Getting up in the dark at three a.m., coffee in hand and eyes blearily wavering over the roads on the way to town, it's hard to see anything enjoyable about the day to come. But the sunrise over old limestone fences and stately mansions set well back behind plank fences is a sight to behold. Add to that sleek horses -- mares, foals, yearlings -- dappling the wide fields and paddocks, and that's really hard to beat. No still photo or movie can match the reality of it.
There's good money for a groom in working the sales. The farms usually provide shirts with the farm logo on them, and tan khaki pants are the general rule, with some kind of sturdy, enclosed shoe. A long time ago, the big farms paid for all of it, but the heyday of the Thoroughbred industry has come and gone, I fear, and with it the generosity of the farm owners. Still, they pay the day's regular wage, plus a day-bonus and travel costs. It adds up, and almost no one will refuse it, however hectic or strange the work is at that kind of facility. Of course, the select summer sales pays best, the regular summer sales next best, and so on. September is fair, not spectacular.
Delighted to be asked to go with Miguel to the Fasig-Tipton sale, I gathered up some khakis, cleaned and polished my hiking boots, and set up a sack of snacks and a cooler with sandwich stuff in it for us. Miguel brought some stuff over to put in it, and some ice. He told me what time to be ready, and the next morning, in full dark, I peered over a cup of steaming coffee at bright headlights in the driveway.
Quickly loading up all the food and drink, we buzzed down the long farm driveway to the main road, 627, and into Paris, Kentucky. We didn't talk. Miguel and I were co-workers and friends enough to know better than to try to hold a conversation with one another at that hour.
It was a good thing, because most mornings, I can't do more than growl and snarl until I've had a cup of coffee. And I don't mean just any coffee, I mean COFFEE. The kind where, if you throw in a horseshoe, you never see the damned thing again. Miguel was about the same way, so between us, and wordlessly, we mangled the big heavy-duty thermos full of the black swamp juice I'd prepared. By the time we reached the Fasig-Tipton sales-grounds, the cofffee was gone, and I had my eyes about half open. I didn't look to see if Miguel had his open; he was driving and didn't need my opinion on how he went about it, as long we stayed safe.
Arriving at the barn where the two colts had stalls side by side, we unloaded the car in the dark, we put everything into a spare stall that we used for tack, and shared with a neighbor. The horses were a sleek seal-brown that I'd known since he was a foal, and a rawboned flea-bitten (1) roan that the farm owner had "pen-hooked" (2) in from Florida over the winter, and who had no friend in the world except our dog (3). Miguel went off to park his car while I got us set up for the morning.
We took turns cleaning and walking. The colts had been used to turn out, and crammed in a small stall for a couple of days, they were almost bouncing outside their hides (4). "Walking" wasn't a good word for it, really. It was more like "hitting the high spots". Neither of us was awake enough to do more than react as needed, and get on with the morning.
We dragged the big squares of burlap that we'd tied up full of muck from the stalls out to the pickup point. It took both of us to drag one, they were so full. Grooms throughout the long shed rows were doing the same. Occasionally a curse would ring forth as a nervous animal created pain on an unwary groom. The general silence was eerie, the fog that lay damp and cold over everything muffling the few noises that the horses made.
As soon as we were done with that, Miguel and I both made for a wooden bench on the east side of the barn. Canada geese were honking on the nearby pond, and the sky was beginning to turn a washy pink and gold. We collapsed on the bench in unison. In a couple of minutes, Miguel's head lolled over onto my shoulder as gentle snores issued from between his lips. I sat companionably still, letting him rest a while, and wishing Ronnie was there to see this scene with me. He and Miguel were like close brothers, only without jealousy or hard words. He would have enjoyed the humor and beauty, I knew, the same as I was.
When my butt went numb finally from sitting on the hard, cold surface, and my fingers were numb from the morning's chill, I shook the other, far more senior, groom awake. Groaning, he ran fingers through his hair as he stretched. I got up and decorously went about waking up those bits of me that had slept without my leave. He gathered up feed and hay, I went about making us both a sandwich or two, which I laid back in the cooler for later. Then I grabbed a pair of buckets and went for water.
When I came back, Miguel was grooming the brown colt. That horse was a sweety, and a joy to work with, but his coat seemed to attract every speck of lint or dust in the area. We worked on him together, then we went to the other colt.
Finishing that, I excused myself to the ladies' room in the barn across the way to remove my suddenly too-hot long underwear. It had felt good that morning, but in September, the days are almost summer-warm, and it was just too much. I used the restroom, and picked up my little satchel of unwanted clothing. As soon as I got back to the stalls, Miguel took his turn. A few hardy souls were already showing up, walking around and looking at horses, asking questions.
I watched them a while, but they were on the other side of the grounds from us, so I went into the tack-stall to get a sandwich. Miguel came back from the restrooms whistling and singing, and I poked a thickly loaded meal at him. He grabbed it and started wolfing it down, at which I had to grin. He and Ronnie were so much alike. As for myself, I found a seat in the sun and sat there to eat in peace. I could hear the rattle of the loop-like shiftney bits and chains on leather lead-shanks rattling as Miguel prepared to show horses to prospective buyers. They were working our way as we ate our cold breakfasts, and I calmly watched them approach.
When it became apparent that they were headed our way in particular, I stuffed my half-eaten sandwich back in its plastic bag and into a loose jacket pocket. Rising, I helped Miguel put the last touches of pretty on the two colts. With two of us, it took mere moments. As soon as we'd finished, people arrived, peering into the artificial lights of the stalls, asking to see this or that colt walked out (5).
While Miguel was doing this (5), I wandered back to my seat, a place once in the sun but now pleasantly in partial shade. I took out my sandwich and nibbled at it, occasionally sipping on a soda pop in a re-closable bottle sitting at my feet. People came and went, the descriptions following no set recipe. A man in a worn sheepskin and denim coat was a known billionaire, and that lady in the floppy hat and floaty dress was a newcomer, dressed wrong, and with a man beside her who clearly held the cash supply in his own hot hands. Children almost didn't exist in this place of old money and greedy passions.
Amused by it all and sitting still and alone, I was too comfortable, too dreamy. I was almost ready to doze off sitting there, when a group walked up. There were a couple of women, a distracted-looking young man, and the biggest, fattest Doberman I've ever had the luck to envision. Startled a bit, I smiled at them and took another bite of my sandwich-breakfast. Miguel would be back in a moment; I wasn't supposed to show the roan colt while the other one was out. I guessed they'd have to just wait.
The dog whined and leaned toward me, narrow head straining at the lead one of the women held. I chewed, watching. The grossly obese animal looked like a shining, overstuffed dummy in a store window, perched on rediculously thin and unsuited legs. This animal made a full-grown Rottweiler look skinny. The stubby tail wagged vigorously. It was, I reflected, the only part of the dog able to move that fast.
"Pardon me?" I wasn't ready for someone to speak to me out of the blue like that, having had too little sleep in the past couple of days. "What did you say?"
The woman smiled happily. "I said, he's hungry. He's really hungry." She looked pointedly at my sandwich.
At this stage, Miguel came back in, calling for me. "They want to see the other horse. Can you get him ready while I put this one up?"
I nodded and stood. The woman reached out and grasped my arm. The dog strained in my direction, a single-minded glare set on my right hand. I turned around to see what this person wanted; they weren't the ones who wanted to see the horse, and therefore not important to my employment.
"I said," she glowered, "he's hungry!"
"My, my. So he is. So am I. This is my breakfast, and I've been up since three a.m." Putting the last bite in my mouth, I smiled, chewing happily, and walked away. I was still a little drowsy from my break, and it really didn't hit me until I was in the stall helping Miguel spot-groom the horse to show it. The last glimpse I had of the woman with the dog was of her angry face and the wistful, bored stance of an animal whose whole joy in life revolved around food.
Suddenly, I collapsed against the warm, hairy side of the startled young horse, laughing in low, desperate tones until my sides hurt ferociously. Miguel stepped away from his side of the horse. "What the hell is the matter with you? What is it?"
I told him. He was biting his lip to keep from laughing out loud when he left the stall, his shoulder still vibrating with humor.
That woman, wearing clothing that had cost far more than my month's wage, had wanted me to feed my breakfast to her sadly overfed dog. She had wanted me to do so badly enough to grab my horse-hair and hoof polish-stained clothing. I was, to her, nothing but someone to feed the spoiled pet on demand. And I had quietly walked away from her without letting her get her way -- or the dog's.
Yes indeed, there are times that I believe the Thoroughbred industry has gone to the dogs. But they may have the last word with my blessings. Before he left with his pushy owner, the dog managed to pee on the low-paying farm owner's real alligator skin purse.
(1)Flea-bitten means heavily flecked with red throughout the coat. This colt wasn't a gray, really, but a mixture of red, gray, white, and black hair in tiny, spotty bunches. His paper said "roan", but everyone called him "ugly". It was a bad color for his kind of body conformation.
(2) Pen-hooking means to buy cheap, outside the auction proper, then resell for a profit. I've done it, though it's frowned on if you're on the sales-grounds. Many pen-hooked horses come right out of one horse van or trailer and go back in another one within minutes. The problem is that the sales places make their money on a flat fee for selling the horses (and in some places, renting the stalls prior to auctions), and pen-hooking can bypass it. Honest pen-hookers go to the office and pay up. Slicksters don't.
(3) Our dog Helga would manage to get loose in the night sometimes. The "ugly" colt was in a small paddock at night, just behind our house. We'd get up in the morning and find them together, Helga lying on the outside of the fence, the colt on the inside, back to back. He'd fight other horses, snapped at most of the grooms, and was generally unliked. He never once offered to harm that dog; if he had, I believe I'd have had his hide for a rug. But they were friends, for some odd mixed-species reason, and we let it be -- and just never let anyone in management know the dog had been loose.
(4) Later this same night, the roan colt, wired from all the excitement, confinement, and confusion (and not good in temperament to start with), reared while we were giving him a bath in the cool night air. He pawed the sky with intent to hit something, almost angry. I had the business end, which is to say the leather and chain lead shank. I stepped back instinctively, but still got slammed on the top of my left hand, on the bone above the web between thumb and forefinger. A hoof is a hard object, and a Thoroughbred colt of his size weighed in at about a thousand pounds. He was a big colt, and it hurt when he smacked me like that. The bruise was spectacular, and it stayed with me for several weeks.
(5) "Walking out" means to show the horse at a walk or even a trot, while led by a groom. These horses aren't yet broken to ride, and even older horses are shown this way. Prospective buyers will ask to see the animal taken to and from them, so they can watch the action. Some will ask that the animal be held still while they measure various points. There is a complete formal etiquette to the mess -- too detailed to tell all in a short space. Suffice it to say, Miguel was the far more experienced of us at this, so he did it while I fielded questions and tended the other horse to keep it calm.
Copyright May 17, 2006, by Rhonda L. M. Tipton