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.

Photo by Vic’s Pics

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.

Photo by Holly M Smith

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.

20 Comments on “Where have all the Horsemen gone?

  1. From one barn manager struggling with a serious, long-building case of burnout, you have really hit on all the reasons. The wages have stagnated in the equine field across all sports and disciplines, like a lot of other industries, but the price of everything else has skyrocketed. We devote years, decades of our lives to these creatures, but watch as our non-horse friends who went into other fields are able to comfortably pay their mortgages, take a vacation with their families, working relatively normal hours with two days off a week. We start to wonder if we made a mistake, when the 60, 70, 80 hour weeks, 13 days on, 1 day off, before sun up to sundown, adds up to the same amount of $ we could be making at Amazon, without the risk of loose horses or crying over lost foals, or the ever present danger of an ill-placed hoof.

    Life isn’t all about money, but it sure is easier to do what you love to do when you can support your family doing it– much less have any personal time for hobbies, your own horse, or even just time to catch up on the giant list of things you need to get around to doing at home that always seems to be piling up.

    The horse industry will forever be abusing those wide-eyed people that start off as hot walkers or working students who “just want to work with horses!” They get them in the door offering great opportunities to learn for a small stipend and free lessons, but when they move on to managing barns or shedrows and start to realize their needs have changed but their paychecks haven’t, the horse industry just cycles on to the next person in line waiting to play with the pretty ponies and break themselves down in understaffed, underpaid, overworked conditions.

    I still love the horses in my care, but I don’t know that I love the job. It’s not even that I don’t love the lifestyle– more the overall dangerous culture horse industries have created for themselves. They’re only shooting themselves in the foot, in the end.

  2. In a similar vein, my friend who worked with 3 KY Derby winners (amongst other champions) lamented the trend of what he termed “groom in a bottle”, the tendency for valuing bandaid chemical intervention over hands-on horsemanship. He felt dismissed, disrespected and replaced. NOTHING can replace hands-on.

    • I make this same point in my upcoming book, Missionville. Horsemanship goes unrewarded at the racetracks.

    • I agree with you. I was a hot walker and then groom for 10 years. Had some very good horses and worked with some good trainers. Learned a lot. But had to quit that because of an injury to my back. I still work at the track but not with the horses. People just don’t care about the horses like we did. We would stay extra hours grooming, currying hair off and whatever needed done. If thy were sick we stayed because we cared. People hear days are there for a paycheck and most of them are alcoholics or drug addicts hat can’t get a regular job. The industry is on a spiral downhill and has been for several years. The trainers don’t have the money to pay people and they want hem to work cheap so you don’t get good help.

  3. Your words ring so true. I have work in industry since i was 18 now at 46 .i am looking to get .I have worked on the same farm 23 yr. For that i get $13 a hour . I want a better life. But ot saddens me to leave a job. That i thought would be my dream job.

    • That was me. 14 an hour plus housing and insurance plan. There 21 years. Owner died farm sold. All I could find live in were people wanting you to work 30-40 hrs a week to cover your “rent” Hanover Shoexwill start you at 8-8.50 an hr.. which was my starting wage in 1994

  4. Being the person who worked 9-5 and was paid well enough but could only could run past my horses and throw hay at them, I must say my biggest regret is NOT staying in the industry. I might not be able to afford what I do now in retirement, but, resent what I cannot do physically, in retirement. I live well enough now, at the expense of my passion. I resent my choices and regret them. And looking forward, I see doom in the equestrian community as a whole, while technology offers virtual everything with no emotional attachments.

  5. I completely relate to the addiction of the industry. I too have quit and tried to make it in the ‘real world’ for the same reasons you mention, but it always sucks me back in. I get tired and burnt out, but it’s my calling. A shame that we are becoming hard to come by.

  6. Perhaps it is time for the whole craft concept to hit the horse industry. We have craft beer, coffee, chocolate, cheese… that combine quality and a living wage. I am not sure just how the idea translates to the race track, but it is worth a shot. Horse racing fans and bettors want to invest in the idea and personality of a great horse not just calculating the odds. Having a bettor’s bonus that adds 10% bonus for every year the horse has been racing might get people engaged.

  7. I don’t know about the US, but in Germany… Exploitation is rife. Instead of hiring enough qualified people to look after (like on our farm) 60 horses, you will find “Work Experience” people who are either not paid, diabolically paid, not insured, and treated like slaves.
    I actually trained as a horse breeder. There are actual apprenticeships for this in Germany, and you train for 3 years in a specific field. (Riding, Breeding, Driving, Training etc)
    I found myself needing a complete change of scenery after the tragic loss of my partner, and agreed to work at a stud as “Work Experience”. When I went to interview, I was (of course) given the most favorable spiel, since I would be paid only pocket money. (And I mean that. If that had been my only income, I would have starved.) It was supposed to include free room and board for both me and my horse, plus riding training.
    What *actually* happened… was FAR beyond what I’d been told. If I could have gone back, I would have. Instead of the “Four people” who were supposedly working there — it really was just two of us, and a girl who had never done anything like it before.
    The “Room and board” turned into room only. I was also told I had to use my own car to check on any horses when they were turned out. (Meaning I spent tons of money on fuel.)
    My colleague had — at that point — worked there for 2 years, without ever having more than 2 days off.
    Up to 12 hours a day. 12 days in a row.
    The same was expected of us “Work Experience” girls.
    The other girl ran off not even 8 weeks in.
    At the weekends, you did 60 horses on your own. Plus grounds maintenance, or repairing machinery you weren’t qualified to fix — because you needed that machinery, or the horses would starve.
    We were not allowed to leave the farm together, not even to go shopping in our lunch break. But the same rules did not apply to the owner.
    I recall one late evening, we’d finished work, and my colleague needed to go get her car in a town about 45 minutes drive away. She didn’t speak the language and was afraid of getting lost, so asked me to come along. Owner hit the roof, and when she insisted that she needed her car, and it was after hours — the owner FIRED her. Simply because she wanted to take me with her. (She needed to drive through some very remote areas.) Reason given? There was a pregnant mare and the owner didn’t want to be alone with her. (2 hours, 3 hours tops!!) The mare showed no sign of giving birth and was not due to give birth for another week.
    We went the next day to get the car, and it took exactly 1hr and 45 minutes.
    It calmed down and she wasn’t fired (mainly because she didn’t have anyone to replace her)
    Fast forward three months. Colleague was in Holland. It was my duty weekend. Owner had bought another farm and went there to meet with the architect — while there was a mare due to foal that very weekend. The only person on the farm with me was her 84 year old mother.
    Apparently it was perfectly alright to leave a “Work Experience” person on their own with a foaling mare — but not a VETERINARIAN (her)
    Yes, the foal was born on my watch. And owners mother was in a flat panic because I was on my own. (Not like I’d never attended a foal birth before, but hey…It was nice for someone to worry on my behalf.)
    She did eventually fire my colleague and believed I’d be perfectly fine with looking after 60 horses on my own — while neither insured by her, nor paid even a quarter of what my colleague was paid.
    The insurance alone cost more than I earned in a month.
    I respectfully told her where she can stick that idea.
    Oh, and that riding training?
    In 12 months, I barely got to ride my own horse, let alone have lessons. And I never even sat on one of hers.

    As long as no one checks the actual working conditions, and what goes on at these places, people will not keep working there, and the equestrian industry (as well as agricultural) will haemorrhage good people into other fields.
    I loved working with the horses, loved the jobs around the place, even if some were tedious and dirty and cold and horrible. I was out all day, fresh air, new foals, new horses, seeing horses go to lovely new homes — it certainly wasn’t the physical aspect of the work that made me reconsider. It was the mental abuse, the downright slavery conditions, that did it.

  8. I worked a dozen years as a groom, earning below minimum wage, living in Toronto. I was able to parlay my experience into being a riding coach (certified). The benefits of working for myself meant I could deduct expenses, including my horse because I taught with him, thus was able to afford him. I am now writing about my experiences, having already published Tails from the Track.

  9. This article and all the comments ring so true. When I was grooming and a new hand came 99% of them were down right dangerous because they didn’t know anything and were working for nothing. When one of the trainer’s best and most faithful grooms broke her finger the trainer said come to work tomorrow and continue working or don’t come back. I love working with the horses, but you’re out of luck if you get hurt, it takes it’s toll on your body even in the best of circumstances and there is never enough money. I too worry about the future of the horse industry when you don’t have the good eyes and guiding hands of a true horseman working to keep horses sound, healthy and happy for the long term.

  10. “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.”

    This, My farm owner just got back for Nationals, lots of good times with friends and family, tons of back slapping and thanks to friends and mutual admiration posts on Facebook…. yet not one thanks for the person/people who stay at home and take care of their horses, giving up THEIR events they want to attend but can’t because horses need fed and turned out and no one at home is knowledgeable enough to even toss grain in a bucket. It hurts. It really hurts to feel so unappreciated.

    And the worst part, I DON’T get paid. I get a small lot to keep my trailer on, pasture and hay for my guys (I have to buy my own grain) and free water, I feed evenings daily and night and fully on weekends and when they are away. I get one weekend off a month- if I ask. If I’m sick, suck it up. I went through radiation therapy for breast cancer about five years ago. Did I get any help feeding when I felt poorly? Nope. I was told “when you finish feeding you can go lay down.”

    My whole life, all I’d wanted to do was take care of horses. But now, 37 years of horse ownership, and the last 17 working on a farm, taking care of someone ELSE’S horses, I think…. I am tired of horses. I love my two boys and will never sell them, but the “taking for granted” is getting old.

  11. I understand the comments made and this topic has been addressed in just about every horse sport blog or fb page at some point.

    May I offer a different perspective that perhaps reflects some type of disconnect?

    I am an “oldie but goodie” horsewoman with 60yrs of caring for, riding, competing….off track TBs. I work 7 days a week on my farm–horses always come first. I’ve even gone out in a very wicked ice storm on crutches w/ a newly fractured hip, walking on sheet ice to the barn, to calm my horses with ice breaking tree branches, blown electrical transformer……stayed all night in barn singing & cooing to them. My horses come first because I have accepted responsibility for their safety, health & happiness. I know you all feel the same. Lost vacations, holidays in the barn w/ an old horse needing extra care, bypass new car to pay for all the specialty vet care for a horse……on & on.
    BUT I’ve also received ALL of the amazing gifts horses give us just by being themselves…I am lucky.

    But, when I need help or offer to pay + lessons (I pay well), I have so much trouble finding someone who will actually WORK. I would do somersaults to find someone who actually knew something about OTTBs, how to move around them, who didn’t jump out of their skin every time a TB shakes his head or prances a little. My list goes on.

    I did find a wonderful gal one summer- I paid her way to go to shows w/me….not to work but to have fun & learn. She worked as hard as me on my farm, and THAT says something. But she left to go to an office job & a boyfriend. I was happy for her but sad for me.

    I always, always am SO appreciative to anyone who actually helps me. Most of the commentors here say they worked very hard but were underpaid & not appreciated. So… there are horsemen like me who would love to find people like the commentors. you folks would have loved to have worked with someone like me. The years I spent trying to find knowledgable help ! There is some kind of disconnect. I don’t know how to bridge the gap.
    I am now winding down my farm life as my joints are showing the decades of wear & tear. But I bet there are really great farm owners who would love to find such qualified folks as these posters, who would pay well & be very thankful. How to connect them?

  12. I am an optimist. If enough of us, who love horses to the depths of our souls, seek to bring the industry into the 21st century and find ways to help it grow in a healthy way, we may be able to create more and better jobs within it. The problem you identify effects many industries, for the same reasons. They are fighting for relevance in a virtual reality world. It will take vision, but I think it’s possible and necessary, because without the horsemen, the horses suffer and that’s an equation I really can’t stand.

  13. Thank the Lord I have a trainer that is a true horseman! He’s name is Brad Luebben he takes people and horses and make them better people and better horses. He knows when a horse is hurting and makes us better people my not allowing us to push them! He’s The hardest worker I know! Thanks Brad and all the other trainers like him!!!

  14. I was once told the back side of the track was not the place for a “girl”, but I wanted that life so bad. I wanted to be the go-to, do-it-all thoroughbred girl: managing the foaling, to the yearlings at the sale, to taking the two-year-olds to the track for breezing. I have foaled out many a mare, I have handled many a new foal, I have collected the stallion, I have had walked the colic-er all night, I have held a broken leg in my hand. I have jogged a mile on the track on a crisp summer morning. I have aught yearlings to stand, pick up their feet, take a bit. I have taught 2-year-olds to take a saddle. I have taught them to take a rider. I have taught them to get on a trailer. I have a degree in equine science and management and where am I?
    I work 8-5 in an office so that I can go to the barn 5-9. So that I can enjoy my horse time. So that no one is mentally, physically, and emotionally abusing and draining me while I work my hardest doing what I love. I make more money, have more benefits, enjoy more one on one with MY horse (I lease)- things I did not have when I worked for the horse world.
    When people tell me I should train horses, I should have my own barn, people should pay me to ride, I should work with horses as a living… I tell them that I tried that already. I moved to Florida right after college graduation to work at a breeding farm. I worked crazy hours for minimal pay and no benefits. I burnt out quickly, and couldn’t afford my student loans. I left that to work 3 jobs: an office, pet sitting and waitressing. I was breaking even and could start riding again in my (limited) spare time. I yearned for horses. I quit the office for a barn job. They underappreciated and valued me. Checks bounced. Certain times of the year meant working 14 or 21 days straight through. “Thank you’s” were few and far in between. I left at the end of peak season to pursue a manager opportunity that promised an extra $200 a week above what I was making. That was a sham. Managing this farm meant one person overseeing 35 horses and 50 acres while the owner sat all day in the office overseeing. Managing meant mucking stalls until a lesson student arrived, only to be berated in front of customers by the owner for how much wasn’t done yet. Managing meant getting there at 7am after a 40 minute commute and not leaving until 11pm, while the owner suggested you go home, eat something, take a ‘nap’ and be back at 5am the next day. Managing meant being told you can’t take your day off because there is so much you didn’t get done in the last 6 days that you didn’t deserve a day off. Managing meant sleeping in the office at the barn to save money on gas and try to work more hours. Managing meant shitting in a bucket when pipes burst and apparently that was your fault, too. Managing meant a “demotion scale” for things like being a minute late, talking back, checking your cell phone, not being in appropriate work attire, not bringing in a new customer a week, etc that resulted in docking the already meager paycheck. Managing meant losing 30lbs because you felt responsible for the animals over your own well-being. After that- I left the equine management world. I thought for good. I managed another barn part time after that, until the wonderful owner passed away. I manage a barn on Saturdays while the owner is at horse shows and teaching lessons now. But I will not try to make a career out of horsemanship and management again until I have capital to own my own place and do it my way. Being under someone who doesn’t appreciate or value you is CRUSHING.
    I hate my cushy 8-5 office job and it’s monotomy and being away from horses, but I value my sanity.

  15. From the time I was a small child I wanted to work with racehorses but life kept getting in the way. Finally, in my 40s I got a chance at that life, working along with my husband at a racetrack. But it soon became apparent we could not make it financially despite my husband’s long experience and great natural horsemanship and my desire to learn and willingness to throw myself into that life body and soul. So I went back to a full time job in academia and worked with the horses before and after work. That often meant 20 hour days but it was never the horse part of my existence that tired me out. After 12 years of this life I had to leave it behind. While I still have my own OTTB I miss the track–the simultaneous nickers of 20 head in the first light of dawn as you enter the barn, the steam or breath rising off a “hot” as you make every turn a left turn around the shed row, getting a horse ready for a race at night under the dim light of an aged and dusty bulb, the metallic sparks coming from the horse’s hooves off the pavement coming back from the test barn at midnight after the last race, the absolute peace and quiet I only experience in the shedrow. The exhaustion, poor pay, and lack of appreciation were nothing compared to the sheer joy of those moments. In my 60s now I will probably never have those experiences again but I will be forever grateful to have had them at all. I proved to myself that the dream I seemed to have in my heart from birthday was not meaningless; I proved I could do it; I proved it was worthwhile. But oh that the industry would treat horsemen and horse women commensurate with their value and effort! We would never leave and the industry would be the better for it.

  16. I have been in this field seince 10 year old. Know 48 i have to leave. I love what i have been doing, but there no change in people like me that give everything and nothing come back to us! I have stayed up foaling mares. I was a outstanding trainer. I have won many Acclimates over the years in from cutting, reining , halter , western pleasure and versatility . Including World and Reserver championships. I manged a ranch for 10 years . I won a lot for them and did everything from cleaning stalls to doing all the breeding and all the training my self. They would not here help either. I love my job do much snd the hirses mesnt so much to me i work around the clock fo better much nothing. I all most lost my husband or my job. He did support me and what I did but there’s a limit. And when the owners whould not reward me for all the winnings I did for them and all the hard work I did for them. That was the straw that broke the camels back as I would say ! I look went to work fir oklahoma stud and they where the same no money for all hard work i did. I foaled out mares i was so goid that they did not hire any else , because they saw i could all myself. They have millon dollar horses there and owers paid a lot of money to keep there, but i was not worth as much as thoses horses where accouding to them. It sad i amnone saving there foals and mares and i am not worth a thing. After two years that was it!! Manger of the place left two they did the samething to him. I see are industry is dying off fast! The new ones coming up do not have the dedication like we did nor do they have any experience anymore. Then they want to be paid a lot higher. I have oeople calling me all the time to do work for them , but they still do nkt they money to pay me either. I just cannot do it anymore. I have husband that means the world to me and know i have few of my owne that i mit do something with. But after working my azzz off and nothing to show for it know in the bank account. Mine will be just pets and i still go out and ride. The horse industry is gone! The cost of having horses any more is so high family cannot rsise there kids with them any more. Also we do not have the kids being rasied on the fram as much and the computer have made kids stay in watching tv and playing video games. Kids have no idea how to get out and play or work hard either any more.

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