I went down the 'college' and then degree option. I don't regret it for a second.
You will hear from, typically the older generation, of yard owners, that equine college courses (and god forbid, equine degrees!) were hand delivered to the equine industry by Satan himself. Many of these people do not believe in science as a concept.
They've experienced occurances with former college students being 'useless', 'ineffective' or 'unsafe'. They often want someone who's completed an apprenticeship, because they've learned on-the-job, and already have 2 years of full-time experience before coming to them. If you are going to go down the college route, don't be one of these people. Get some experience too. I did my BHS exams alongside my degree, and had working student/voluntary/training/paid equine jobs whilst doing so. Your aim should be to come out the other side as well-rounded individual.
In the short-term, the apprentices will progress a lot faster in the industry than others. What about when they are 40? When they want to settle down? When their back causes them absolute agony every waking moment, and they start taking Co codomol on a regular basis just to get through the day? When they want to leave the industry? (I know you might not believe me, but I promise, it does happen. People do throw in the towel and get a 'normal' job). Those former apprentices may well end up working in a supermarket, getting paid £9 an hour to scan items and take payment from customers. Those who've done the college route, and achieved UCAS points, can go to university (if they haven't do so already), and take a £40,000+ project management job, or go into another well-paid profession.
There is nothing wrong with considering, and planning for, a future outside of the equine industry... just in case.
It's all very well and good having experience, but until you're at least middle-aged, you'll be learning daily. What happens if you encounter a problem you haven't come across before? Find ourself in a situation you have no experience of? What do you do? Nothing. There's nothing you can do (other than hope someone who does have experience of this problem becomes available to advise).
In absence of experience, you need knowledge. You need to be able to find information, read it, understand it, read some more, and formulate your own opinion on how to handle the situation very quickly. That is something that college courses and degrees give people. In my humble (albeit, biased) opinion, it's irreplacable. If I get stuck, I get my phone out and jump onto Google Scholar. I read a few articles, so I can understand the problem better, come up with a solution based on what I now know. If it works, it's logged as good experience (do that again, if it happens again). If it doesn't work, it's logged as bad experience (try something different next time). I'm not even 25, there have been (and will continue to be) many, many firsts. The ability to research and problem-solve in record time has been hugely beneifical, and will continue to be, without a doubt.
The option you take is, of course, up to you.
Both options have strengths and weaknesses, and will afford you different opportunities, connections, and skills.
I'm not particularly old, and I don't have 5 decades of life experience, but I like to think that some of what I've experienced might be useful to those of you who are trying to get your foot in the door of the equine industry.
It's important to remember that the equine industry is an experience and connections industry. It's about where you've worked, what you've done, and who you know. Your qualifications, for the most part, are secondary.
Voluntary work/Free labour
This bit of advise is possibly a little controversial. I've spent a lot of my time, up until this point in my career, 'working' for free. And now that I'm trying to really push forwards in my career, it's something that I'm going back to doing.
I'm sorry to say, you have to start at the bottom of the foodchain, and work your way up. Nobody jumps straight in to a well-paying job, it's just not realistic in our industry. I've learned a huge amount through the free labour I've contributed, it's probably benefitted me more than the extortionate sums I've spent on professional training.
Yes, you can get ripped off. You can be treated as slave labour. But there are brilliant people out there too, with wonderful yards, and lovely horses who are willing to go out of their way to help you - so long as you uphold your side of the bargain, and put in a little effort in return.
Some examples of places I've 'worked' and volunteered for free;
Riding for the Disabled Association (RDA)
I spent two years volunteering at the RDA. I started, like many people do, volunteering for the DofE award. I was trained in basic horse care, gained experience in caring for horses (some with quite difficult personalities). I swept, and discovered how important a well-swept yard is to my mood. I poo picked. I made feeds. I groomed & tacked-up, including learned to fit and apply specialist tack and equipment. I side-walked with riders and led in lessons. RDA groups always (present Covid pandemic aside), need volunteers. They need all the help they can get, and the RDA has a system in place for training volunteers. They will usually be very good at looking after you, especially if you don't know what you're doing. Some groups and sessions are better than others, but find the group of people you can get along with and you'll learn lots!
I was very fortuante that the school I went to for Sixth Form had it's own stables. I took the Level 3 Subsidiary Diploma of Horse Management BTEC, alongside 2 A levels, and worked on the yard every spare minute of the day. We did everything; mucking out, grooming, turning out & catching in, tack cleaning, sweeping, schooling & lunging horses, took responsibility for younger & less experienced helpers, helped teach elements of lessons under supervision (like helping riders on a 1:1 who struggled with rising trot). I trained for, and achieved, my BHS Stage 1. I learned to ride strong horses, sharp horses, green Irish ponies, and had my first taste of competitive success. To this day, I think of this as my first horsey job.
Summer working pupil at a BHS riding school
After a very difficult 1st year at University, I'd decided that coaching (the course I originally took) wasn't for me. I had been a little traumatised by it - I had panic attacks when horses and riders came into the school. I didn't know what to do with my life - maybe run a livery yard? So, I turned to a riding school that I had taken lessons at the summer before. I began as an unofficial working student to 3 days a week, to train for my BHS Stage 2 Riding & care exams. I schooled horses, mucked out & did all yard work, helped with pony parties and own a pony days. Then, after a while, I ended up being pressured into doing some teaching - something that I'm actually very grateful for. And my plan of running a livery yard, and just doing the BHS care & riding exams was uprooted and replaced with my original goal of becoming a coach. I did achieve my Stage 2 whilst I was working there, and my Stage 2 teach a few months later.
Summerfield Stables - Birmingham
I didn't get to spend anywhere near as much time with Summerfield as I would have liked. They are truly the loveliest group of people I've ever met. I left at 5am, and drove 50 miles every Tuesday whilst at University this year to volunteer there. By the time I got home, it had usually be an 19 hour day.
I did basic yard work, taught a few lessons, rode a few horses, and in the evnings we trained for BHS exams with a help of a BHSI & Assessor from Ingestre Stables. Unfortunately, my uni house flooded so I had to come home to Surrey, and then Covid hit (3 days before I was going to go back!). It was a little bit too far to travel from home, so unfortunately I didn't get to spend as much time there as I would have liked. If you live near Birmingham - I 100% recommend these people. If I lived closer, I'd go everyday.
I am a dressage trainer and general equestrian coach in Surrey, Sussex, and Berkshire. I teach dressage lessons, and hold a range of riding and equestrian clinics around the UK, and use my blog to share horse training tips, advice, and resources.