Meet Sarah Yawata!

Meet Sarah Yawata!  Sarah is taking the career path that many pursue in order to become a trainer.  Lots of hands on experience, coupled with some nitty gritty dirty work and a whole lot of brain sponge action.  And just to prove how tiny small the horse world is, one of Sarah’s former mentors and teachers is a friend of mine in California.  Sarah and I met in Virginia and as I got to know her, I had more and more questions for her, so I just thought it would be easier to let everyone in on the conversation!


How did you begin your career as a Groom and Working Student? Did you learn on the job, or did you have previous horse experiences, formal education, etc? 


“When I first voiced the idea that I'd like to pursue working with horses as a career, my trainer highly recommended finding an apprenticeship program like she had done. I took her advice and made the leap when I was 19, moving 4,000+ miles from Hawaii to the Midwest and I've been on this journey since then. After a couple of months, I knew the job was the right fit for me. Instead of getting bored and complacent, my interest and desire for the job only heightened. The past five years have been me gaining hands on experience learning from professionals who have been in the horse training industry for many years longer than I have. I imagine it's a bit like going to trade school; this is my education.”


“As a kid, I was one of those barn rats that spent all day at the barn on Saturdays, working just for the chance to ride one of the school horses. In high school I started to take my riding and horse management more seriously and worked at the barn 3-4 days a week in exchange for lessons. I took every opportunity I could to sit on as many different horses as possible as well as taking weekly lessons on my personal horse. The limited dressage resources in Hawaii was a major reason behind my move to the mainland. I had about 8 years of riding under my belt at the time that I started my first internship and had just started to ride Second Level. There was much for me to learn!”


So now that you have been at this for a few years, what are some of the pros and cons of being a working student? 


“The biggest pro for me is the hands-on working environment. As someone who learns from watching and doing, I can thrive in a learning situation like this. Another big pro is being able to ride different horses. So many bad habits can develop when you are sitting on only one horse. It's easy to get lulled into a false sense of comfort and effectiveness with just one horse, too. You learn so much more by having multiple mounts from both a riding and training standpoint. After my first internship, I sat and made a list and discovered I had ridden 80 different horses while working there!”


“As far as cons go... You will be poor. Period. Very few positions are paid and the ones that are, usually pay just enough to cover basic expenses like food, health insurance, and depending on where you live some gas money. Generally, you will get minimal time off. Due to management and time and distance, you will miss important things like weddings, funerals, and graduations. You will be working on all holidays, because guess what? Horses always need to be fed and stalls always need to be cleaned. Your work hours will be long. Most places have an early start to the day and a late end. 40 hour week? That's easy. Yours will be more like 60. Some of you won't even get a full day off. And of course there are ALL different sorts of bosses that you might work for, as well as the dynamic of their assistants, barn and horse owners, and the other working students. That, depending on the team you have, can be a pro or a con!”


Of course I’m going to chime in here and bring up a point - especially when it comes to working student, intern, apprentice type positions.  You are still an employee, you are doing work directed by someone else.  If you get paid in lessons, housing, a stall for your horse, the market value of these types of payment still needs to be reported to the IRS - and likely you and your employer are responsible for the associated taxes. It’s a barter situation and you can learn more about it here.  


Ok - back to Sarah and how she gets to maximize the brain sponge stuff that goes along with being a working student.  How do you take advantage of your time as a working student  - what knowledge sources do you tap?


“Watch, listen, try. That's it. Your trainer is riding? If the arena is close to where you are working, watch.  Someone is riding in the same arena as you and/or taking a lesson? Watch when you are walking your horse out and listen if it's a lesson. The vet, farrier, dentist, etc. are working on a horse? Watch, listen, and ask questions! Talk to your peers about the horse you all ride, what do they do to warm up the horse, how did their lesson go, did they have trouble with the shoulder in to the right, too? And don't forget to talk theory with your trainer too, time permitting. You're not going to have the time or desire to read books, especially horse-related ones, but keep a few on your nightstand for when you get the random motivation to do so and take notes when you do. Flip through a horse magazine and pick one or two articles to really read and not just skim. And then with all this information you've been absorbing, try it! If you only ride with supervision/in lessons, discuss with your trainer the thoughts, questions and ideas you would like to try before getting on the horse. Once you figure out how you learn, go with it and put yourself in situations that nurture that, and then, challenge yourself. Ask your trainer to give you homework and make a short list yourself and then plug away at it, little bit little, like chipping away at a boulder. Hm, sounds a lot like horse training, too!”


And of course I’m asking Sarah what she has seen and experienced in the horse industry! What do you think are the biggest challenges facing Grooms in the horse industry today? What advice would you give an aspiring Groom?  What about a Groom stuck in an unsafe workplace (unsafe conditions, illegal pay, no worker's comp, etc)


Sarah reminds us of the beauty of the horse business and how to scope out potential jobs.  “Be smart when looking for a barn/trainer to work for. Always ask for references and go for a trial period. Two weeks to a month is a good amount of time to feel out a workplace. Have a few solid things you want and don't budge from them. You need to bring your horse? Have a private bedroom? Take a daily riding lesson? Opportunity to show? Find a place that clearly offers those things.”


“The best advice anyone has ever given me about this position is: Be humble. You're going to get to a new place and they're going to tell you to do things that you don't quite get. Just do it. These are their horses and their training program. If you did your research and found a good place to be, down the road all the pieces will fit together and you'll be sitting on a horse feeling it all click together; all the steps your trainer has been teaching you one by one will fit into the bigger picture.”


And some tidbits of wisdom about being a good citizen and playing well with others.  “Working student positions are different from your typical office job because of how closely you might live with your boss. Usually you live on the same property and it's fairly common to live in the same house. Your dynamic of employer and employee becomes muddled with being roommates, friends and even family. There's always an adjustment period. I try to keep work separate of everything else. That way, I can be as professional as possible and make decisions that are not based on personal bias or emotions. If you're going to be spending that much time with your boss, on and off work hours, it's important that you get along.”


And because Sarah has worked in the West, in the East, and in the Middle, I had to ask her about the differences.  What are some east coast/west coast similarities?  Differences?  


“I've been working with trainers who focus on dressage and the coolest thing has been that no matter where I've worked, the training of the horse is the same. We follow the training scale and have the same goal in mind of a better balanced horse who is healthy and happy in its work.”


And this is when I start to get horrified.  Sarah points out that “Differences from coast to coast involve one major thing: winter. The winter season includes, but is not limited to, layering your clothes and the horses' blankets, draining hoses, breaking ice in water buckets, extra careful cool down and warm up, dealing with ice in the barn aisle and pastures and snow falling off the arena roof. Those are all thing I had to learn coming from a temperate climate like Hawaii.”


“In California, you definitely are a small fish in a BIG pond. There are so many international level trainers that it can be difficult if not impossible to stand out as a fresh-faced new kid on the block. As such, in competition, the classes are huge and highly competitive, full of quality horses with top-notch training. On the west coast, you are isolated from the bigger, more prestigious competition venues, like the Kentucky Horse Park, Gladstone, and Wellington. Even regional championships within the state of California can be too much to travel for.”


That’s fine and dandy, but why would you even become a working student in the first place?  I know Sarah, I know she has a plan.  What are the goals for your ultimate horse life? 


“I can picture a few ultimate goals for me, and right now I'm living one of those paths, which is to build my training tool box and become competent at training horses up to Grand Prix with the insight from horse professionals who mentor and teach me. I hope to then find a place to hang up my trainer's shingle and go from there. I'd love to be a trainer at a facility with enough room for multiple trainers so my close friends who I've met along my journey and I can run the business together. We'll be located in a temperate climate and cover everything from dressage to trail riding to eventing and showing. The barn will have fun activities like our Late Night Ride which is to be held on a week night to be determined and basically it's where we ride after 8pm under lights while blasting music in the arena. That's the ultimate goal. It's a long shot of a  dream for sure, but I'd love to end up back in Hawaii, running my own little business.”  (This is a very specific goal, and I love it.)


“I don't have personal aspirations like many have of being an Olympian and I think that's totally okay. (Of course if someone handed me a sponsored ride to the Olympics, I wouldn't say no!) While training is where my passion lies, I still would like to compete and do well nationally. I'd love to do more riding and training in Europe as well. I am planning to participate in the the USDF judges program and would like to be involved in helping dressage in America progress in a positive way. There are so many possibilities for me at this point and I am still trying new things and finding out not only what I enjoy but what I can excel at.”


Of course the mega Groom in me comes out, I need to know her secrets! What’s your least favorite barn chore?  Favorite barn chore? Any clever barn hacks to share?


“Hoses. Weeding is probably second on that list.”


“I find cleaning tack to be very therapeutic and calming. I like cleaning stalls in the morning because it gives me quiet time before the day really comes in swinging. I get the best ideas when I'm sweeping. I love pulling manes (on well behaved horses).”


And what wisdom would you share for the owners out there that have never been a Groom or working student?  For the owners out there - what are the most critical parts of grooming?  


“Know what's normal. Your horse's temp and heart rate, the time of day they lie down to nap, how much water they drink daily, etc. It doesn't matter if you don't have the fanciest set up. You might have dirt aisles, your wash rack might consist of a garden hose stretched out across the lawn, and your horses might not have engraved brass nameplates on their halters, but that is not what counts. What matters is maintaining an organized and safe barn area. I've walked through barns that were not showy on the outside or the inside and found clear aisles, electric cords coiled and managed, hay stored neatly, and happy, healthy horses napping in their stalls.”


And because we all have that one hot button topic to wax philosophical about, I asked Sarah, Anything else you want to add? Talk about?  Ask about?  Soap box about?  

“I think the key to being a exceptional working student is learning how to be both quick and efficient. It's no good if you sweep the barn aisle in five minutes but there's still streaks left and dirt in the corners. You also can't take five hours to sweep the aisle because there's a lot more work to get done. At all of the top barns I've been to, this is what stands out the most to me about the staff. It's something I strive for daily.”


“Recently, I've noticed a lot of online articles being passed around Facebook about how to shine as a working student. While I generally agree with every point and nod along while reading, there is one topic that keeps popping up that I have an issue with. That is: making yourself indispensable to your employer. While it sounds good on paper and is a great ego boost, it isn't what you should do.”


“I used to take pride in the fact that people said when I was absent, they noticed things around the barn that didn't get done. “Ha,” I thought, “this barn would fall if not for me.” But after a conversation with a friend who had been doing this job for longer than I, I changed my tune completely.”


“Being exceptional at your job is different than making yourself indispensable. So yes, go above and beyond your duties, be a step ahead of your trainer, read their mind and always have what they need. But do not make them rely on you so completely that when you leave, they struggle to go on.”


“In many of our cases, our stint in this position is a temporary one. It's why all of the great bosses out there give us opportunities to grow and help us find the next step up. Why would you purposely make it hard for yourself to leave AND put your employer in a hard spot?”


“So for those of us that work beside other working students: share advice, keep on the same page and try to maintain the same quality of work, no matter who is putting in the hours. Help your trainer stay on track, but don't do it for them. If the person coming in to take your position overlaps the ending period of your time, give them the full run through of what you do. It all boils down to being an employee with integrity. I know that it is easy to lose sight of that when you're maybe a little run down and burned out. In the end though, you will be able to begin at your new opportunity with a clear mind and the positive backing of your previous boss. Try your hardest not to burn bridges. So much of this horse world is built on networking and good old fashioned word of mouth. You can't afford to ruin yourself by being hot-headed or even just snarky.”


Thank you Sarah!  We will see you at the shows! 


(Photo credits to Jennifer Kaiser)