The COVID-19 pandemic changed nearly everything about life as we know it: How we worked, how we shopped, how we interacted with others and, for many, how we prioritized what was important. Though most of us are still finding our way back to “normal,” there are some things that have shifted permanently.
The Farm Labor Shortage
And yet, even with all these positives, the industry is still on the edge of a crisis. Farm and barn owners throughout the country can’t find enough staff to keep their operations running smoothly, no matter what they offer in the form of pay or incentives.
Post-COVID, a combination of factors has contributed to the labor shortage in the equine economy (and most other agricultural industries). These include older employees opting to retire rather than go back to work; the return of many immigrant workers to their home countries; the reluctance of young people to enter any equine- or ag-related field; and people realizing that they don’t want the always-on lifestyle many equine jobs require.
Unlike businesses that handle non-living commodities, the lack of labor could have a direct effect on horse health and welfare. Farm employees can’t simply check on the horses and their water buckets via Zoom; a domesticated horse’s very survival is dependent on humans to show up and care for him.
This workforce crisis has forced the equine industry to expand their search for workers. One farm in the heart of horse country is using a unique method to staff their farm and barns—and changing lives in the process.
A Family Affair
Family owned and operated since 1976, Taylor Made has grown from a small boarding farm to a powerhouse in the Thoroughbred industry, selling more Thoroughbreds at public auction than any other sales agency in the world.
Overseen by brothers Duncan, Ben, Mark and Frank Taylor, the 1,100-acre farm is home to more than 500 horses and encompasses a breeding facility, a boarding facility for mares, and a nursery for foals. As the farm has grown, so has its need for additional workers. In the past, the farm has had no problem attracting staff who were eager to work in the horse world. However, their search, like many other farms in these challenging times, often comes up short.
An additional concern, though seemingly unrelated at the time, was the meteoric rise in addiction—the exact opposite of the trajectory of available farm workers. In 2021, it was estimated that approximately 20 million individuals in the United Stated had a substance use disorder; nearly one in 10 people have battled some form of addiction, reports the Recovery Research Institute. People in recovery fight many battles, a major one being that many have served jail time, which is an additional strike against them when they apply for jobs or even places to live.
With a family member battling addiction, Frank Taylor was thrown headfirst into the world of recovery. Aware of the skyrocketing addiction problem, he became acquainted with the Shepherd’s House in Lexington, Ky., a unique, long-term residential recovery program that focuses heavily on full-time employment and a structured environment to assist recovering males in their quest to regain control over their lives. The Shepherd’s House promotes personal responsibility, accountability, and fellowship, teaching residents life skills that will allow them to commit to a sober life.
The Shepherd’s House’s mission resonated deeply with Frank, whose dedication to work and to his family and friends shapes everything he—and Taylor Made—does. The more involved with the Shepherd’s House he became, the more resolute he became in his conviction that Taylor Made could help people in recovery at the same time they were helping themselves. The seed for the Taylor Made School of Horsemanship was planted.
An Innovative Approach
When Frank approached the Shepherd’s House with the idea of bringing men in active recovery onto the farm and teaching them the skills they would need to get a job once they graduated from recovery, CEO Jerod Thomas was all in. Thomas was not a stranger to horses, but he is the first to mention that Frank is the brains behind the equine side of the program.
“I know that any time you work with any animal, [such as] horses or dogs, there’s a therapeutic piece that’s calming and forces people to take responsibility,” he explains.
This program, the duo hoped, would be beneficial for everyone involved. But first it had to pass muster with the other Taylor brothers—not an easy sell. When Frank approached his brothers with his idea, they were initially hesitant; they were fearful that their horses or people would get hurt, or that the men would use drugs on the farm. Frank convinced them to give the pilot program a try, and if at any time their fears were founded, the program would be disbanded.
Thomas pulls no punches when he explains how people with addiction think.
“You can drop a drug addict in Atlanta [or any major city] in the dead of winter in a pair of shorts and he will find a way to get a car and get drugs,” he says. “The key [to the success of this program] was getting [people with addiction] to use their survival skills as work skills. If you can get that determination channeled into a work ethic, these guys can outwork anyone.”
That work ethic, by its very definition, is what the horse world is looking for.
But there are many more facets to a successful recovery than simply buckling down and working hard: it’s necessary for those in recovery to learn or re-learn life skills and emotional management.
“If you give these guys a job and daily living skills, there is not one thing they can’t do,” says Thomas. This innate belief in the value of those in recovery comes through in everything Thomas and the Shepherd’s House does. Frank was also able to see past the societal stigma and recognized that what these men needed was simply another chance—and COVID, and the resulting labor shortage, was going to give it to them. Partnered with the Shepherd’s House, the Taylor Made School of Horsemanship gives program participants 90 days of instruction on the ins and outs of the handling, care, and management of horses, after which men can be hired on full-time at Taylor Made or one of the other farms in the bluegrass. Shepherd’s House residents are paid through the Kentucky Career Center.
Though the original plan was to have groups of three to five men with six to nine months of sobriety under their belts at a time on the farm, the Taylor Made team has discovered that if they hire people as they come and base the program on individuals rather than on a timeline, the program works better. Thus far, over half of the men who have graduated from the Taylor Made School of Horsemanship have been hired on as full-time farm staff.
Josh Bryan was employed full-time with Taylor Made when he entered the Shepherd’s House with Frank’s support in 2020. Always a valuable farm employee, Josh became Frank’s right hand when it came to conceptualizing and launching the Taylor Made School of Horsemanship; someone who was in active recovery and also knew the inner workings of the farm proved invaluable.
“Hard work is a good way to keep the mind occupied, and horses are very therapeutic,” says Bryan. “We’ve found that guys who complete the program have grown in body, mind and spirit.”
One example of how well the Horsemanship School is working is Drew (last name withheld for privacy).
“He started with us a few months after the program was up and running,” says Bryan. “He has put his whole heart and soul not only into the farm and the horses he takes care of, but also into his recovery. When he first got to the farm, he was broken in all areas: mentally, physically and emotionally. As he got some horse experience under his belt, he fell in love with the work and developed a sense of pride and ownership in the horses. Now a full-time team member, Drew is running his own barn and he continues to grow all the time. He has a bright future ahead of him, not only at the farm, but also in his recovery.”
Drew and the other men in the Taylor Made School of Horsemanship gain a new sense of purpose through their work.
“They become part of the family,” says Bryan. “They grow in all aspects of their lives. They develop a great work ethic and become very grateful and humble to come to work every day and have the opportunity to work for what they earn.”
This sense of camaraderie and fellowship is integral to how the Shepherd’s House operates—but this sense of teamwork is also essential for any farm to operate smoothly.
“We have big dreams for where the program is going,” says Bryan. “Our long-term goal is to make this type of program available nationwide—even worldwide. We are here to help as many people as possible.”
The ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic are sure to be felt for years to come, but not all of them are negative. The opportunity for those in recovery to receive a second chance at meaningful employment—and for the equine industry to gain willing, capable workers—is truly game changing. Those of us lucky enough to love horses know how these creatures can heal so many things, people and economies included.
In Their Own Words
“The Taylor Made School of Horsemanship gave me something I never knew I was missing in life: An opportunity at a job that doesn’t feel like work. No medicine could replace what the horses do for me. [The school has] also given me a work ethic that has spilled over into all kinds of areas of my life, for which I am very thankful.” — Hunter B.
“Peace, watching the sun rise, humbleness, working with horses, and serenity when I pray before bed.” — Drew M. on what the Taylor Made School of Horsemanship has brought him.
“It has provided an opportunity for me to change my life with teaching me such an amazing trade. Two years ago, I was homeless, living in the woods with no future. Now I’m blessed to be working with Thoroughbred horses. It’s helped give me a sense of purpose and given me the ability to have goals; with Taylor Made’s help, I will reach them. I’m beyond grateful for this opportunity to be a part of this program. It’s really helped save my life.” — Kaleb B.
The Taylor Made School of Horsemanship has “made my life in recovery enchanted; I also loved horses. God saw fit to place Taylor Made farm in my life. The impact has changed my life. [I am] so blessed.” — Jeremy J.