By Bethany Larsen
Editor’s Note: This article won first place in 2016 for a GMO newsletter award for first-person experience for GMOs with 500 or more members. It originally appeared in the February 2016 issue of the New England Dressage Association newsletter, A Tip of the Hat.
The equine industry can be a hard one to pursue as a professional career. There are books to read and videos to watch, but nothing can be quite as informing and educational as getting one’s hands dirty and doing the work. Becoming a working student is an exceptional way to get the hands-on learning that is beneficial to one’s riding and gaining firsthand experience with day to day operations of a professional barn. I have been one now for almost three years, and I am currently positioned at a stable in New Hampshire, living onsite in a private apartment and working alongside two other full-time working students under the knowledgeable eye of a gifted trainer. So what does a typical day look like? What can one expect in this line of work? Here’s a glimpse.
6 AM. I am awakened by the soft, frilly dinging of my alarm, causing me to sit up in bed and rouse myself from slumber. First thing’s first: check the weather. How many layers shall I wear today? What shall I dress the horses in for turnout? Will we be riding inside or outside today? All of these questions race through my mind as I prepare for the workday. Next, I don my breeches and polo shirt, and always remember to eat the most important meal of the day.
7 AM. As I hike up the stairs from my basement apartment with my lunch in hand, I can feel the temperature change to what the great outdoors is sporting, hot or cold as the season may be. A smile stretches across my face as I am greeted by the first glimpse of the sunrise and breathe in the crisp, clean air. As I make my commute across the yard I am greeted by several pairs of expecting eyes and perky ears, the nicker of a hungry stomach, and the annoying sound of pawing addicts. These horses, we joke, need to attend a PA meeting (i.e. Pawers Anonymous). “Nordic!” I say sternly, as he ceases to paw for an instant to look at me with the look of, “well, if you would just feed me right this second I would stop!” Every day, Nordic, every day. Once grain is fed we are faced with the fun task of figuring turnout for the day. And once we think we have the positioning down pat, something inevitably changes such as turnout needs, new horses, lesson schedule, client requests, etc. It can get rather confusing, and no day is identical to another when it comes to which horse goes where and when.
8:30 AM. Horses are out. Water buckets are scrubbed and filled and we proceed to clean stalls. I have always questioned why the horses don’t drink out of their buckets equally. They leave one nearly empty and the other full and filthy! So now I have to muster up the strength to lift the full bucket off the wall without spilling it all down my boot! As we muck stalls our conversation somehow always seems to turn to the state of the stalls. “Man, Merlin must have had a party in his stall last night!” “Time to take on the Mason Mountain and the Rio wetlands.” “Beware of the Dark Circle stall!” Oh perfect, another stall mat to fix. And for the umpteenth time I silently grumble at how the horses seem to make it their mission to soil the stalls as soon as it has been cleaned. Thank you, horse, I really appreciate how much you appreciate what it is I do, I think to myself as I listen to the sound of urination next door.
10:30 AM. Hay is fed once more and grain is made up with meticulously stacked buckets based on the ever changing location of the horses. The schedule of riding is posted for the day and a plan is formed. Hurrying around like busy little bees, we bring in horse A to ride so now we can turn out horse B, except B can’t be out next to C, so D needs to shift over so we can put B there. Now after A is ridden E will need to come in so A can go back out, but we need to shift C over since A doesn’t do well in that paddock! Man, I’m hungry! Do I have time to eat now?
11:30 AM. I’m in the saddle, through the warm up, and ready to ride the first horse of the day. As I pick up my reins again to get back to work I plan out the schooling session for this particular horse. I am always amazed at how my trainer can spot everything. When you think she is not looking or couldn’t possibly see what it is your left leg is doing…she knows…and she is always right! One day I can only hope to develop an eye like hers. The riding is why I do this job and the incredible opportunity to ride horses is not something to take lightly. I do have to say that one of the most satisfying feelings I’ve ever experienced on a horse is performing a line of flawless, straight tempi changes. There is nothing like it!
12 PM, 1 PM, 2 PM. Untack one horse, bathe/brush, turn back out if possible. Is there time to eat yet? Bring in the next victim and shuffle turnout as necessary. Put tack away from previous ride, rinse the bit, pull out tack for the next ride, saddle up, ride. Rinse and repeat—Hold on, horse D is running and freaking out at the imaginary boogie man. Bring in horse D, B, and C since the domino effect is in full swing. We have a common saying in the barn to sum up the times when the calm and orderly routine turns suddenly wild: “And chaos ensues.” Or ACE, for short. I turn to my coworker and say “ACE, man, ACE.” This seems to be a daily occurrence.
3 PM. After hurriedly eating the sandwich I packed for lunch, finally, while simultaneously pulling off my riding boots, we proceed to pick through the stalls again and begin to bring in the ponies. Now, there is great strategy as to which horse to bring in first and which sane horse to leave last. And why are they always in such a hurry to come in? There is no food in the stalls and I still see no boogieman, so why? Nonetheless, we snap on the lead rope before the delicate balance is upset and lead them to their homes in the barn. I swear that every horse you put in the stall promptly relieves himself, and as I walk through the barn serenaded with the sound of waterfalls on every side, I wonder why they don’t just go outside! Are you not horses?! Aren’t you supposed to live outside? Is that why you are in such a hurry to come in? Come on… I just cleaned the stalls again! I pick up the pitchfork head outside, and muck out the dozen piles of manure per paddock. Sometimes I cannot believe how much they can produce so much waste in just one day. And the little bullies seem to feel the need to back, walk, or run through their piles of manure whether on the cross ties, in the paddock, or in the stall, despite our verbal efforts to prevent them from doing so! I think it’s a game to them.
4 PM. This is one of the loudest times in the barn. There are whinnies all around from hungry stomachs trying to make sure I do not forget to feed them. “Hey, have I ever not fed you in the past?” “Guess what, Whisper? You’re not gonna die today!” I say as I wave my hand at the plump mare and tactfully throw in the hay so she doesn’t grasp it from my hands impatiently before it is actually thrown. “Thank God, I was about to starve!” she intones as she proceeds to “vacuum” up the hay with such enthusiasm that would win any eating contest. Tell me about it, I think, remembering my own eating schedule. Suddenly there is a loud crack from a hoof hitting the stall door. “Hey!” I blurt loudly as the horse shrinks back from the door knowing what it was they had done. And then there are those pawing addicts again. “Hello, my name is Heartsong and I’m addicted to pawing”….
“ Hi Heartsong,” drones the rest of the barn…“KNOCK IT OFF!” I respond.
And then suddenly the barn is the quietest it has been all day as the last flakes are thrown over to the final horses. Ah…peace.
5 PM. All bridles have been cleaned, aisles swept, water buckets topped off, tack room vacuumed, and horses blanketed. “Guess what ponies?! It’s food time!” As the door latch of the feed room clinks, the horses respond with more whinnying, kicking, and pawing. Will they ever learn? Balancing the tall stack of grain buckets with one arm and swiftly emptying their contents with the other, I glance in each bucket to visually make sure every horse is getting the right grain and I don’t cause a final “ACE” situation forcing me to bodily throw myself between horses and bucket because the grain is going to the wrong horse! With the final barn checks completed, we call it a day and walk back across the yard, glancing at the sunset this time if the season is right.
Even though the days seem to run in a similar fashion, there is much variance depending on the events of the day and those pesky yet sometimes exciting and entertaining “ACE” moments. I have learned so much and the experience is undeniable. I will not shrink away from the dirt beneath my nails and the farmer’s tan as I continue to put in the long, hard work to move my way up into this industry.