I hum this in my head to the tune of “Where have all the Cowboys gone” by Paula Cole at least once a week, and even moreso this last week as I worked the Keeneland September Yearling Sale.
The leg man.
The horse whisperer.
The foaling guy.
The breaking girl.
The bread and butter of our industries, people who used to be revered and applauded. The cowboy you would send to get your horses broke, or the barn foreman who could feel a tendon strain weeks before an ultrasound would pick anything up.
The men and women whom we hear are missing from our vocal elders. Men like Denny Emerson and George Morris. Those who are willing to stick their neck out to the guillotine as they lament the good old days. Where riders were horsemen and women first and foremost and equitators second.
And this goes out to so many aspects of this equine industry.
I watch as the majority of my friends move off away from the barns of the Thoroughbred breeding industry. Men and women who I considered the good ones, who I considered the true horsemen, moving away from the daily chores of mucking and bandaging for the comfort of heated offices and 9-5’s. Christmas off and open toed shoes.
I lamented of this to a fellow farm manager last week during the sales when he asked about my manfriend and what his plans were. His plans? He planned to do what he was phenomenal at. Being a horseman.
Luke is a broodmare manager, and one of the best birth attendants I have ever seen in a foaling stall–and that is coming from me, someone who has her doctorate in equine reproduction.
Year in and year out, Luke is the first human face that these future champions see. He can reposition the worst dystocia, calm the most panicked mare, and assist the first steps of the most leggy foal. And I watch in appreciation of this greatness. This skill set. This mastery.
But this mastery will never make him millions. His job is one that is at best under-appreciated and at worst over worked. From January 1st until July, he works 100 hour weeks. A herd of broodmares and their progeny depend on him never sleeping in, never being ill, and never taking a personal day. It does not matter if there are 2 feet of snow on the ground or 100 degrees with 80% humidity-he is there.
I have seen him leave the house after cradling the porcelain gods, riddled with the flu. I have seen him put chains on his tires and haul a generator to the barn without electricity. And I have seen him miss weddings, funerals, births, and parties simply to give that foal a good chance at a great life.
But in exchange for this, the rewards are simple. He appreciates the first gutteral whinny of a filly and the first wobbly steps of a colt. He earns smiles as they accept their first bit and a pat on the back when they sell well. And occasionally, very occasionally, he gets a mention in an article if they win.
It is not a lucrative lifestyle. It is not a comfortable existence. It is filled with constant sleep deprivation, long hot days and even colder nights. A phone permanently attached to your hip and truck keys in your fist.
Not many want to do it.
And because of that, few do. And fewer stick around.
But that is the problem. We are losing those fine men and women who are innately born with these gifts. The feel of a hot leg. The scent of impending parturition. The detection of a disgruntled stomach.
And why? Because it’s undervalued.
These men and women are worth their weight in gold and grain, and yet they are often dismissed for someone cheaper, albeit less experienced. Or they are under appreciated and dismissed for their undying effort to keep their herds well, leaving them disgruntled and restless.
You look around the horse shows and see fewer and fewer of these select few to exist. You look around the yearling sales and see a similar predicament.
And it is not because we are not creating these magical creatures. No, no-they exist. But they are choosing to move off into other realms. They find those jobs in the comfy offices with weekends off. Weekends where they can compete themselves or watch their horses gallop across the wire from a covered box.
Its the duality of the job. Those who love the creatures the most are found caring for those that they do not claim ownership of.
I was one of them. I devoted my entire life to 30 mares and their progeny that I would never get to call my own.
And in exchange for my undying devotion, I never got to ride my own horse. I never had a weekend day off to compete my own horse. And at the end of the day, I couldn’t afford either.
I sacrificed my own personal equestrianism in order to encompass and assist a larger herd. And it wore on me.
I loved being a farm manager. I loved being a horseman. I still work the sales, even now having finished my doctorate and being considered “above” the job of yearling showman. But I love reading those young horses too much. Getting into their brains and unlocking the chains. Figuring out how to make them walk better, stand better, behave better. It’s an addiction for a true horseman. An addiction that’s impossible to break.
But I left the role as farm manager because of the lifestyle-just like so many before me. I wanted to own my own horses. Have time to ride my own horses. Afford my own broodmare or racing stock.
I fear for these industries if this is the path we continue to head down. Dismissing those skilled horse whisperers and allowing them to run away and leave the cherished cement walls of the foaling barns and training tracks for a more comfortable existence.
I don’t know what the solution is, but a part of it is in celebrating the true horseman. Thanking them for their expertise. Praising them for a job well done. And acknowledging that without them, our industry will fail. Because I know where all of the horsemen have gone-away. And we’ll never get them back. Let’s keep the good ones we still have.