As summer comes to a close, working students who have come to Northern Virginia are packing up their tack trucks, putting horses on trailers and heading home. Most of them have just gotten used to the horse lifestyle of early mornings, endless chores and night turn-out duties. Returning to high school or college seems like a foreign idea, a thought they would rather not consider.

A working student is the equivalent of an intern. Every person in the horse industry I know has been a working student at one point. Most people cringe at the memory of the experience, when hard work and menial tasks did not seem worth the return on their equine education.

But ask the former students if the experience was an important part of their careers, and they will say "absolutely." What every working student eventually discovers is that the lessons they learn are invaluable and essential in becoming a responsible member of the horse industry.

In most situations, working students bring their own horses, pay board and work off lessons with an instructor. Situations vary, and some students who need to watch their finances can find a better deal with less well-known riders. Every spring the phones ring in stables throughout the area, whether it be to show, event or racehorse trainers, from those hoping to spend their summer months as a working student.

The ideal situation for a working student is to spend at least a year with a professional. After finishing high school, many students become a working student before heading to college, which seems to be a practical age for such an experience.

Students can learn stable management for different seasons by spending an entire year working and can work with horses with varying levels of experience, which is a necessity. Learning how a professional brings on a young horse or how fit to get a horse for a certain competition are definitely skills that can be learned only through hands-on experience.

Some working students will pursue a career in the horse industry, others enjoy working with the horses as a hobby. It is usually easy to predict these individual goals just by spending time with the students, watching and listening to them around the horses. Becoming a working student is an excellent way to find out if you want to make horses your life--the work is much too hard to take lightly.

As a professional, the beauty of having working students is to watch them become competitive in the working and riding aspects of their program. To see who can muck out a stall faster, make the brass on the halters shine brighter or braid the horses better all become little competitions.

When riding in a group lesson, every student has the opportunity to ride a gymnastic line better than anyone else or complete a turn in a more effective manner. This competitiveness in the barn eventually will help students in the show ring.

It also is interesting to see working students learn to work as a team. Of course, as in any working situation, personalities do not always mix well. Sometimes it is a necessity to work as a group and forget differences--maybe even appreciate the efforts of a foe when it comes to unloading hay or mucking out too many stalls.

Two of my working students are heading back to school soon, so I was curious to know the most important thing they had learned during their time with me.

Learning how to work and ride were obvious answers; how much care and money a horse hobby involves was another. Responsibility toward the horse and the person you work for was my personal favorite, the unpredictability of horses as athletes was an answer that also intrigued me.

Perhaps the most popular and frequent answer to my question was about the discipline involved in the care of horses, especially when the students learned they had to clean their tack on a daily basis.

I suppose all professionals should be grateful their influence is felt in such an effective manner.