owners and operators, and current and former workers. The majority of the respondents were general stable workers and stall muckers, but others including grooms, trainers, stable managers and instructors were also represented.
Prevalent in the data was the compounding combination of low pay and interpersonal disrespect. Several former and current workers indicated that they had accepted that work with horses would mean low pay, but that rudeness, insensitivity, and thoughtlessness from certain employers and/or boarders/clients added insult to injury, and could not be tolerated.
Coulter said the report would be a “wakeup call about the severity of some problems”.
“My hope is that the report shines a light, inspires new conversations and adds fodder to those that are underway about how to improve job quality in stables.”
Coulter says it sheds much-needed light on a widely misunderstood workforce. “The results provide empirical evidence of certain trends horse people knew informally were happening, as well as some new and promising insights.”
Coulter, whose research work on animals, labour and humane jobs has been recognized in Canada and around the world, says those working with horses are often under-valued and under-appreciated.
“Stable workers are asked to do very difficult work under challenging conditions, and they are excluded from some of even the most basic protections outlined in the Employment Standards Act,” she says. “It can manifest in frustration about working conditions and high turnover rates for front-line workers, and difficulty recruiting and retaining talented and reliable staff for employers.”
In addition to the low rates of pay, Coulter found many working on the front lines in equine industries are also not being legally classified, or may be being misclassified as independent contractors, a move which downloads certain costs onto staff.
“This may be unintentional, or it may be about trying to save money in the short term,” she says.
Coulter says the number of jobs and the working conditions of people directly affect the care they are able to provide to horses.
“To work effectively and thoughtfully with horses, people need multi-faceted intellectual and physical skills, knowledge, understanding and empathy,” she says.
The reasons people had left the equine industries mirrored the greatest sources of dissatisfaction for the current workforce: pay, disrespect and the schedule.
On the positive side, some employers are trying to tangibly demonstrate their appreciation for front-line workers, despite the high costs associated with running a horse stable. The survey found that workers and employers were united by their commitment to horses, and their interest in providing improved care.
One discovery Coulter was happy to find was the shared interest in stronger animal welfare laws and greater investment in animal cruelty investigations and prevention. Animal cruelty investigations work and policy is one of Coulter’s other areas of expertise, and she was heartened to see it highlighted, noting that there is growing public interest in improving the province’s approach.
Coulter hopes this report and further research will help stimulate larger conversations and plans of action.
“People and horses definitely deserve better,” she says.
Dr. Kendra Coulter holds the Chancellor’s Chair for Research Excellence and is associate professor and chair of the department of labour studies at Brock University. She is also a member of the Royal Society of Canada’s College of New Scholars, Artists and Scientists. She specializes in the study of animals and work, including horse-human relations. An award-winning author, she has written widely in academic and media venues, and her latest book is Animals, Work, and the Promise of Interspecies Solidarity. A lifelong horse woman, she was on the back of a horse before she could walk.