Alternately Titled : I Will Never Tan
My very first job was working as a groom at a horse ranch.
I think I picked the place because it had stone horse-head statues on the gate. I do recall walking up to the front door, knocking, and asking if I could have a job.
I also remember the look of bewilderment on the lady's face. (Clearly, this is not the normal way in which one applies for a job, but I didn't know any better at the time).
She asked if I had any experience, and I said no, but I'd read a LOT of books with horses in them. (I don't recall her reaction to this, but I like to think she had to stifle a surprised bark of laughter)
She asked what I'd do if a horse tied up in a stall panicked and I told her that since I didn't know what to do, I'd leave him alone and go get someone to help.
Apparently those were either good answers or she thought maybe I'd wuss out after the first day of hard work (I weighed 95 pounds soaking wet, and most of that was ass-length hair). She offered me a criminally low daily wage for working 12 hours on both Saturday and Sunday, and I accepted without blinking.
It wasn't the money I wanted, you see. It was the horses.
I hauled myself out to that ranch twice a week for I don't even know how long and I worked till my feet went from aching to a sharp throb that stabbed from toes to thighs.
I walked a colicky mare for two hours past the time I was supposed to go home. I worked in the blistering Texas heat without any A/C and probably not nearly enough water. I went from smothering barn to baking sun over and over again.
I learned how to groom a horse and clip it, how to lead and soothe and lunge. I learned how to scrub grass stains from walls and braid a horse's tail so that it could be quickly unbraided and flow for shows. I learned how to dodge a bite and all the right places to scratch an itchy shoulder or neck.
I learned how to tack up and down and how to wash and squeegee and clean dried bugs out of light fixtures. (I also learned how to collect, measure, and portion out semen, but we're gonna skip right past that one so as not to make anyone squeamish).
I learned how to trick a wily broodmare into being caught and just how damn big spiders can get.
I learned a lot about the sorts of things I will never, ever do to a horse, and that just because someone lives with horses and loves them, that doesn't mean they're good people. I learned that nice people can be lazy, and lazy can lead to extra work for other people, angry bosses, dull-coated horses, violent injuries, and even the death of a good horse who panicked in the wrong direction.
I remember a mare with a mahogany coat and tidy black socks up to her elbows, and how her cream-and-shadow dappled coat never failed to amaze me. The other grooms always left her to me for lunging, because I was the only one who could make her sweat -- she knew just how to casually trot so as to not get any real exercise, and she grew fat and sassy under the care of the other girls. I remember one time she broke loose from the girl leading her and how I walked up to her slow and calm and let her finish her conversation with the mare on the other side of the stall she'd stopped at before I walked her back home.
I remember LoverBoy, the nickname we gave the palamino paint stud who frequented the training barns. I remember how he'd scream and toss his heads to impress the mares, and how he'd lead easy as a peach as long as you gave him enough rope to try his impressing. It never worked on the mares, but I was the only girl who would lead him without a chain wrapped around his nose.
I remember Knickknack and her foal Paddywack, and sneaking out to their pasture to give them extra scritches any time one of the other mares needed to be caught for palpating.
I remember the incredibly, mind-bendingly expensive stud who formed the basis for the farm's breeding operation, and how he knew he was expensive enough that I wasn't allowed to reprimand him for nipping. Even so, he wasn't mean or sour, just bored and mischievous, and a quick-witted groom could handle him with ease.
I remember the oh-so-tall Thoroughbred stallion who used to silently laugh at me as I tried to groom him. The closer I got to his head, the higher he'd lift it. He wasn't head-shy -- he just liked making me grunt as I tried (and failed) to reach high enough to scrub his cheeks.
I remember the bad-tempered gelding who would slip his head out between the bars of his stall, pin his ears back, and bare his teeth at anyone he could see. I'd read stories about horses whose heads were snake-like in their violence, and he was the only horse I'd ever met who showed me what that author had meant. I traded out of doing his stall for an entire row of other stalls, just to keep from having to get near him, and he took a chunk of skin off my knuckle the time I had to blanket him to keep him warm at night.
I remember the tiny shetland pony, bought and forgotten for a spoiled little boy who refused even to tack her up on his own. I remember hauling a bucket of water out to where she'd been staked, and how gratefully she leaned against me as she drank.
I remember the mare and her foal in one of the smaller fields. The mother watched on, but let me say hello and run my hands along the little one's back and even down his legs without complaint. I remember that forcefully, every time I remember the panic of the yearlings being brought in from the fields they'd spent their entire lives in. I remember that the littles can be worked with in small ways, and that training shouldn't be screaming and slipping in the mud and end with quiet terror.
I remember pulled pork bbq sandwiches with ranch dressing and illicit visits to the owner's swimming pool when they were out of town. I remember coming home and thinking I'd gotten a tan (FINALLY) only to have all the color wash off in the shower. No tan at all, but a thick coating of Texas dust instead.
Most of all?
I remember the smell of hay and leather and HORSE. The low whicker, answered by a friend a few stalls over. I remember warm, soft fur (sometimes filling the air until it seems the horse can't possibly have any fur left to shed). I remember the velvet twitch of a muzzle taking a carrot and the firm muscle under a hug. I remember a whole herd of broodmares caught up in a frivolous desire to run and buck and play, tossing their heads at the three girls sitting on the fence who wouldn't be catching them, not that day.
That job didn't pay me well in money, but I am so very glad I swallowed my fear and asked if I could work with the horses, please, though I didn't have any experience at all. It paid me in HORSE, and that was all I wanted or needed.
What was YOUR favorite/best job?