What I learned about training at Churchill Downs

Conveying consistent messages ensures new employees do not become confused. Photo credit: Getty Images/E+/ valentinrussanov
On a recent visit to Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky,. I ended up sitting next to a lifelong horse trainer, and she enthralled me with stories of her career and the beautiful animals she admired so deeply. After several minutes of conversation, I began making notes because I noticed all the parallels between the training we do in the hospitality industry and what she did. The most impactful similarities I noticed are as follows:

Begin training as soon as they can walk. As soon as a newborn horse can walk, it begins training. While this may seem extreme, it is a fantastic reminder that training our team members starts right away! Even if not in a traditional on-boarding training session, our new hires are observing our actions and learning our culture.

Trust comes first. The relationships between horses and their trainers are based purely on trust. Once the horse trusts the trainer, it wants to learn. Likewise with our associates—once they know that we are knowledgeable, helpful and patient with their learning curves, they WANT to learn! Be trustworthy and dependable to your trainees, and they will feel enthusiastic to be part of your organization.

Look for the characteristics of a thoroughbred. As someone who regularly recruits and hires people, I was particularly inspired by the description of a thoroughbred. They are bred to be spirited and bold. Energetic, drawn to people and always alert, thoroughbreds are gracious, courageous and versatile. Imagine a team with those incredible qualities, then hire for them and reinforce them with your training initiatives.

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Convey consistent messages. Just as with how we want our products and services to be consistently excellent, we have to make sure our employees all are being trained to the same standards. I had an associate tell me last week that she has learned four different ways to answer the phone. Typically, horse trainers have assistants and/or substitutes to train the horses in their absence. If there isn’t complete alignment in their commands, tone of voice and demeanor, the horse can become confused and upset.

Try a new way if your training plan is not working. What do you do if you train and train and train but your trainees don’t retain or employ the skills and knowledge you’re teaching? It is likely you do the same thing a horse trainer does: change your method. Perhaps consider if there are incentives in place, or whether the training environment isn’t conducive to learning. Could you use more visual aids or change the time of day you’ve been using? In order for our “thoroughbreds” to be successful, we might need to shift our practices as trainers.

When it comes to training—and trainers—people and horses have a lot in common. Like Secretariat, there is a lot of heart in all of us in the hospitality industry!

Serah Morrissey is the area director of human resources for WB Hotel Group in Edina, Minn. She is the president-elect for the Council of Hotel and Restaurant Trainers.

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