I just got done reading Steve Haskins piece on women in the industry. My first reaction upon reading the headline was a resounding “YES!! Finally!!” And then I started to think. About what his story said, but more importantly about what his story didn’t say.
Are there women making up a large portion of our audience? Yes. Thousands upon thousands of our followers, viewers, and race goers are women. And like Mr. Haskin said, they are brought to the races because of one thing and one thing only – a love of the horse. This love is empowering for us, but it is also our greatest downfall. Because these same people are the ones who read on social media of all of the horror stories which get written about our beloved industry, and just as they could become our greatest fans, they quickly become our greatest threat. They become the naysayers, the loathers, the club that quickly hits “share” before looking into the facts.
And as Mr. Haskin states, there are a select few who get to the elite positions within the industry. But the keywords here are, select few. Does that mean that many don’t try? Of course not. Thousands of women have worked within the industry. And some do rise to the top. But in the Sport of Kings, it quickly becomes apparent that many of the Queens are simply treated as pawns.
I was one of them. I got into the industry as a groom. I quickly moved up to a management position, based simply on a hard work ethic and a high intelligence. I was willing to learn, but more importantly I was willing to do anything. Show up for the vet an hour ahead of time without being paid? Sure. Cancel a dinner date with my boyfriend so that I could ride in the trailer with a mare to the breeding shed? Definitely. And work my ass off cleaning stalls just to prove a point that I could keep up with the boys? Every day.
That got me to a management position, but it wasn’t easy. I was told by some farms that they wouldn’t even hire a girl. That they would rather discriminate against a woman, instead of “control” or “deal with” their men. These men who obviously couldn’t be forced to behave in the social norm, to respect women, and treat them as equals. Because in this archaic industry, many men still thought that the social norm was to treat women as second class citizens. In fact, in 2016, the social norm is still to treat women as second class citizens. It is not just our industry, it is sadly the way of the world!
I was lucky, that I found one of the farms that would give me a chance. But it wasn’t all sunshine and roses in the position. I dealt with men daily who didn’t respect having a woman in charge.
I remember having a bloodstock agent come out one day while my mother was visiting. The showing of the yearlings didn’t go well and tensions were high. One of the girls that worked on the farm walked into the barn and in defeat said that she was just wanted to cry. My mother sternly and firmly reprimanded her. She said “don’t you dare, not when my daughter has spent the last 18 months convincing these men that girls weren’t going to cry at the drop of a hat!” I realized that day, that my mom knew exactly how hard it was for me in this world.
Or the time that I worked the sales for my boyfriends consignment. We were getting a big colt ready for the ring, when a neighboring consignor walked up and asked who was taking him. My boyfriend pointed at me with a confused look on his face. But I was used to this. I was used to the men assuming that women handled fillies and boys handled colts. I don’t think that my boyfriend believed me when I came home and told him of the sexism that ran rampant throughout the industry. I remember that day the man laughing, and saying “no, seriously, who is taking the colt?”
I knew not to react, and I knew not to lose my temper. I was just as capable of a handler as any of the men around us. I also knew that there were many girls who thought that they were better horseman than they actually were. But there are also plenty of men who believed the same. I had worked the sales with many consignors, many showman, and in many places.
And do you know who the first person would be that I would hire for my own consignment? A tiny 5’1 blonde 24-year-old who weighs less than 110 pounds, Ashley Bradshaw. I worked one single sale with her, and was able to put aside my own ego, and just simply watch and learn. She might’ve been younger than me, she might’ve been smaller than me, but she was better.
I watched large colts, just melting in her hands. Colts who had previously been savaging the men, practically fall asleep on the end of her shank. I learned that day, that neither sex, nor size, nor strength mattered, when you were working with horses. Confidence, good hands, and a good head do.
But our industry as a whole isn’t there yet. Steve Haskin mentioned the two or three women who are doing amazing in each field– Maggi and Rosie, Linda Rice and Amy Zimmerman. But he never mentioned a farm manager. And I know, I know, we would all be quick to say Sandy Hatfield. The only female stallion manager I know. The only female to ever win Farm Manager of the Year. I respect her. I wanted to be her. But again, she is only one.
Mr. Haskin states that the women get involved because they grew up around horses. To me, this means that they should be MORE capable in the hands-on positions within the industry. In the groom, the showman, the manager. But they are not accepted as such. Instead, they are placed in the positions of nightwatch, office staff, assistant. And are those positions still highly necessary and well respected? Of course. I am not trying to take away anything from them. But they are not the general manager, or even the broodmare or yearling manager.
So many of my friends within the industry are women, and so many of them WERE in those management positions, or capable of getting there. But they don’t last. They go into an office position, or work in bloodstock, or worse, leave the industry entirely.
And is a large part of this because most women don’t want it? Sure. I don’t know many people in general who want the 90+ hour work week, the lack of sleep, the full dedication to ones job. It is a dirty, long, thankless position. One that only receives recognition by the animals with which it cares for. But these same variables weigh heavily on a mans mind as he makes the leap into farm life.
So I think that there are more reasons. The industry is still skewed heavily towards the man. It is still unbelieving that a woman can do the same job. Women still make less money for the same position that a man holds. And women are still hesitant to give up their lives, their hobbies, and their families, just to be placed in a job where they are constantly questioned of their ability.
And this needs to change. Because if you polled 100 men and 100 woman, I can guarantee there will be a higher percentage of women who would sacrifice their lives for the chance to work with horses. These same women who would devote their lives to the industry that we all love. But so many of them are being pulled away by a career with more money, fewer hours, and more respect. A career that can afford them their own personal horses and a retirement plan. A career that gives maternity leave and overtime.
And many of these women are reading on social media of the “atrocities” of the thoroughbred industry, and they are the first to be swayed by the stories on Facebook and twitter. These women who love their horses also fear for the safety and wellbeing of the thoroughbred and are quick to share a story, whether it be true or not. These women who are capable of standing on the platform of the industry and speak of the truths and greatness of our fellow horsemen, are also capable of standing on a soapbox and fill the minds of their friends and followers with the negative stories, with the PETA lies, and the nursemare untruths.
So will women keep the industry alive? I wish I could say that I believe so. But more certainly, I hope so. I know so many women who are capable of leading the way, but who are on their last few laps of trying to break the walls down for the thousands behind them. I gave up. I went back to school. I broke under the pressure. But there are girls who are stronger then me who might just do it. But they need help.
So in reference to Mr. Haskin’s National Velvet, these women do in fact have their Pi, and now they just need their Mi Taylor. They need that man who believes in them, who opens the door for them when they knock, and who pushes them to succeed. The man who said:
“Some day you’ll learn that greatness is only the seizing of opportunity – clutching with your bare hands ’til the knuckles show white”
So be that industry. Give the women that opportunity. Because trust me, the women I know, will clutch it until their knuckles turn white.