Thoroughbred Logic: Grit & the Saga of Finding Good Help

“All told, the only people who will stay are those who want it. Because everyone could make more money and be more comfortable working at a fast food joint.”

Welcome to the next installment of Thoroughbred Logic. In this weekly series, Anthropologist and trainer Aubrey Graham, of Kivu Sport Horses, offers insight and training experience when it comes to working with Thoroughbreds (although much will apply to all breeds). This week ride along as Aubrey discusses her logic on finding — and KEEPING — good help.

It only took about 10 minutes to move and strategically stack 84 bales of heavy, New Mexico Alfalfa. My hay shipper popped his head in the shed and exclaimed, “Damn, I don’t think anyone stacks hay as fast as you do.” He didn’t mean just me. He meant myself and the three petit, badass women who just slung all of the bales off the truck.

Now, in terms of barns and work, moving that amount of hay is nothing to write home about — it is expected equine labor. However, the fact that my barn (like many) is staffed by strong, capable young women might be. Because getting to this set of awesome help has been one hell of a saga. (Here’s how this article works: sappy appreciation for my current barn help in the first section and comical vignettes of recent barn help fails in the second; skip down if you need a good eye roll).

Earlier this year when we had to stack six bundles of the good stuff. Photo by Jeff West.

Here’s the thing: My barn is not “easy.”  The horses aren’t easy — yep, they are all big, young, sometimes-behaviorally challenged Thoroughbreds. The work is a lot (and I’m sure that’s an understatement). And you either jive with how I run things or you don’t. This past year, I have had a greater number of horses than ever and less help than usual. There have been more days than I’d like to count where it has been 18-hours of work and the end isn’t quite in sight yet. I’m sure anyone who runs their own business or barn can relate.

Alanah and Uno — one of my big, goofy baby Thoroughbreds, who now, thanks to everyone who handles him, has pretty darn good manners. Photo by Amanda Woomer.

And when I talk about needing more barn help, I hear a lot of this from my peers: “No one wants to work.” “Doesn’t matter how much you pay them.” “Can’t make them stay.” I agree … with some caveats.

I mean, here’s the thing: Barn work is HARD. It is one part gym, one parts guts, one part endurance, one part mud, one part sweltering heat, one part bone cold, one part loveable/annoying horses, one part soaked through, one part asking “how the hell did hay get there?” at the end of every shift, one part 30,000 steps in a day (I don’t keep track so that’s a guesstimate), one part efficiency Tetris and one part questioning all of your life choices that got you thinking this was a good idea. All told, the only people who will stay are those who want it. Because everyone could make more money and be more comfortable working at a fast food joint.

One part dealing with the cats slowing down hay distribution. Photo by author.

Wanting it means accepting all the tough parts, but it also means wanting to learn. It means knowing that getting to ride the horses, or groom them, or simply be in their presence is earned by mucking stalls, cleaning their water troughs, ensuring full hay nets, and busting one’s butt to keep the barn running. It means getting chances to look on as the vet takes radiographs or shows off a new acupuncture technique. It means learning how to manage and when to correct equine behavior. It means learning about hooves while standing with the horse while the farrier (or hell, I) put shoes on. (Yes, because I have a barn full of Thoroughbreds, tacking shoes back on has become a new skill — learning doesn’t stop when you run the place either.)

This means learning how to handle the green beans or those that come in without a ton of manners (and helping to ensure that the leave with excellent behavior). It means recognizing the signs of colic or discomfort and knowing what to do. It means identifying lameness. And it means gaining the chance to pet noses and lean into warm necks while still working towards the routine goals of the day.

Dr. Zoë Latimer of Countryside Veterinary Service places acupuncture needles in Needles Highway’s hind end. Photo by author.

And when more horses come in, and the ones who were supposed to have left haven’t moved, and when the barn is overfull and everyone is overworked, it means a chance to step up to the plate and keep pitching in because that’s just what one does.

And all of that is why I find it so hard sometimes to find good help. It is not just that people don’t want to work. It is that to work in this industry you have to want that combination that asks you to be tough, smart and strong. I think a lot of that is summed up in the under-used concept of “grit.” Without grit, folks simply don’t make it in a barn.

(And right now, I’m lucky to have the barn help who does. And for all of the young women who have worked for me before and recognize themselves in these statements, I’m grateful to you guys, too — also come back anytime).

Current barn help, Greta Colley (left) and former barn help Jules Burer (right) getting the chance to take Monk (Sydster) and Q (Quality Step) for a spin. Photo by Cora Williamson Photography.

And for sh*ts and giggles, here is what I learned this year about trying to hire outside of the crew that “wants it.”

Vignette 1:

I hear a diesel pull up. A truck — that’s usually a good sign. The guy that gets out, though, seems like he walked straight out of the a dime store costume section labeled “Yellowstone.” Nice jeans, clean boots, biiiiiiig belt buckle, new button down with the arms freshly snipped off, cowboy hat, and later in the shift, a big silk-ish scarf tied like a wild rag.* Walks in like the saloon doors should have just swung shut behind him. I got a hat tip and a “ma’am,” followed by, “Didn’t wanna wear ma spurs, you know, case that would have scared the horses.” My eyes get wider. Well, sir, you’re on stall cleaning duty, not sure how spurs were going to help.

I did the quick, “here’s how we clean stalls and refresh water here” song and dance. And if it is possible to clean stalls and make them worse, he figured it out. Four hours later he had finished the work with ample griping. I had to redo the whole thing the next morning. No sir, you and your get up did not get the job.

*To be fair, I don’t give a damn what people wear when they work. But this was too fantastic not to note.

Pig knows that barn work is tough as we constantly move him out of his napping spots in the shavings or the hay. Photo by author.

Vignette 2: 

A BMW held together with ratchet straps pulls down the drive and two people open doors and disembark. The job is for one person only, but okay. Apparently the young woman has horse experience and the man has the car? I run with it — train them both up quickly on how we do things around here and let them get to the stalls and waters. Both don white cotton gloves and do their damndest to not get dirty. Mid-way through half of the stalls, the woman is doing a shimmy dance in front of one of the geldings. White gloves get tossed and new white gloves get applied. …OK…

I turn around and the man is standing outside the stall watching the young lady work. Hmmmm… I encourage “tag teaming” the work at hand. The man seems to be unwilling to get near the horses (this was in the job description) and later, a horse is being pushed back into a stall (they were leaning over the wheelbarrow) with an upturned broom threatening to whack at their head.

“Did we get the job?” …Oh boy…

Barn work comes with views like this — but only if you are willing to sweat and get dirty in the process. Photo by author.

Vignette 3: Reasons I can’t make it today

“My car is in the shop.” “Can you borrow one? Uber? Get dropped off?” “I’m trying” “Any luck?” …crickets

“My motorcycle broke.” (see response above)

“I don’t have enough gas money to get there.” “I can pay your shift in advance.” …crickets

Non-specific “family emergency” (first time fine, second time, hmmmmmm…)

“I forgot I had concert tickets for tonight.” Really?

“I’d like to work, but maybe only the occasional Sunday morning or so.” So that’s a nopelope to the three PM shifts we’re hiring for and for which I just trained you…?

…and the list goes on…

So to all the awesome barn help out there, damn well done. That grit looks good on ya.

To everyone else, well… best of luck.