Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Do what you love and the money will follow...oh no it won't!

Another discussion today because (a) the damn Internet is down AGAIN at home and (b) the wonderful corporation I'm currently a slave of has Websense on the computers and we can't get to our Yahoo mail so that limits my access to fugly fodder unless I search for it, which takes more time away from doing actual work. See, people, you're actually not helping matters...At this rate, I am going to get carpal tunnel from responding to e-mail on my Treo. I think if that happens, I will sue. ;-)

Kidding, kidding...

OK, here's what I want to talk about today. This is kind of a spinoff of yesterday, talking about how bad a lot of Thoroughbreds are treated by the barn help, because the barns hire the cheapest possible labor and they're not horsepeople or horse lovers...often they're illegals who just want to make a buck. During my life, I've really seen that shift happen in the industry. When I was 20, every barn was staffed with girls just like me. We were young. We lived at home. We were going to college half-assed and half-heartedly. What we really wanted to do was work with horses, so that is what we did. We were at the barn at 7 or earlier, tossing hay to whinnying, eager horses. Lunch was Taco Bell in the tack room as we spit-shined tack. We rode ridiculous numbers of horses for ridiculously little money, and never got tired of it. If someone brought in a new horse at 8 PM, we were eager to hop aboard and try it out, even though that was about hour 13 of the work day. We got paid silly amounts of money, like $800 a month to work six days a week for 14 hours a day, and we didn't complain because there was nowhere we'd rather be than the barn. Our whole life was the barn. (Usually, we were surreptitiously dating someone at the barn, too - our boss, a horse owner, the trainer, whatever...and all of our friends were at the barn...there was really no need whatsoever to be anywhere but the barn!)

Well, that changed. We got older and realized we couldn't live on a groom's salary. Some of us advanced into training or barn management, but more than likely, we didn't stick with it forever because the money wasn't much better no matter how high you went (unless you were one of the lucky few who was really a superstar!). Expenses were too high, it wasn't worth it, and the schedule you gleefully lived at 20 starts to wear on you as you approach 30. I think of all the girls I used to work with and almost none of them are still in the horse business as a business. They still have horses, they're still involved peripherally, like I am - but they go to another job, where they can make the money to support the horses.
The girls I know who stuck with it...well, that's not exactly a happy ending. They are 40 or 50 now. They're beaten up physically and their faces show the years in the sun and wind. They're typically not married. They have no insurance, no retirement, and are deathly afraid of what will happen to themselves and their horses if they have an accident or their bodies break down and they are unable to keep working in the horse industry. They still love working with horses, but it is not a life that has been kind to them.

In the 20 years since horses were my life, I've seen this shift happen. I'm not sure exactly when, but girls like myself started to disappear (yes, I know some of you are still out there, but just not in the same numbers). Barns started to be staffed solely with illegals. The only hope you had of your horse being cared for properly at the boarding barn was to master basic Spanish and periodically pick up cases of Tejano. Finding barn help who actually love and care for the horses is like finding a needle in a haystack today.

Now, don't get me wrong. I am NOT bashing all Mexicans here, and though I am sure someone will feel the need to accuse me of being racist, that's not what this is about. There are some really terrific guys who do love the horses and are meticulous about their care. Unfortunately, there are also plenty who coudn't give less than a shit, for whom it's just a job, and who have never learned proper horse handling to begin with. They go for the twitch or the ear every time instead of being patient. They create snarly, distrustful monsters out of perfectly good horses. Owners who show up at night, after work, have no idea of the treatment their horses have been subjected to, and are baffled when the horse displays aggressive behaviors or acts sour.

A couple of years ago, I had to take care of this mare who had been rendered virtually un-bridle-able by rough handling (that was thanks to a New Zealander just for the sake of clarity!). It took a lot of work and time but I was able to get her back to being easy to bridle and I could clip as far as about an inch behind her ears with no chains, twitches or other paraphernalia. The whole situation was frustrating to me because she was a sweet mare and the situation shouldn't have been created in the first place. How do you get a 14.3 mare hard to bridle? Seriously! Argh... Well, that problem was created by an asshole who couldn't handle authority and wanted to bum around the world and, hooray, the horse business was just waiting to welcome him with open arms. Yay.

There was a big scandal last year when a couple of men were asphyxiated using an unsafe heater in the trailer tackroom they were expected to sleep in at a big h/j show in Thermal. I'm not sure who is to blame there, as I've heard they may have chosen to sleep at the show and save their per diem money, but I have to say this really isn't any different than it has always been. The whole time I was in the horse business, I worked without health insurance. I slept in the gooseneck, I slept in the truck, I slept in stalls at horse shows. I used to share a job exercising a dozen horses with another girl. She got bolted with and fell off and got hurt. Not only did no one compensate her in any way for her injuries, but the employer was angry she had "ruined the horse" by allowing it to bolt. Typical. He was, by the way, paying each of us $300 a month, in 1986. Were we stupid? *shrug* We were young and we wanted to ride horses all day, he had great parties every weekend...we didn't think it was such a bad deal at the time. (Which comes first, the chicken or the egg? Do we get treated so badly in the horse business because we allow it, or is that blaming the victim?)

These days, I tend to look at the horse business sadly and think "what a shame there's no money in doing what I love." I would certainly rather be working with horses all day than sitting in an office surreptitiously writing the Fugly blog. ;-) But to be honest, the money was never there. The horse business is a lot like the film business. Young people have historically wanted it so badly that you don't have to pay them or pay them very much. Go to Hollywood and you will see how many movies you can work on if you're willing to work a 14 hour day for food and credit. The difference is, there are still a lot of young people who want to do that...whereas it seems like the number of young people who want to work in the horse business, and are really serious about committing to the 14 hour days and taking pride in their work, has diminished vastly, leaving those jobs to be filled by low-level workers who really don't give a crap about the horses, take shortcuts, and mentally fry horses.

Why did this happen? Did today's young women get too smart to work all month for $800? Do they all have horses of their own now, from a young age, and no longer think it's a privilege to ride a dozen horses of someone else's all day? Did they figure out that there was no future in it - are they simply smarter and more savvy about life than we were? (Did their parents get wise to the fact that they were getting mixed up with 40 year old trainers and put the kibosh on the barn jobs?) I'm honestly curious why things have changed the way they have. It's not good news for the horses.

(That's me on the left, 21 years ago with big 80's hair, pulling off a wrap...I still remember that mare. I was the only one who could spray her with anything without her striking at them!)

One groom's story...see, this is the kind of person I want taking care of horses!