Day 13: The learning…

Hello Friends!

It’s a Wednesday evening, which now feels like the Sunday of a 3 day weekend, as I’ve come to really cherish my “normal days” (Tues, Wed & Thurs) without the 4:30am wakeup and all that follows. I remain super grateful to have the opportunity to experience this chapter, but let’s be clear – it’s an exhausting (mentally and physically) job. I may only be doing it a few days, but each day feels pretty epic and my appreciation for those who do it every day, 365, is IMMENSE.

No matter how glad I am be there, I’m frankly equally glad to be such a short-timer. I am uttering million prayers of thanks for all the lucky stars that led me to a life where physical labor for an hourly wage was not my path. On behalf of everyone who has never lived that way, I’m living this mile in another’s shoes. For all of us who are born to so much good fortune, comfort, ease, resources and, yes, privilege, let us not take this for granted – as easy as it is to do. Among the many, many lessons I’m learning (re-learning) is just how fortunate I am to have the life I lead. The gratitude journal overflows.

learning by doing – the only way

In an earlier post I shared my simple overview of the org chart of the barn team, and probably gave short shrift to the responsibilities that go with each role. From my low-man-on-the-totem-pole perspective, my role is definitely the simplest: walk horse, hold horse for bath, walk horse, put away, repeat. I’m really super comfortable with the minimal decision making I need to make in this role, so I can just focus on the many, tiny but impactful details that go into my success in this simple job – much of which is mental/emotional or dare I say “energetic” (woo woo alert!).

However, as my tenure continues and other factors play out among the other team-members, I find that I’m being asked/expected to add some new tricks to my bag. All of which I’m glad to do, if only to avoid the awkwardness of the “waiting” when there’s no horse for me to walk. With so much that needs to be done, it’s really not great to be sitting there not doing anything (and I’m not known as a particularly good “sitter”). Until pretty recently, I simply wasn’t directed (or likely trusted) to do much more. Tis the nature of being the new kid!

Well, all this changed on Monday (Day 13) when I arrived to find that Tito (groom) and Reena (hot walker) had finally managed a day off – much, much deserved. The result being that there were fewer of us to carry the load of the day’s tasks and keep the trains running. It was a great day to learn!

cleaning Stalls: a link to history

So, as we jumped in to our short-handed Monday, I started with what I knew – buckets. I must admit, I love doing buckets. There’s a right way to do it, it’s straightforward, it’s satisfying and it’s pretty hard to screw up. Bring on les buckets! But then, that’s really the easy part, isn’t it? While the horses need to have their water (and feed) ready when they return from their work, the bigger issue is that they also need for their stall to be ready for them when they get done – a much larger task. This heavy and quintessentially horsey task generally falls to the groom as part of his or her sequence of preparation for the horse’s work of the day. On Monday, it fell to all of us to help get them done as Robert worked his way through the horses – and thus, a lesson & a link to history.

Stall cleaning (as observed by me) step-by-step:

  1. First, you tie your horse up, so you can work around him safely. At the same time, you can remove his buckets and put them outside the stall – ready for cleaning.
  2. You ou remove all of the soiled bedding – and there’s ALOT. Those metabolism are on super-drive and over the course of the night, they tear them up and make quite a mess.
  3. The strategy is to remove all the dirty bedding, but to try to keep as much of the clean, dry straw as possible – to be efficient. As you find good straw, you push it to the corners out of the way.
  4. Once complete this leaves you with the rubber pad and four corner “nests” – and then you an work on drying out the rubber pad (broom works)
  5. I’ve observed that usually from this stage, the groom then moves back into the prep for each horse – grooming, wrapping, and getting the saddle on for the track.
  6. Once the horse leaves for its work out, the clock starts ticking – to get that stall ready before the horse returns (when the bath begins), or at least get a good start, which can be finished while the hot walker is walking post-bath.
  7. Rebuilding. This is where I think some of the art comes into the equation. As you take the stockpiles of dry hay from the corners and fluffily cover the pads (and help with the final stages of drying – you hope).
  8. Then, the new bedding – tearing up the flakes (by hand, by pitchfork), throwing it about to create a deep, fresh, clean, fluffy (and therefore) safe bed to welcome the racehorse home to his stall. And, the goal is to be “all set” and ready as soon as his hot walker has finished her work and brings him back to his “Aula” bed.

The Link to History

As I was doing this process above, and thinking about the stall I stood in, I was struck by my connection to more people – who had all stood there in that stall before me – than I could possibly imagine. As I worked through the steps above, I started thinking about the way that this simple and very frequently repeated task now linked me to all the many, many people who who came before me (and who will follow me too). A powerful feeling of connectedness and shared experience with untold number of strangers, each with their own reasons for being in this role – and all are valid.

  • How many other people have cleaned this stall? When was the first?
    • How many days have horses lived in this stall?
    • How old is this barn? When did it go up?
    • Did those who worked here before me use the same technique?
    • What advice would they give me?
    • What stories would they tell me?
    • What horses lived in these stalls?

OK, all food for thought and now, speaking of hay, it’s time to hit my own.

Thanks for reading & be well & stay safe!!!

Day 11: Not for nothin’ …and the afternoon “gig”

Tack Room

frequently heard phrases

I love language, phrases, vocabulary and accents. Perhaps that’s why I found myself teaching Spanish all those years ago at Oldfields, and I continue adding to my vocal list on the racetrack every day. As we’ve settled into our new home here in Saratoga I’ve been enjoying noticing some of the very subtle examples of the regional syntax. One of the phrases I realize I’d never heard before, but hear all the time now, is “Not for nothin'”. I credit our dear friend Fran LaBelle for likely being the first to say it to me, but I realize that it’s nothing short of ubiquitous. I have no insight into where it comes from, but it makes me smile. New Yorkers!

Back to the backstretch, here are a few phrases that punctuate the mornings of a hot walker:

  • Hold Up!” – used in a variety of situations, synonym for “whoa/ heads up”, used to stop other horses around you because whatever you are doing needs to go first. Interesting to me, because it is the “Esperanto” across the English & Spanish speakers to communicate perhaps the most important request: WAIT/ STOP/ LOOK OUT.
  • Coming Out” – the call of the exercise riders as they are approaching the gate on Nelson Ave, to cue the NYRA security guards to stop traffic so the horses can cross the road
  • Coming In” – a bit less frequent, but as a rider is coming around the shed row and making the final turn into the horses stall, this is called to alert all in the barn (especially groom & hot walker, who should already be there).

And then, the one that I guess is just the thing that has been said to every hot walker since time began… and which I had absolutely NEVER heard before starting my education on the backstretch:

“Keep Turning Left!” (Or “Turn Left, Turn Left”).

John Dallas, you get credit for being the first. Since then, Dr. Reid McLellan of Groom Elite, and most recently, Dave Grening. What’s up with that? While it’s certainly a true statement – it is absolutely what “we” do, for hours on end, walking in circles, turning left constantly, I’m just not sure I understand why everyone keeps telling us to do it. A light hazing ritual perhaps? Funny! Just a racetrack thing, I guess?

Hotwalking fun fact: Cyndi Lauper

Over the past few weeks, someone had mentioned to me that Cindy Lauper was a hotwalker for a short time. Just now I ran across an article about her experience at the racetrack… and chuckled to see who had written it! Enjoy

From Hot Walker to Rocker, Cindy Lauper Still is Unusual (2003)

Hotwalking 201: The Afternoons

As green and novice as I am, I sort of seem to have passed a test last week. To be clear, this isn’t some incredible accomplishment. There’s no risk that I’m considered a hotwalking prodigy, but the labor shortage is VERY SEVERE on the backstretch. So severe, that many barns simply don’t have enough help to send the 2 people who are allowed (max) to accompany each horse to the paddock for the races in the afternoon (groom + hot walker). Cue – my new gig!

As 9pm approaches, I think I’ll save the “intro to afternoons” for my next post. Who knows? I might get to walk one tomorrow!

For now, signing off – 4:30am comes quick!

View of the Nelson Ave Gate from our shedrow
The very scary corner (cars & Clare court)
Saturday AM – let’s get started

Day 9: Hot Walking 101 – A primer

So, what exactly am I doing?

It’s a question I’ve been asked a lot. So, let’s break it down into the KPIs of my new hot walking job:

  1. Show up on time (5:20am)!
  2. Walk (cold) horses to their bath.
  3. Hold horses for their bath.
  4. Walk horses around the shed row until they are dry.
  5. Put them back in their stall.
  6. Repeat, until all the horses have done their job and returned to their stalls.
  7. At all times: Don’t get hurt. Don’t let the horses get hurt. And don’t get in the way of someone else doing their job.
  8. NOTE: As horses start to come back from their workouts, they will be “hot” and thus the job title “hot walker”. Horses that just walk without a workout are known as “cold” (and they are much, much harder to walk).

How Does it work?

There’s a rhythm to all of this. The music is written by the trainer and the tempo is set by our exercise rider. The trainer posts “the list” the night before so that when we all arrive it tells us the order of the horses, and from there we sort out who is doing what. The tempo is set by the exercise rider and the grooms are the drumbeat (says this totally not-musically inclined person), as they prep each horse in order, while cleaning stalls while the horses are out, and being poised & ready to bathe and care for the horses when they get back. At the end of the line, you find the hotwalkers. We wait and we walk.

Except sometimes. Sometimes we find ourselves in between horses. That’s when things get a little dicey (at least for me). Waiting is really hard, and when there’s so much work to do, it always feels wrong. However, with my limited experience there are really not a lot of things I can do to be truly helpful without possibly screwing something up. So far, I’ve found just a couple “extra tasks” that I feel confident about: cleaning buckets (water & feed), filling & hanging the water buckets, and pulling manes (which only happens after all the morning work is done).

and then there are all the many things that happen…

More on this later, but suffice it to say there are a lot of things that can throw off the perfectly crafted plan and/or just a myriad of ways in which the simple harmony can go off key. Some of these reasons are equine, many of these reasons are human, and a bunch of them are just random variables….

I’ve heard a saying that goes something like “music is the sound between the notes” and I think that this captures a lot of my job.

My job is, at its best, when the horse and I are happily, peacefully and quietly walking around in circles. It is peaceful when we are doing exactly what we’re supposed to be doing, doing it quietly and until we reach the end. I am investing a good deal of attention and energy into being aware of these moments – watching for them little gems, noting when the sun is shining, soaking in the velvety calm of the happy & relaxed horse, and feeling grateful when we’re just “humming our happy tune”.

Vuelta por Vuelta.

More soon!

Day 8: I feel like a vampire

9pm – the witching hour is real

Boston Scones – one of my barn faves.

Hi Friends!

Every day that I am at my new & very part-time new job as a hot walker, I think about the lessons I am learning and the observations I want to share… and I look forward to sitting here at my laptop to share them…

And then, suddenly, it’s 9pm and my brain stops working, I can’t focus or even finish posting my daily pics on Insta. It’s a wall that takes no prisoners, and even as I type this I am on borrowed time. It struck me today as I was enjoying a chat with a new acquaintance while waiting for my pizza at 8pm that I was starting to look at my clock, racing the minutes to get home, to eat dinner, to try to post or write, and get in bed before 9. The analogy that popped to mind was the vampire racing to get “home” before the sun comes up and he or she turns to dust.

I feel you vampires, I really do!

The Why – i.e. Why am I doing this?

This is the topic I’ve wanted to write about, soonest, because it’s the question I’m asked most often. (And on an unrelated note, I’m going to try to get myself to write more “single-topic” short posts, so I can keep up over the days ahead – wish me luck.). So, just to get this rolling – here it is;

To Learn

To Be Helpful

To Grow/ Test Myself/ Prove My Capacity

To Experience Life through a Different Perspective

Can’t wait to ruminate on each of these… but for tonight, I’m going to try my new short form approach. And to add in a few photos.

List of Names to Thank

  • Amira – my boss, for giving me this opportunity to learn & help & grow
  • Robert, Tito, Reena and Matt – the squad
  • Dave – NYRA Security (and Tracy too)
  • Maria – hiring me to walk in afternoons
  • Alfonso – took me under his wing for my first walk in the afternoon
  • Amado – 2nd groom to take me to the paddock in the afternoon, and even invited me to join him tomorrow (only daughter is Katia, 20)
  • Emilio – Linda Rice’ hot walker (gave me a hash brown)
  • Luis – Vet for our Shed Row
  • Keith – 3rd groom to take me to the paddock in the afternoon, cool as a cucumber through our unfortunate series of events with Sea City
1st Day Walking to the Paddock – Licensed and ready!

Day 4: Summer 2020 Adventure on the Backstretch

The morning commute 5:20am.

TGIF is not a thing on the backstretch.

As I’ve started to share this story with friends, I’ve started getting questions like “how’s it going?”. My answer: “too much to text”.

But really, here’s how I’m feeling 4 days in.

It’s intense. Humbling. Challenging. Exhausting. Terrifying. It’s hard and I’m really, really glad to be doing it. The perspective, education and experience are just what I was craving – and more.

I wrote this to a friend “It’s no picnic, but I’m super glad to be here.”

A few scheduling notes:

  • First, my decision to start this new “gig” the week before the TRF’s major fund-raising event was questionable at best. For the record, the timing was not totally in my hands, but – ouch, it’s been rough. Big thanks to my TRF teammates who are dealing with me at less than my best as we come down the home stretch.
  • Second, so as not to misrepresent, I’m not planning to do this 7 days a week. I owe it to my teammates and the horses of the TRF to give them a full measure of my effort each week. My plan is to work Fri, Sat, Sun, Mon starting next weekend. This week I opted for a 5 day “crash-course” to try to get my sea-legs. Working Tues-Sat, with a break Sun – Tuesday, but not totally sure I can wait til Friday… for fear of losing my confidence. We’ll see!

Lessons of the Day

  1. Taking pictures with my mind – a new habit.
  2. The horses keep you in the moment. Very.
  3. Always bring your rain jacket.
  4. A McDonald’s Hashbrown can really make your day.
  5. Easy does it. (If you just spit out your cocktail, I get it. This has not exactly been my M.O. in life, but hey… the horses, they are great teachers!)
  6. Vuelta por vuelta…

Thoughts on the above –

  1. Pics: I’ve made myself a promise that I’ll never play with my phone while I have a horse in my hands. I have one job to do, to attend to the horses, and I’m not going to dial it in or multi-task it, no matter how tempting it may be. Thus, I’m working on the “taking pictures with my mind” to capture the scenes I want to remember.
  2. Mindfulness: As I rework on my early morning routine on barn days, I’ve not given myself the “treat” of my 10 Headspace meditation because I think it’s better to just get myself out the door, not rushing and getting to that shed row early… so I’m trying to let the walking itself be my meditation. Above all, the horses are teaching me to really enjoy the “vueltas” (or even just partial vueltas) when they just relax and walk… it’s such a gift, and often fleetingly so.
  3. Rain: It happens. Why not be prepared? Lesson in life – when it’s easy, just do it.
  4. McD’s made my day: Wow. This really was special. The “new girl” was offered a treat by Emilio, from Linda Rice’s barn, from Tito (head groom at our barn). It was cold & greasy and absolutely made me glow with a feeling like I might just, sort of, belong!
  5. Easy Does It. It sounds so simple, and yet, it’s really the hardest thing. From my days of showing in the hunter & equitation divisions, to watching PGA golf, so many skills are best displayed when it looks like the person is doing nothing at all. And so it goes with hotwalking. The horses chill out when you do, and man oh man, that is sometimes a very tall order.
  6. Vuelta por vuelta. This is simply how time passes. Sure there are variations, changes in the schedule, an occasional new task or request, but for the most part… the life of the barn is measured, for me, Vuelta for Vuelta…. hasta maƱana!
Hello Handsome! This pretty boy let me pull his mane yesterday – first one I’d done in… 30 years??

Day 2 & 3: Summer 2020 Backstretch Adventure Underway

Hello Friends!

It’s amazing how short a day can be that starts at 4:30am.

Here’s how my schedule is shaping up at this very, very early stage in the journey. Fully aware this will evolve, but not quite sure how. Certainly hanging on for dear life between now and when we host our TRF “Drive-thru” BBQ at the Barn on Tuesday (Aug 11th). I have to think/ hope this will be more manageable after that… here’s hoping!

A Day in the Life (as of Day 3):

  • 4:30am. Alarm. Still not sleeping well, anticipating the alarm.
  • 4:30 – 5:00am. Trying to maintain a bit of my regular routine. Making coffee for my thermos, one small espresso, spending time doing gratitude journal and sending texts (oh so close to doing my headspace, but haven’t quite had enough time).
  • 5:00am. Prep for departure. Coffee in thermos, check my bag, decide on any layers, take Claritin, put on boots (and pack extra socks).
  • 5:10am Head out. Park on Nelson Ave. Navigate Security.
  • 5:20am. Sit on trunk in barn awaiting the day to begin.
  • 11:30/12:00pm. Depart from the barn.
  • 12:00 – 1:00pm. Transition Time: shower, lunch, 15 min power nap if possible.
  • 1:00pm. Land at my desk. Begin normal day of TRF work.
  • 1:00 – 9:00pm. Try to squeeze in real life: work, hubby, dinner, walk.
  • 9:00pm. Bedtime. Falling asleep while trying to post pic a day…

Lessons Learned Day 2 & 3

  1. Accept help when offered.
  2. When there’s nothing to do, do nothing.
  3. Pride has no place on the backstretch. (See #1)
  4. It’s always a good idea to empty a wheelbarrow full of dirty straw.
  5. Being quiet takes practice.
  6. The horses mostly speak Spanish.
  7. It is weird & wonderful to be the lowest woman on the totem pole.
  8. New ways of measuring time: “vueltas” around the shed row, 5 minutes, horses walked, horses going out & coming back, shots of adrenaline managed and more!

Still Smiling – today was a good day!

Wrapping up Day 3 – a Good Day! (Billy, my buddy)

Major Life Experience: Day 1

Hi Friends!

5:25am ready to go!

And just like that, I find myself headlong into a new adventure – right here without so much as a moving a mile. Grateful for the opportunity, I dove into the deep end and now I’m in.

Lessons Learned:

  1. Define Success Specifically. Today my goals were threefold: do not get hurt, do not lose a horse, do not get fired. Success!
  2. Bring Extra Socks and/or Footwear. When your job involves “walker” in it, your feet are going to matter. While I didn’t remember to bring my back up shoes (paddock boots), I sure was glad that all my cycles around the sun had taught me to bring extra socks. When I had a blister from my bean boots while still mid-way thru horse #1, I sure was glad I could go to put on the extra pair (both socks) on my foot with the blister. Problem solved!
  3. Don’t Use the Boss’s Office as your Locker. Oops! Bad call on my part to somehow assume that it made sense to put my personal items in La Jefe’s office. A corrective comment was issued to me along the lines of “not letting the others think I was sneaking in and out of the office” – and that lesson was learned. Boom.
  4. Remember how to sit and wait, without playing on the phone. Much to my surprise, there’s a good bit of “waiting for the horse to come back” in this new gig. An opportunity to just sit still, be and not fidget. Not easy, but great to practice.
  5. Above all, the animals teach you the power of the energy you project. Wow. I won’t lie, I had at least 3 pretty fully terrifying moments with 3 of the horses I walked. It’s quite amazing how powerless I felt standing next to the animals who I’m much, much more comfortable being on top of. The moment they knew I was scared, we were in trouble… and then it was up to me to breathe deep, calm down and convey confidence – on the drop of a dime. No small task and pretty darn exhausting. Just the process of forcibly shutting off the adrenaline is a really hard and challenging task.

More about the journey to get here, the day, the tasks, the dynamics and the players as I find time. My goal is to capture at least a little bit of the growth, day by day, but now – to sleep!

Wish me luck – I need it!

The scene – waiting for the next horse to come back.
It’s a wrap!