Been there, did that for 8 years. Helped pay for me to go to school, and although it was the longest hours and, lowest paid job of my sketchy 'career'....it was by far the most satisfying. It was hard to condense that much time into an article, and I know I left out a lot of details in the day-to-day routine.
You don't know my name, and you probably don't care. A lot of people think I am nothing more than a stall mucker. To others I am an unambitious loser who is content to do 'nothing more' than take care of racehorses. I am the person whose only contact with the public is to lead my horse over and back on race day. My job is probably the least respected (by the public at any rate) least understood, and yet one of the most important in the game. I groom racehorses.
I get up at 4:30 or 5:00, (7 days a week, 52 weeks a year) maybe a bit later if all my horses walk today. I need to be at the track, with my first tracker tacked when the track opens for training. I know every horse in my care better than some people know their own children. If one of them looks at me cross-eyed, or has a hair out of place, I know something is wrong. I know their eating habits, their stall habits, how they like to be 'woken up' in the morning, how they like to play, where they like to be brushed hardest, and where they like to be touched least. I know what frightens them, and what soothes them. I know how long they will sleep, and how they should look 24/7.
I am mother, protector, first aid provider, chef, house keeper, and friend. Sometimes, tragically, I am the last soothing voice they will ever hear, and my tears are the last thing they will feel. They are not machines, they are living, breathing, incredible combinations of flesh and bone, that, while strong, are also delicate. I can ease their aches and calm their fears. Without me, the best training methods and the best riding in the world would not be enough.
I might live in the barn in a tackroom, and depending on the track, those tack rooms can range from not bad to downright squalid. I have lived off-track, but found it better to be near my horses in case of an emergency at any time of the day or night. My room probably has a single bed, a tv, and a portable closet. It is very moveable, because when this meet is over, I will go with the trainer and 'my' horses to the next track. My tackroom may not be the Trump Towers, but its home.
First thing in the morning, I will put her halter on, and tie her in the stall. Off come the wraps, down with the hay net and out with the tubs. Feed and water tubs to be scrubbed clean, hay net to be refilled. Take her temp, check the chart for todays training, get the tack if she gallops or works, the pony shank if she ponies. Check the legs now that the wraps have been off for a while. If there is anything out of the ordinary, anywhere, talk to whoever checks in first, the trainer or the vet. Our vet checks by every morning to make sure everyone is OK. If all's well, pick her feet, comb out the mane and tail, rubber glove her to get dirt and loose hair to the surface (and gives a good body massage) brush her, then rub with the rag (another good massage). Polos on, bell boots if she's ponying. If she's working, she might go in front vet wrap, and/or back run down bandages. Or maybe not, it depends on the horse, and you know what equipment every one of your horses goes in for every form of training/racing. If she's working, I will probably take her out of the stall and hand walk her a little to loosen her up, and when the rider arrives, I'll leg him up and walk them to the track. With any luck, I will get to see her work, and make it back to the barn to get a bucket of warm soapy water, some body brace and cold water bandages for her. I'll bath her, making sure I don't miss any spots, rinse and then body brace her. On with the cold waters, blanket and walk. Gotta do the stall. After morning training, I will go through and feed all my horses. Then, before they nap, I will repeat the grooming steps, and take care of feet and legs. I have four horses in my care.
On race day, I will put a muzzle on her after breakfast. I will probably sit with her all day. About an hour before our 20 minute call to the receiving barn, I will again tie her to the back of the stall, and repeat all grooming steps. I will probably put a light fly sheet on her. Any bandages that need to be run will be put on now. I make sure her racing bridle is clean, and in good condition. I check the blinkers the same way. I make sure we have the tongue tie and chamois if needed. Got my paddock boots, bridled up and we're ready for the walk over. People make me a little nervous. They follow me around the frontside after riders up, and I have turned her over to the pony girl for post parade. I tell them that if I knew who all the winners were, I sure as heck wouldn't be here...I'd be sailing my yacht around the Mediterranean. This pisses some people off. But my focus is my horse. I may or may not make any bets, usually not because I don't want to jinx her. Did I forget to tell you that grooms are a very superstitious lot? I just want her to run good, and come back to the barn sound. If (when?!) she wins, I will pose her in the winner's circle for the picture. Then its off to the test barn, and then home...where the bathing, grooming and leg/foot work is repeated again. They don't race every day, and on those days I might be free to do other things, like laundry, or maybe something off-track...maybe.
I usually like to hang out with fellow grooms, or other racetrackers. We understand each other, and others, well, no matter how you try to explain it, most others don't get it. Some do. But at least with racing compatriots, we have pretty much the same hours, and same interests, and know the same people, and can entertain each other for hours playing 'do you know' and 'do you remember' and 'whatever happened to' games. Off-track relationships (other than with family) don't usually last too long, or at least, not without an exceptional amount of effort, and I've got too much to do.
I have cared for cheap claimers and multiple stakes winners, and loved them both. I have learned a lot from them, I know what heart is (and it can't be defined with mere words), dignity, guts and determination, and tragedy. I know what it is to take care of something so strong and yet so utterly dependant on you for everything, and be rewarded 1,000 times over. I have loved them, lost them, been frustrated by them, bit, kicked, nuzzled and comforted by them. Caring for them not only paid for an education, it provided one for me. I learned a lot about not just horses, but human nature as well. I know how decent people can be, and how mean and petty.
I wouldn't trade one minute of it. I was a racehorse groom.