Saturday, November 8, 2008

Life in the Fast Lane

So, back in the day I was a racehorse groom. I loved that job - loved it more than any job I've had before or since, with the sole exception of being a vet. I was around horses all day long, for one thing; that's hard to beat. I was outside (kinda; being in a barn isn't really INside, but it's not completely OUTside, either.) I got paid decent money to be in tip-top physical condition. And I felt like I made a difference, every day, to my horses. That part is pretty satisfying. And it was really really convenient to be as strong as I was in my grooming days, and for a long time after.

It's a low-brow kind of job; despite my many years of higher education, that appeals to me. I like the nitty-gritty of life, the juice of it, the physical pleasures of it. Grooming had that going for it in abundance. It was sweaty, grimy, manual labor, and it was really really great. I remember one day walking down the road with a friend of mine, who was kitchen manager at a local restaurant. I asked him how he liked it.

He shrugged. "It's okay. Better than shovelling shit for a living, anyway" he said.
"No, it's not," I said, emphatically. He looked around at me, startled at my vehemence. "I shovel shit for a living," I reminded him, "and it's an excellent job. I totally love it."

That made him laugh, but it also made him feel worse about his own job (which he now knew was inferior to shovelling shit). I felt a little bad about that part.

As a rule, the "back side" of the racing industry (the grooming and hot-walking side, by and large) tends to attract workers who lean towards the low-brow themselves. This may be someone like me, who has a taste for the visceral satisfactions and physicality of grooming, but doesn't plan to make a career of it. It might be someone with no ambition to higher education, or no access to it. It might be someone who just loves horses and wants to be around them, or who loves racing and the world of track and training center. It might be someone working their way up from groom to head lad to assistant trainer to trainer. There are all kinds of people who make their ways through the barns. There's also a high turnover, because some of the people who pass through are less than committed to the work, or less than responsible in general. As a consequence, the entire first summer I worked as a groom, we worked shorthanded all but a few weeks scattered here and there through the months. In fact, I started as a swing groom, someone who takes another groom's horses on their day off; in a barn with 16 horses, that should have worked out to be a 4-day work week. After the first 3 weeks I finally asked my assistant trainer to put me on full time so I could get a day off.

The schedule is fast-paced, as a rule, although on the track it's typically faster than at a training center (where I worked.) Generally a groom rubs four horses. This means that in the morning the horses are fed, the water buckets pulled and washed and refilled, the stall mucked out and re-bedded, the horse brushed up and tacked up; the exercise rider is tossed into the saddle, and while the horse is at the track getting worked, this routine is repeated for the next horse. The horses (who love company) usually go out in "sets", a pair at a time, so you and another groom both have a horse out and three horses in. Then the hot horse comes back, is hot-walked and bathed, is fed again and stashed in its clean stall, hopefully in time for you to finish mucking out the second stall and re-bed it before it's time to hot-walk your next horse. If you have a hot-walker, they may walk and bathe a horse for you (especially if you have two sent to the track at the same time, or if you are given two or three sets back to back). Meanwhile you have to get your next horse brushed and tacked up and ready to go, clean and hang water buckets (one in the stall and the other at the end of the shed-row, since the hot horse needs something to drink out of while being hot-walked), and knock out as much of the stall as you can before the horse comes back. Repeat until done. Then, after everyone has been fed, brushed, mucked out, ridden, cooled, bathed, bedded in and fed again, you have to set wraps, if you have any. (Not all horses get their legs wrapped after work, but at the barn where I worked it was three out of four. I got really good at setting bandages.) Once a month you saddle soap the halters and shanks and girths and saddles. Once a week you wash your brushes in betadine and set them in the sun to dry (more often if you have skin disease in your barn). Every day you wash and roll bandages and saddle blankets, rake out the shed-row and sprinkle it lightly with water to settle the dust. Generally this has you done at around noon or 12:30, six hours after you started. At 3 p.m., two grooms come back and pick out the stalls (which means to use a pitchfork to take out the piles of manure off the top of the bedding) and to top up water buckets and feed up the afternoon rations. You can see why I had shoulders like a little tiny linebacker.

Anyway... one day, in the middle of summer (when we were again short-handed), my assistant trainer was interviewing potential grooms. I happened to be finishing up and saw the applicant come in to the barn. She was resplendent in a purple polyester pants suit, teetering along in matching be-gemmed high-heeled sandals, every hair in her bee-hive neatly lacquered into place. She looked like she might be in her middle to upper 50's, and was meticulously manicured, pedicured and made up, glittering with costume jewellery and trailing a cloud of perfume.

I raised an eyebrow at my assistant trainer, C. She gave me a don't-you-dare-make-me-laugh glare and I left her to it. But later that afternoon, when we were back picking out stalls, I asked her (a bit tongue-in-cheek) how the interview went.

"Are you going to hire her?" I asked, grinning innocently. C gives me A Look.
"I don't think she'd want the job," she said.
"Really? Why not?" I ask cheerily, imagining any number of reasons, not least of which are the damage the job would do to her manicure and the desirability (or lack thereof) of her high-heeled sandals for traipsing around in a stall full of urine-soaked straw and horse manure. Not much protection for the old tootsies, either, should you be trodden on by a horse.

"Well, I don't think she really got it how fast the pace is, for one thing," C said. "And you saw that she wasn't clear on appropriate dress. Plus she may have been around horses, like she claimed, but I think maybe it was more petting them at dude ranches than working as a groom. But the main reason was Superman."

"Superman?" I asked (this being the nickname for one of the colts in the barn.)
"Did you notice how much perfume she was wearing?" C asked.
"Sure," I said.
"Well, so did he. A lot of those perfumes have musks in them. He was starting to arch his neck up and nicker at her and paw at his bedding. Plus he was whacking himself," C added, referring to a fairly disgusting but somewhat hilarious behavior of intact colts, in which (several times a day, if one of the fillies is in heat) they - erm - enter a state of readiness, shall we say, and (employing muscles only they understand the working of) commence to whack their - um - masculine appendages against their bellies, producing a sort of meaty thumping noise. This is a distinctive sound, but not one immediately understood by the general public, unless they have observed this behavior in the flesh. So to speak.

"She was standing in the doorway to his stall, going on about how much she loved horses," C continues. "It was pretty clear Superman was loving her right back. I told her we'd better step put of the stall now. She said, 'Oh, no, he's fine, he likes me!' - and I'm tempted to tell her he likes her, all right, but not in a friendship kind of way."

"Good grief," I say. I can't help it. I know I shouldn't be, because that's a potentially disastrous situation, but I'm laughing. I'm picturing this lady, extravagantly turned-out and be-glittered with rhinestones, stroking Superman's elegant bay nose and gaily chatting about how nice he is and what a clean barn, and isn't this just the sweetest horse, and all the while he is beating his impressive hard-on against his belly and planning just how he can corner her to best effect.

"What did you do?" I ask C, stifling my hilarity.
"I said, 'Ma'am, I don't mean to be rude, but if you don't get out of that stall that colt is going to breed you.'" C delivers this in her best Kentucky accent, which somehow manages to sound rather polite and classy even whilst delivering the crudest of sentiments.

I just howled. "What did she do?" I ask, when I have mastered myself again.
"She kind of went 'Eep!' and jumped out of the stall, " C says. "Superman was disappointed," she adds.
"I'll just bet," I say, wiping my streaming eyes and picking up my pitchfork. "Poor Superman. Jilted again."

This might have been memorable enough, but a week later, C receives a letter from our erstwhile visitor. She seems to have come to an understanding that grooming racehorses might not be precisely her cup of tea, but she remarks that she has three strapping sons - "or young studs, as I like to call them" (yikes!) - who might be suitable as grooms, if we care to call them in for an interview. She then discourses in a rambling way about how horses are beloved of Christ and sacred animals, because their hoof print marks a letter "C" on the earth. Now, I've been around horses all my life, and my mother is a minister, but this is one I admit I've never heard before. Mind you, I'm all for horses being sacred animals, and I really don't know how anyone can be around them and not love them, so I'm prepared to accept this sentiment with minimal skepticism.

Oh, well. Grooming isn't everyone's gig. I spent most of my barn time in ratty Levi's (held up with suspenders, since very soon you sweat them into sagging limpness and you really can't afford to trot around the shed-row with one hand occupied in holding up your britches), a tank top (also quite sweaty, after the first 20 minutes), and a pair of increasingly-grungy leather trainers. Perfume never even occurred to me (all to the good, considering the kind of invitation it seems to offer to the colts), and neither did make-up (although this was more likely to attract exercises riders than horses, often with equally undesirable results). I chopped off my waist-long hair after the first week, when I discovered that even a pony tail wasn't safe (one of my colts having grabbed it one day and yanked me half off my feet by it); I got a sort of utilitarian short layered cut, which was long enough to keep the sun off my neck, short enough to be out of my way, and layered enough to let whatever scant breeze I could find riffle under it to cool me off. This move met with C's approval, both for practicality and because, she told me, "After you applied I told B [another groom] 'I hate that bitch!' because you had so much hair." This cracked us both up, but the point is well-taken; horses are large and powerful, and in racing barns the majority are jumping out of their skins with fitness and energy and youth and hormones. The last thing you should do is provide them an easy handle by which to grab you when your back is turned.

I miss my grooming days sometimes. There are better jobs than shovelling shit.... but for me, not that many.


Mutt Gal said...

Your post brought me back to two years ago when I was a groom in a dressage barn. Those old feelings of the first sounds of the morning when sliding open the barn door before the sun came up... pouring grain... throwing hay... horses crunching; the smells of pure horse and clean tack and fresh hay and new shavings; the satisfaction of tired muscles after a day of baling hay and chipping out frozen manure and hot-walking warmbloods... god I miss it. I've been horseless now for 20 months and not a day goes by that I don't ache to be back at the barn.

Thank you for putting your experience into such a wonderful post!

goatgirl said...

Another great story. My best friend was a groom at a local track in the Seattle area. She has the same fond memories...except for the whacking part:)
Anyway please check out my blog when you get a chance. I mentioned your blog, if that's ok.

AKDD said...

MG, being a groom is on of those things that most people don't understand the appeal of. But once you've done it... you'll never forget the myraid pleasures of it, IMO. BTW, I've been enjoying the photos and stories on your blog.

GG, I visited your blog, too - you have the cutest goats EVER! Nice photos and stories, too - love the pic of the foliage. And thx for the comparison to James Herriot - not that I think I'm that good, but I LOVED his books. D'you remember the one where he went with some dour Scottish vet on a farm call and ended up wearing the rubber outfit? I laughed so hard I cried when I read that one! Nothing quite THAT hilarious ever happens to me. Darn it.

Anonymous said...

I worked at a trail riding barn with 24 horses. We had to go in the morning, get them all fed, and groomed and tacked up before the first morning ride.

It was a great job - I loved the constant motion of it. I also loved being out on the trail, showing people how awesome it was to ride on a horse through the woods.

I know live on a farm and feed 12 horses everyday. I don't get to ride or do as much as I did when I worked at the trail barn as my full time job. I miss that.

AKDD said...

Heh! I know that feeling, in a different way. I was barn manager of a hack barn for a while. There were 15 stalls to muck out, maybe 45 or so horses (some school horses, some boarders). I got to ride for free at that job, and I did; but when I was grooming, I really didn't feel like picking out four more feet and brushing up one more horse after I was done for the day (having just done four horses, twice, which makes 32 feet picked out...!). I got my horse fix from the ground, then, and though I did miss riding, I wasn't jonesing.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed your story so much.
I am around muck and stuff like that all day here, but no SuperMan. Just Jack the donkey and he only has eyes for Belle the cow.

I saw your site mentioned at Goatgirl's Life beyond the sidewalks blog and just had to check it out. Really had a good visit.
Have a great day.

goatgirl said...

Yes I do remember that one and you may not have had something that hilarious happen to you...yet...but I bet you've had a few Tricki Woo experiences. I decided to get my James Herriot books down off the shelf and read them again last night. The one I liked was when he had to swing the dog over his head and his little boy happened to be in the exam room and was laughing his head off every time the dog swung around.
And I think you are every bit as good as Herriot so don't sell yourself short. Look at a couple of the comments on my blog.

AKDD said...

Pam, thanks for visiting - I'm glad you had fun, and stop by any time!

GG, how nice are you? (And those people on your blog who commented). Thanks! I'm quite flattered to be thought of in the same mental breath as Herriot!
Oh, yeah... we get the Tricki Woo experiences quite often. These are largely dear and/or hilarious (and sometimes both touching and somewhat delicious, as I have clients who are inclined to bring me home-made goodies - jam, smoked salmon, bread, cookies, hot buttered rum mix, Bailey's-style Irish Cream, what have you...) 95% of my clients are talented and generous and totally wonderful to work with. The other 5% are - um - different. Sometimes hilarious, sometimes aggravating, but different. However, lots of good stories to be had there.

MaskedMan said...

Yeah, I remember that kinda thing - I was never quite that gung-ho for barn work, though I do remember enjoying helping (in my small way) with the family horses (and sheep) in Colorado. I think playing on the hay stack had a lot to do with that, though - including the time I wound up tangled in the fence, upside down, from the top rail. ;-)

I also recall fondly handling random chores for our sister at her place in San Dimas, when I could get some time away from the submarine. Not the same as full time grooming - not even remotely - but enough that I can grasp the pleasures the job brings. It's simple but demanding work, and the horses are (largely) quietly grateful for the things you do. Much more so than people are, usually.

Dragon43 said...

Great story again.
I have owned one horse. He was old. He taught me to calf rope and bull dog. He loved being messed with. Had him in a stable in Tulsa for my senior year of High School and I would go get him and ride to school just because. When it was cold, I would go out to the stable and just day dream while messing with him. He was so old he slept laying down a lot so many times I would curl up next to his belly and sleep the night there.e18bl

AKDD said...

Mmm. Good times!

What's the old saying...? something about how the outside of a horse is good for the inside of a man....?

Holly said...

I have never been a groom at a stable but we do have two (almost three!) horses of our own that require daily grooming, picking stalls and feet, etc. It is intensely satisfying for me to make sure my animals are clean, well kept and comfortable.

Your post was .very. well written, bringing all the hustle and bustle to life.

I also found Superman to be hiliarous.