The Ultimate Working Pupil Startup Kit, Part 1: An Intro to WP Life

Canadian young rider Olivia Alstad moved to the UK to pursue a working pupil (WP) position and has since chronicled her experience via her blog Livin’ Eventing. EN is excited to share her two-part series, “The Ultimate Working Pupil Startup Kit.”

“Here is all the information that I wish I had at 18, when I decided I wanted to try the whole ‘WP experience’ but I had no clue on what it actually meant or entailed,” she explains. “If I help even one person who is interested in pursuing this path truly understand and make a plan towards finding their dream WP position, then this article will have succeeded.” 

Keep up with Olivia’s journey via her blog; you can also subscribe to the mailing list and become a member!

Photos courtesy of Olivia Alstad.

Everybody starts somewhere! A working pupil (WP) position can be the base of your education and career, potentially leading you to a variety of career options in the horse industry. Whether your long-term objective is to become a trainer, a professional rider, or just a well-rounded and educated horse person, I believe that one of the best places to figure out where you fit in within the industry is by jumping into a WP position — with a plan!

Let’s begin with a seemingly simple but incredibly important question:

What Is a Working Pupil?

 The British Groom’s Organization has a clear, matter-of-fact definition of a working pupil: “In the equine industry the term ‘working pupil’ is typically associated with someone who works at a yard, lives on the premises and keeps their horse there and, in return for this, they get training. There is no legal definition of a ‘working pupil’ and this term is not a legal employment status. If you are a working pupil you are more than likely an employee.”

Right off the bat, you can see that a WP is not an employment status, and there is NO legal definition of the position. If that worries you slightly, you’re not alone. I’m not going to get into the legalities of becoming a WP in this particular article, but I wanted to give you the heads up. Doing some further research into this will help protect yourself, and whoever may be giving you an opportunity to learn. This article from Horse & Hound is a good place to start investigating.

Photo courtesy of Olivia Alstad.

As a WP you help your mentor/rider, and they help you! Here is a rough idea of the give-and-take within a WP position.

The WP helps their mentor/rider:

  • With yard and exercise work (generally six days per week)
  • Grooming at home and at competitions (when needed and often when you yourself are competing!)
  • Basically, you are an extra set of hands on the yard to help groom, be jump crew, be an exercise rider, become a master lunger, and be the navigator to events. You might even become a social media assistant, and have sleepovers with the dog!

The mentor/rider helps their working pupil:

  • Accommodate their horse on their yard
  • Teaches the student lessons on their horse or their own horses
  • Finds them suitable accommodation
  • Trucks them to competitions and offers coaching (if they aren’t competing at the same time)
  • Provides them with training opportunities, often with their own trainers (dressage/jumping lessons, cross country schooling, etc.)

Each position varies in what is offered to a WP and what a WP is expected to do in return. For example: I’ve had WP positions where I’ve had to pay reduced livery/board, and others where it is completely covered. This should be discussed and made clear before you proceed with a WP position.

Is a Working Pupil Position Right for You?

It will be a little bit of this…

…but even more of that!

The best way I’ve been told to look at your WP experience is that they are your ‘college years’ and to see it for what it is: an education. You will live and breathe horses, you will have long days and it will be tiring, but if you find the right position it will be worth it!

You should look into a WP position if:

  • You have a strong desire to learn, ride and care for horses
  • You have a positive attitude and are ready to take a WP position as seriously as you would take a college course
  • You want to learn from a rider you admire, follow their system and learn how a professional yard operates
  • You want to improve yourself and your horse’s training as well as get an opportunity to compete (and learn to be competitive)

You should not look into a WP position if:

  • You want a fun holiday where you get to do lots of riding on top horses
  • You already believe yourself to be the next Michael Jung, you just need to be discovered
  • You want a 9-5 job where you get your horse and your accommodation paid for

Rosegarth at sunset. Photo by Olivia Alstad.

 A Day in the Life of a Working Pupil

This is an example of an average day when you are not preparing for an event, going to an event or going training. These mornings can start anytime in the a.m., end anytime in the p.m. and really shake the day around! There can be many differences between yards.

Start between 6-8 a.m.: Morning chores — feed, hay, muck out, turn horses in/out, morning check/groom, blow/sweep yard.

Anytime between 8-10 a.m.: Rider arrives (might have a cup of tea and chat with the team), fills in and reviews diary/schedule.

Starting anytime from 8:30 a.m.: Start tacking up horses in rider’s preferred order & start riding/exercising horses yourself.

Anywhere from 1:30-3 p.m.: Clean all the tack, make sure all the horses are happy then take lunch break — it can be anything from a mad dash for a bite of a sandwich to a one-hour sit down meal, depends on the day!

Anywhere from 3-6 p.m.: Afternoon chores: skip out, turn horses in/out, hay, feed, sweep/blow for a 5-6 p.m. FINISH

Anytime between 8-9 p.m.: Lates/evening check — give late feeds and check that all the horses are OK (also give scratches — see video below).

Time to Make a List

If you’d rather be making lists like this, you might have come to the end of the line!

If you are still reading and are not scared off by the daunting list of chores, then you are ready to do some serious thinking about your next step! I’ve found the best place to start is by gathering your thoughts onto a list. You want to take the time to figure out what you truly need in a position. I can’t stress enough how important this part of the process is! When writing your list you will decide what you absolutely cannot go without, and what you are willing to negotiate on.

This is an example of a wants and needs list. Once you have that organized, write down a list of questions you want to ask about the position:

Where Do I Find a Working Pupil Position?

Now that you know what you’re looking for, it’s time to start the search! There are many ways to find a WP position, from word of mouth to online listings. The good news for you: people are always taking on WPs. Before you jump in and start making calls, do some research.

First, find out if the position fits in with what you need (from your list) BEFORE giving the number on the ad a ring or a message. For example: An ad will generally state wether or not it is possible to bring a horse with you. If you have a horse and the yard cannot accommodate one, it would make little sense to call-up and ask about the position!

To start your search, it is useful to ask around and make your equestrian community (pony club, local riding school, connections from your trainer) aware that you’re on the hunt for a WP position. Online listing are a fast and easy way to find what you’re looking for. It can also be helpful to make a list of people you’d really like to learn from, and check their social media pages/websites to see if they are currently looking. If they aren’t currently advertising for WPs, it’s always worth it to shoot them a message inquiring about availability in the future!

Photo by Olivia Alstad.

What to Ask

Now that you’ve found a potential position: It’s time to phone or message to inquire about it. If you are calling, have your list of questions ready and be prepared to answer all the questions they might have for you. (Example: Do you have a horse? Have you worked in eventing before?)

It’s easiest for everybody if you avoid wasting time in this process. If you don’t waste time getting to the point in a conversation or email by saying something like: “Hi, my name is Ali, I’m interested in your WP position available. I have a horse currently competing at BE100, I would need accommodation, I have my own vehicle and would like the opportunity to compete this coming season.” It saves an awful lot of time (as nice as a leisurely chatting about the recent stretch of sunny weather is!).

Ask everything from your list of questions, and keep a notepad out to write down the answers. If anywhere along the line of communication you can tell something isn’t realistically going to work, tell them right away (respectively). If it seems to be a good match, set up a time to meet for an interview. This will also give you a chance to check out their yard.

When you go for your interview, bring a notepad! Any remaining questions, and any you come up with as you tour the yard, should be written down. It might seem nerdy to bring a notepad with you but keep in mind — with all the information you have documented, you will be better able to make an informed and educated decision that seriously effects your future.

Photo by Olivia Alstad.

Now What?

After your visit to the yard you believe you’ve found the right position, and the rider is happy to have you as their WP. Awesome! …. Now what?

My next blog post: ‘The Ultimate Working Pupil Startup Kit: Part 2’ will give you a run down of where to go from a successful interview. We’ll start by talking about trials, going into your first day/week/month, the (inevitable) difficult days, and where to go from a WP position with a note about financial security.