• Christine Keate

"You may be a confident teenager but I will break you"

Devastating words to a young teenage apprentice in the equine industry

I was 16 when Covid 19 hit and the country went into lockdown. My mum pulled me out of school the Monday before all schools closed and I started looking for something to do, as lockdown cut my education short. I found a placement at a high profile stud farm about 20 miles from where I lived, where I could do an Advanced Apprenticeship in Sporting Excellence. There was shared accommodation and my horse could stay with me so I could carry on training. I moved in and started working straight way. When I got there everyone was nice and they seemed to do things properly – I was given my two days off a week and worked an 8 hour day. Sometimes when foals were born we would be up at night or work longer hours but I didn’t mind that as working with horses was my dream job.

After a few weeks a couple more apprentices moved into the accommodation. I was the youngest by a few years and there started to be friction between all the girls in the house. I was riding at the highest level (PSG/Inter 1) of all the apprentices and started to become a victim of jealousy. Once I was told that my horse “wasn’t very exciting”. They started to leave me out of conversations and activities and I felt very alone. I spoke to my mum and she spoke to my manager to try to improve the situation. I was called in for a chat about it and was told by my manager "You may be a confident teenager but I will break you".

I felt like I was being set up to fail.I was once left alone with a potentially colicking horse with no instructions of what to do other than to “walk it til it poos’” and on another occasion, was made to hold a mare near the phantom dummy while they did a semen collection. This really frightened me as I had no experience of this and the stallion actually tried to mount the mare and backed me into a corner.

I’m not going to lie I struggled, when I tried to speak about it I was called a 'wet girl' and that I needed to grow up. I was bullied and called more names by both my employer and co-workers, who I lived with. Things became so unbearable that I started bad habits like smoking and cutting myself, to try get away from the mental and physical abuse I received. Each day after work I was tired and sore as they piled more and more workload onto me, I stopped eating and became really skinny. When my mum was allowed to visit she was really worried about me and started looking for a new placement for me. I was there for only 6 months – half a year – it might not seem long but the more days I worked there the longer the days felt.

My mum found another placement for me at a dressage yard that also provided accommodation and a place for my horse. I moved there and again everything was good in the beginning. I didn’t have a contract of employment and only had 1.5 days off a week but, I had one to one lessons with a Grand Prix rider and, I was able to help train some of the horses there. I had my 17th birthday and all was amazing – I got along with my boss. He wasn’t very good at paying me on time and I often had to ask for my wages but, it was a relief to be away from the other job that this didn’t seem to be a big problem. Then one of the girls from the old yard came to work there and the bullying started again. My lessons started to be cut down and I wasn’t allowed to train any of the horses I had been working with. I spoke up again and was told if I wasn’t happy I needed to leave, but there wasn’t anywhere for me to go so I stuck with it. I worked my hardest and was bullied again and told my work wasn’t good enough, but nothing had changed in my work ethic in fact I was working harder. When the winter came things became really hard as the heating in the house wasn’t working, I spoke to my boss about it and he did nothing. The water system stopped working so we had no hot water in the bathroom and no water in the kitchen – I spoke up again and nothing was done. I stuck it out as I didn’t want to give up, I was determined to get through this hard time.

As time passed I became ill so I took some time off to get better. When I went back to work the situation was worse. I was isolated from things and, wasn't told what we needed to do for the day. When I wasn’t doing what had been asked I was getting verbal warnings, I tried to explain I hadn't been told what needed doing but, he said I should have been in work – although I can't help that I was sick. As more time passed I was left to do things by myself, such as pushing big bales of straw down from the top row in the barn so we could put them in the stables. One day I fell 2m onto concrete and stones onto my shoulder, I was lucky only to have torn muscles and tendons and a sprained joint, I carried on working after that happened but was in pain, so my mom took me to A&E. I was out of work for 6 weeks after that and in the time I knew I couldn’t go through that anymore – I needed to get out.

I found another placement that promised to offer me a position long term after my apprenticeship ended. They gave so many dreams about being able to run my own little business based with them, starting to teach some people and training horses. The only problem was that this was in Shropshire, and I was living in Hampshire. I talked to my family about it and they where excited for me. There was also a cottage on the farm for them to rent, so we packed up our stuff for the last time (we hoped) and moved to Shropshire.

When we got there things were as they said. I had my contract and and a caravan that had hot water and good insulation so it stayed warm. I was offered a ride on one of the stallions and was allowed to compete on him as well. I had regular lessons on my own horse and was involved with a lot of the physio and vet work. My hours where good and I had 2 days off; when the foals were being born I would work later than normal but I didn’t mind, as everything else was good and it was only on the odd day. When I started competing again my training was paying off and I was getting good scores. Then suddenly my lessons became less and less and my working hours longer. I had learnt my lesson by not speaking to my bosses about it so I told my mum, she asked for a meeting with my bosses to speak about the problems and, how I was riding till 5:30 but then still had two/three hours yard work to finish, when I should have finished working by 5:30. When the meeting was over I was pulled from all the rides but the hours still were as long as when I was riding, and I started to be left in sole charge. I talked to my mum again and we made the decision that this wasn’t really what I wanted to do anymore so, I pulled out of my apprenticeship and stopped working in the industry as a groom.

I still ride my horse, which I’m enjoying again. I started college and I’m getting all the help I need and, I feel like part of a team. Being around people who care about more than just themselves, has really helped me get back to my normal self. I feel like I have a future again and, that I’m not going to be stuck in the same abusive cycle.

I’m really sad that the equine industry has such a bad reputation for treating staff so badly. I had thought I would have a good future but instead, in just eighteen months I lost my confidence and felt worthless.

In one of the conversations my mum had with my training organisation provider, she was told that I was not the only apprentice having difficulty but, that it is a problem they see often. I really think that more should be done to hold employers accountable for the well being of their apprentices. Essentially as an apprentice I was treated as slave labour. Working 50+ hours a week, but only being paid for 40. Through all of this I felt that I couldn’t see a doctor to help with my mental state, as I thought it would be on my medical record and that it would stop me from getting future jobs so, through all of it I stayed quiet. I know that a lot of other people are staying quiet as well and I really think they shouldn’t. Since I’ve started talking about it and letting all the pressure off my chest, things have got a lot better.

I hope that by telling my story it may help someone else to speak up and not just 'take it', we are people, not slaves to be pushed around. We are in this industry because we have a passion for horses, sadly that passion is taken advantage of.


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