According to a 2005 USA TODAY series, “The 10 Worst Jobs in Sports,” Horse Racing Groom rocked the number one spot and this is certainly true nearly a decade later. Horse Racing Groom beat out Mascot, Rodeo Clown, Sparring Parter, and Iditarod Sled Dog for the win. Maybe it’s the pre-dawn hours or the thousands of pounds of manure shoveled throughout the year, but to be a racetrack groom you must love horses.
A racetrack groom cares for, also know as rubbing, the same four to six horses each day and is a 24/7 nanny, chef for a picky eater, doctor for a sick horse and his charge’s biggest fan when he crosses the wire in front. Each groom is responsible for all hands-on care the horse needs and spends hours currying, brushing, bathing and bandaging.
Each stable has a slightly different routine but for many grooms the day will start in the wee morning hours. Most live in dorms on racetrack property or rooms adjacent to their horse’s stalls but some commute to work, often around the time bars are closing. In semi-darkness legs are unbandaged, feet checked and temperatures taken. Feed tubs are checked for a missed meal, a sign of a horse with ulcers or illness. Some racehorses are not morning people (and neither are some grooms) so flying hooves and bared teeth are dodged.
Grooms learn each of their horses idiosyncrasies and the best grooms can tell you exactly where in the stall the horse prefers to rest, which meal they eat the fastest, the normal amount of water they consume after training and how they like, or don’t like, to be brushed. This information is very important because changes in behavior can indicate a problem with the horse’s health. Grooms communicate issues to the trainer or assistant trainer so necessary action can be taken.
While getting paid to hang out with horses is an amazing job, it comes with discomforts and hazards abound. Dumping water on your feet while cleaning buckets, getting a load of hay down your shirt and coming in very close contact with manure are annoyances. The real danger is dealing with a young, fit-to-fight, critter with a mind of it’s own. Some racehorses are rather sweet and loveable to work around and others are straight up dangerous. A horse spending 20-23 hours a day shut in the stall does not foster a calm temperament. Pent up energy results in leaping, squealing, biting, kicking horses ready to play with and take on anyone who dares step foot in their house. A groom has no choice, they must brush, bathe, bandage and care for the animal no matter its quirks.
Although there are schools with equine grooming classes, most racetrack knowledge is passed from one groom to another. Special homemade leg brace concoctions, poultices and muds for hot feet, and homeopathic remedies are shared by word of mouth and example. The basics can be picked up in months but horses are always showing us how little we know, so the learning never really ends.
The common uniform for a groom is jeans and T-shirt or button up, which may have tears from unavoided nips. Jeans will be tucked into cowboy boots or work boots of some kind so the bottoms don’t get wet during bath time. Its all about function and the horses don’t care what ya look like! On race day the fancy boots, good shirts and hair gel make a long awaited appearance.
Work equipment consists of a grooming box crammed full of tools and potions. Curries, mane combs, body brushes, hoof picks, tape, scissors, rubber gloves, alcohol, leg brace, show sheen, hoof oil, poultice, paper towels, plastic wrap and peppermints are all common staples. This mobile hand-held box goes stall to stall with the groom to prepare the horse for the track and then to rub their fine coats to a shine after daily training is over. Each groom has sponges, buckets and a scraper for bathing.
Morning work hours last from around 4:00 a.m. to around 11:30 a.m. at most barns. A break during the early afternoon is common on non-racing days. Most horses spend this time taking a nap, as do their caretakers. Many grooms return to work in the afternoon to re-clean the stalls, top off water buckets and feed the evening meal.
This dirty job is not without reward. Top grooms can get handsome bonuses for their hard work and dedication, especially when they are caring for a champion. Working with these beautiful athletes is intrinsically as well as financially rewarding. Being able to accompany their prize horse while touring the country winning races becomes the ultimate reward.