How to tell your Horse Job is HORRIBLE and it’s time to ESCAPE. PRONTO.
This article originally began as a list of things that I thought might be red flags. You know, stuff I brainstormed or imagined. Then I thought it might behove me to ask YOU GUYS. And boy, did you have a lot of horror stories to share. So, I’ll share with you some of these cringe worthy tidbits as long as you promise to remember the following things:
-These are individual stories. Yes, there are often more sides to any story, but these quotes and experiences came directly from you guys. These stories are the “breaking points”, which may or may not be the same breaking point for you.
-These stories and quotes represent the bad and the ugly. Soon, very soon, I will have the polar opposite article for you to enjoy, just for some balance. (PLEASE SEND ME YOUR AWESOME STORIES!!)
-The power to make the horse industry change for the better (in any way that you want it to be better) rests with you. If you are a Groom, leave any job where the humans are being abused or the horses are being abused. If you are a Barn Owner/Trainer/Employer, follow the employment laws in your state. If you are a Client, leave any barn where the humans are being abused or the horses are being abused. Bad businesses can’t and won’t exist without their client’s money and without help showing up day after day.
Some common GIANT RED FLAGS to look out for.
THERE’S NO MONEY FOR SUPPLIES. OR PAYCHECKS.
“First day, feed & hay dealer shows up looking for money or no feed. Woman is nowhere to be found. Second day, woman leaves and another hay/grain/shavings dealer shows up looking to get paid or no feed. After a month, still wasn’t paid and I was buying hay & grain for school horses myself so they wouldn’t starve.“
“A huge red flag for me is not having a plan...general disorganization and lack of management..... everything from not being able to pay a paycheck on time, to not having the horses on a consistent maintenance (feet, vetting etc) schedule.”
“One place that I worked for never bought shavings for the stalls because they "couldn't afford" it. Every so often, they'd find some from a woodworking shop but they were few and far between. So the dirt (and rock) floors had maybe an inch of gross, dirty shavings at best the majority of the time, unless the boarders went out and bought some themselves - and no, they were not able to deduct the cost of the bedding from their board. Out of desperation, I would sometimes buy some out of my own pocket as well. I also had to constantly underfeed the horses because they "couldn't afford" enough grain and hay. The final straw for me was when, just after she told me that I'd have to take a day off without pay (yup, she was having trouble with my $35/day), the trainer/operator told me that she was blowing off two lessons worth $40 to go out to lunch with a friend of hers for Chinese food, and I should tell her students to, "Take a practice ride or something, instead"
INJURED ON THE JOB AND NO AMBULANCE
“Horse lost balance at canter, I hit the ground and tore everything in my back. Couldn’t move or get up. Had to drive myself to the hospital and woman charged me for a lesson! Couldn’t walk, sit or stand for 3 weeks. Was fired for “not showing up” and never got paid back wages.”
“I was kicked by a young horse in the forearm pretty bad. Both hind legs made contact, horse was wearing shoes and I was flung across the aisle. I wasn't "allowed" to leave to go the hospital until I had moved an entire ring full of jump standards. Which I accomplished using only one arm. When I was done and drove myself, he wouldn't allow anyone to go with me, to the hospital I discovered I had a pretty serious stress fracture in the arm. I worked another three weeks there until I physically couldn't bear it anymore, and my arm continued to get worse. Finally I threw in the towel. I young and was very worried about making a good impression on someone who had once been an idol of mine. My arm still aches when it rains.”
No ambulance for you - drive yourself!!
GENERAL BAD ATTITUDE OF COWORKERS AND MANAGEMENT
“Problems arose when working with assistant manager bringing in mares & foals for breakfast and he would shout out “come here you *******, stupid **********. Stupid *****” among other derogatory comments. Obviously, this guy was not a fan of his horses.”
“This was a standard barn management position but the owner and his wife were going through a nasty divorce and they brought their issues down to the barn and would try to get anyone and everyone to 'pick a side'. Oh, and the person in question as to why they were getting a divorce was my trainer at the time... oops! Keeping your personal and professional life SEPARATE or at least away from the barn and not involving your (at the time) high school aged barn manager/stall cleaner in your mess.”
“As you start complaining about things not being correctly done, or horses not getting enough food or even medical aid, they set you aside as a troublemaker”
“My breaking point is when trainers behave like two year olds and scream and holler at you for no reason."
“Primarily, I’m Colombian, not Mexican, and much to my chagrin, I’ve had to endure brainless, ignorant, faintly racist comments such as “everything below the border is the same” or “do you speak Mexican?” and my favorite, “you’re too pale to be Latina” and more similar remarks”
“As I worked there my strength and health started weakening as well: one day off is not enough when you’re working 70+ hours a week. My whole body ached and I started getting sick from exhaustion. I had no life, at all. I became a resentful, angry recluse. Even my amiable, easy-going personality started to crumble. To top it off, the boss was an insomniac, so she texted or called me at 2-3 in the morning giving me orders about things to do the next day.”
MANAGEMENT IGNORING WARNING SIGNS AND DETAILS AND OTHER STUFF
“After a week of telling them that a layup was progressively more dangerous in the stall (expected to pick out every hour and feed at the back) with no response, the stallion double barreled the wall just missing my head as I pulled his water bucket (at the front) to clean it at the beginning of my shift (9pm) I was starting school the next week and told them I was quitting because I wanted to live to get there. If that horse had connected to my head, no one would have found me until at least 7 am when the day shift arrived.”
“A groom telling a trainer I believe a saddle needs fitting.....ignoring it and then as the horse becomes back sore, still ignoring it until 4 months later a chriopactor says this horse is back sore and the saddle is bad (then it sinks in!) And still nothing is really done.....or a groom saying this horse is tail rubbing (to the point of self harming), groom runs down the list of 5 to 6 basic care pratices they have tried and ask for the Vet.....10 days later still nothing is being done”
“That boss had also asked me if I had any experience with foals and mares in foal? I have many years of experience with that, I took classes as well. All that information was in the résumé I had sent down. Which he did not take the time to read even though he requested it and wanted several references as well. None of whom he contacted. After several phone calls from him and the other trainer I respectfully declined. For the sole reason that he didn't pay attention to the details he requested in the first place. I know that people are busy but a good leader will take the time to at least acknowledge the efforts made by the people working for them.”
“I worked with a trainer who was a chronic non-communicator. Trying to be on the same page when constant changes were being made without being informed, or without any communication whatsoever, bred at lot of frustration and made me feel I could not do my job as well as I could have. “
“The final straw for me was the one school horse, he was the only one with any real jumping training so he got used constantly and I repeatedly pointed out his increasing head tossing and bridling issues as an indicator of needing his teeth checked. After a few months of this I got frustrated and with the help of another staff member I managed to get him to let me have a peek. The poor guy had a half inch, razor sharp hook on his front molar! I told the boss he needed help and knowing they wouldn't let him stop working in the meantime found him a bitless bridle for the time being. Well, the boss thought this was just dandy and meant that the vet was no longer needed!”
“The trainer that worked there had dangerous horses boarded there that she would put small children on and when they would be unceremoniously dumped on the ground she would blame the kid. Her 3 horses that she had boarded there would bite, kick, buck, rear, every nasty habit a horse can have. I got to where I refused to handle them. Of course the trainer said it was my fault that they were like that. My breaking point, I was there one summer evening, after letting horses out and cleaning stalls, I was at the arena talking to the owner over by the arena, the trainer was trying to help this frightened little girl on the one of her horses for a lesson. The mare reared and the girl fell off and when the girl stood back up the made kicked the girl in the face (knocking out several teeth). I told the owner right then and there that I quit.”
“I worked for a man that took his grand prix jumper to his trainer's barn for the week end to show him to potential buyers. I stayed home to take care of the other horses.When he returned on Monday he complained that the horse was lame all weekend and that they had drugged him and showed him to people over large jumps anyway! I pulled the horse off of the trailer and picked up his foot to find a huge nail in it! No one checked his feet, picked his feet just drugged him and asked him to jump large jumps with a nail in his foot!”
TOO MANY HORSES, NOT ENOUGH HANDS
“Having too high of horse to staff ratio (see above), 14 horses to 1 part time staff person means things will get missed! And is sure burnout for the staff.”
“We had maybe 15 horses. I was responsible for feeding and turnout and water only, then making feed for the next morning or night, etc. She never worked the horses which were large dressage/event horses and fed them way too much grain. She had very small turnout areas and this all resulted in uncontrollable horses that would literally rear and kick out at me when turning them in or out. It got to the point where I was using a lunge line to try and turn some of the horses in, but a lot of the time I would have to let go and let them gallop to their stalls or fields. There was a faulty electric fence that the horses would constantly shock themselves on as well. I got kicked and stepped on and almost trampled a majority of the time. I felt bad for the horses.”
“I left because my health matters. I was getting 5 hours of sleep a night and I had no time to eat during the day.”
“I gave up when fighting lymphadema in my arm (it was swollen to about the same size as my thigh) and the trainer still wanted me to work on our 1 day off a week.”
“20 hour days...the rider would mess up & it was the groom's fault for not lounging enough (or too much)!”
“I lasted another 4 weeks but jacked it when she went on holiday for a week leaving me with her 82 yr old mother, 300 lambing ewes, 6 horses and 5 dogs to look after!!! I was only 17. “
“It was me and 16 horses that had to be fed, groomed, turned out, medicated and the whole shebang on a daily basis. Not only that, but I also had to clean bathrooms, pick up her cigarette butts around the barn (she was a reckless and avid smoker) water and drag the arena, sweep the barn (this was a 30-stall barn with 16 outer runs that hadn’t been cleaned in months…)”
“When I came back to the barn they gave me the dire news that one of the Mexican barn hands had suddenly quit, and that I had to take over his duties on top of my duties as a trainer. (RED FLAG) Basically, I had to clean 10-20 stalls, turn out, bring it, feed, sweep, lessons, colt-breaking, riding and Pony Club. And only one day off.”
“I was constantly arguing with my co-worker about division of duties: there were 47 horses and only 2 people, who can possibly keep up with all that work?”
SUPER SKETCHY INSTRUCTIONS AND SITUATIONS
“Having to use a lame horse on classes or rides, colleagues using drugs on horses so the riders could feel safe and keep paying for classes, colleagues injecting lame horses so they could keep wining on showjumping events”
“I shared an apartment on the property with the stall cleaner. Every night he padlocked the hallway door just outside of my bedroom, in turn locking me in the back half of the appt. away from the kitchen, bathroom, and only exit to the outside. There was a back door that lead into the barn, but I had to scale a 12 ft. stall wall to get out (with my dog). I told the owners, and they said they would talk to him as he only spoke Spanish, and I didn't. The owner came back to me saying the stall cleaner said I was lying.”
“We met through a friend that recruited college students “under the table” and paid them cash to occasionally clean stalls, feed, sweep and ride some greenies.”
ABUSE/NEGLECT OF THE HORSES AND PEOPLE
After cleaning many stalls in the awful summer heat (plus working my other barn position), I found myself growing too tired to uphold my own personal high standards. I was frustrated that no one seemed to care about theses horses - they each had ONE water bucket only in their stalls and I often arrived in the morning to find many, if not all, of them totally out of water.
“Working in a private standardbred racing barn and watching the men beat the horses. Brutal!”
“I was called "stupid" I was told I didn't know how to ride. I was also beaten up by another employee.”
“To treat his neck wound they would run the lead rope through the bars of the front of the stall and ram the yearling head into the wall. They then wanted me to go into the stall with Wonder Dust and try to get it on this huge wound that looked like hamburger! All the while this un handled yearling was thrashing and falling, and scared out of his mind as they had his head pinned up against the stall wall. A vet never came out the week I was there to treat this poor yearling.”
“My breaking point was the abuse that particular trainer used to train. Bloody mouths from see sawing and tying their heads down with twisted wire bits, spur gouging, tying their heads to their tails when they wouldn't lower their head he would tie the horses heads to the rafter in the barn stretched out all night so that in the morning when I would come in I would have to cut the ropes because their neck muscles were so exhausted they couldn't hold their head up. I'd cut the rope and their heads would collapse and he'd ride them like that. Gave them the peanut roll look, I got yelled at when I nearly went to blows about him injecting the horses tails to kill nerves.”
“Thoroughbred groom at the race track. My final breaking point was when the trainer I worked for tied his horses heads to the header over the stall door and hung them so their front hooves were just inches above the floor. He would come up behind me if I was walking a horse and smack it across the rump without warning, because it wasn't lively enough. The horses all looked broken and sad. I went to the racing commission and reported him only to get escorted off the track. I threw my security badge at them and told them what I though of them.”
“Watching a sweet 2 yr old stud get the tar beat out of him because he was being "stupid". What did they expect!? He was 2 and stood in a stall all day, with very little human contact and no exercise. He had been injured when they were breaking him out and would never "be the same" and instead of gelding him and letting him live a decent life they kept him intact because he was guaranteed to produce a colored foal. I walked out and didn't even go back to collect my last paycheck.”
AND THE PERFECT SUMMARY:
“I quit when I realized I was compromising my own integrity and standards because I was just too exhausted to care. When I realized I had entered a very dysfunctional work environment. When I realized I was literally putting myself in danger every day, which could affect my health, family, and my ability to perform at my other job. The cost outweighed the benefit. I walked away very relieved, but still think about those horses to this day and pray that they're being taken care of.”
“Lessons learned: be aware of sudden changes in working conditions going from part-time to full-time, respect yourself, take care of your health and speak up against unfair treatment and compensation. And finally, you are not a failure if you walk away from something that just doesn’t fulfill you anymore. Sometimes it’s the best decision you can make for your health, wallet and sanity. Follow your instincts, after all, we humans survived and evolved thanks to them.”
A FEW FINAL THOUGHTS (from me)
As a Groom, we are expected to sacrifice a lot of things “for the love of the horse” and “it’s the horse industry - it’s just the way things are”. AND ALSO THAT IS TOTAL BS. Grooms are human, with feelings, who deserve respect and nothing less. We deserve to be paid legally, have safe working conditions, and be employed within the employment laws of the state we work in. The smartest thing you can do is educate yourself about employement laws. Luckily I have a bunch of articles that can help you do just that here.
Every single one of us has the power to create change in the horse industry. Stand up for yourself and stand up for the horses that you care for. And also maybe have a back up plan if stuff hits the fan.
And also remember that these stories are not meant to paint the entire horse world in a horrible light. There are plenty of wonderful stories from Grooms (send me your awesome story!), too. Use this list as a way to read the red flags that may come up. That is all.