JN Exclusive: Michael Tokaruk Delves into Rider Work Ethic, Presented by Draper Therapies

Earlier this month Michael Tokaruk of Tokaruk Show Stables in Collierville, Tennessee posted a status on Facebook regarding the work ethic of young riders today. The post quickly caught fire, receiving over 400 comments and 1.5k shares within days of its origin. JN caught up with Michael for a question and answer session to delve into the differences between the young riders of yesteryear and today’s generation and what our industry can do to influence positive change.

Not to sound old & crotchety but when I was a kid, I worked hard in the barn all day for a chance to ride an extra…

Posted by Michael Tokaruk on Saturday, June 2, 2018

Q: So we are all dying to know, what sparked the original post?
A: It’s been a lot of things. I travel all over the country & show at all levels- from local schooling shows to big FEI events. I have observed young people’s behavior over the years at many horse shows, at my barn, at other barns, talking with other trainers across the country about it, it just seems like the work ethic and gratitude towards the opportunities they’ve been given to ride horses just has deteriorated.

I’ve tried to hire college equestrian team members to work at horse shows, and the ones who express interest and come out often don’t last a day- or sometimes even an hour! And I wouldn’t exactly say I’m an awful person to work for. It may stem from a lot of different factors, but I think the full-service culture that prevails on the A circuit and the reality that everything has been handed so quickly to the young up-and-comers in the horse show world has sort of created a bit of a different type of work ethic, or lack thereof. What is there to work for if it’s all handed to you, or someone else does the hard things for you?

I didn’t see it as much as when I was a junior, but I am sure it was there. It just seems like the older I get, the worse it seems. Maybe I was too busy working & learning in as many great barns as I could! I try to discourage that behavior the best I can in my barn. I try to encourage as much hands-on work and horsemanship as possible. But I am not always met with support from every parent for strong discipline. The understanding of the time commitments and hard work relating to owning, caring for & managing horses isn’t there. It goes beyond taking a few lessons and thinking you know it all – or going to a few years of shows. It’s a lifetime commitment!

Q: Do you think this issue is related to how well-off a rider might be?
A: A lot of this is not necessarily correlated to financial status. It is not as simple as every rich kid is lazy and that every poor kid is the hardest working student I have ever had. I have had several wealthier students who were very hard-working and appreciative who understand what it takes to care for horses and work at it every day to improve.

For example, I have one particular student who is a super young rider and a very hardworking, dedicated young lady! Her parents could afford to fly two of her horses to a show near Vancouver to represent the US in international competition. But she’s earned that! And while she was there, she was helping groom & bathe her horses and muck her stalls. It was no surprise to me that she anchored the US Nations Cup Junior team to the gold!

Then I have had people I worked with in the past who struggled with the financial aspects of doing the sport at A circuit level, yet are paying to get their boots shined at the shoe shine stand or are paying for full care at shows rather than coming and taking care of the horses themselves. It’s not a matter of time; they have the time, just not the desire! I “want it” for my students, but they have to “want it” inside themselves, and that holds true not only for riding and horsemanship but whatever they want to do in any career path! That’s one of the great values horses have taught me. Dedicated, hardworking, self-starters in any industry will always have a place over talent without work ethic!

Clear & 2nd in the 1m40 Junior Grand Prix to finish up a super week for @mattiehatcher & Cristiano 😃🥈🐴 Great results at this amazing show @thunderbirdshowpark

Posted by Tokaruk Show Stables on Sunday, June 3, 2018

Q: What are some of the tasks you encourage young riders to be doing that you think they may not all be doing today.
A: Well, I think the chores around the barn are a good place to start. Too many kids don’t know how to do them, don’t want to, and have little desire to learn them. Things like knowing how to put a polo wrap on, knowing how to bandage horses, properly clean tack, that sort of thing. I still muck stalls and scrub water buckets plenty! I have been doing that my whole life and I can’t say there are a lot of juniors on the A circuit out there that want or have to do that.

I know plenty do and I know it’s unfair to paint everyone with the same brush, but obviously, I struck a nerve venting my frustrations on Facebook! The culture today is work smarter, not harder and in some cases, that is great. I try to do that in a lot of ways myself. That being said, there is just a lot of hard, grunt work involved with horses and that isn’t going to change with technology; it will always be there. It’s inherent in the industry, and the sport and someone has to do that. I think when you are grooming your horse and handling it every day, you are building a relationship with it and learning things about it. Not enough kids do that these days. That’s a special bond that they are missing out on, and I think that’s sad.

Q: What is one thing you have noticed about young riders these days?
They are always on their phones. The other day at the horse show, a young girl, probably 12 years old had finished her ride or lesson and had her face glued to her phone while she was walking around on her pony. I almost ran into her while I was trying to school my Grand Prix horse. Her trainer had left for another ring, and she wasn’t paying attention to anything except her phone. What in your life at 12 years old is so important that you have to be on your phone while you are on your pony in the warm-up area? You are risking your safety, the safety of your pony and everyone else around you! That kind of stuff drives me crazy.

I have a rule that juniors can’t ride with cell phones and I wish more people had that rule. Too many kids want to live the lifestyle and take the pictures. The priority to them is “what big division am I jumping in”, or “can I get a good picture for Instagram and how many likes can I get”, rather than “am I learning about my horse?, Am I paying attention to what is going on? Am I learning enough from my lessons or what is going on around me?”

For instance, if they are up watching the Grand Prix and can’t tell me who won the class or how this rider or that horse did in the jump-off because they were too busy on their phone. I know we live in a world with so much distraction, but it is frustrating having to deal with kids whose priorities are upside down.

5* jump crew! 😂🐴 #grandprix #showjumping #bigjumps 😳 @ Thunderbird Show Park

Posted by Tokaruk Show Stables on Friday, June 1, 2018


Q: How do you think the industry could make a positive change to get the mentality of these young riders back on track?
A: That is not an easy question. How do you change a culture that is geared toward specialization and profit-driven? It’s easier to pay someone to do it and turn a blind eye than it is to do it yourself. We’re all guilty of this in one way or another. This culture is something that has been created over decades of full-service catering, and it has perpetuated through the generations, myself included in that.

The question I, and a lot of trainers, struggle with professionally is: “I make more money with horses on full-care, so why would I encourage my students to be more hands-on?” But I do try to push my students from day one to participate in the day-to-day tasks and put forth the effort. I have had several working students at the barn because I was a working student myself. I try to give back as best as I can by having someone in the barn that is there to work and learn in exchange for more riding and training opportunities.

I also allow my students the chance to work portions of their bills off by helping out around the barn. And I will be honest and tell the parents, “hey your kid didn’t really work today, so you won’t see a discount.” But for the kids who come early or stay late and do barn chores or work at the show, yes, I will help them out with their bills. I try to give opportunities as best I can to people who want them!

Also, the USHJA has great programs like the EAP, the Gladstone Program (both of which I’m graduates of) and the Gold Star clinics to help with this, but it’s up to all of us as adults to grow the next generation of horsemen and women, not just riders!

Q: If you could pass one message along to all the young riders of this day and age, what would it be?
A: Well it’s a different era. Gone are the times of spending decades in a factory to retire with a gold watch. Kids can make millions or billions by inventing an app or with a great idea. And that’s amazing! I’m always trying to evolve myself- in my riding, my training, my business. I don’t want to end up like Blockbuster!

I think I would like to know that the younger generation coming up understands the care and the work that goes into managing, riding, training and owning a show horse and that they have the ability to pass that onto the next generations. It’s all day, every day, not just a snapshot of a big jump to post on Instagram! It is my responsibility as a trainer and the parents’ responsibility to understand that owning a horse is not just a 30-minute lesson a few days a week and then showing up at the horse show, stand at the mounting block and wait for your horse to be brought to you and then just hand it off when you are done. I would like for more junior riders to have an appreciation that if you work hard and put in some time, then the reward could be that you get to ride another horse or is you get to know your horse better. The “work” isn’t riding an extra horse, that’s the reward!