An Ode to the Barn Worker

Our main barn worker retired a couple weeks ago.  Laura is a tough, gruff, wiry lady, the kind you’d expect to see working as bartender at a biker bar or something. She doesn’t take shit from anyone, but at the same time she’s incredibly kind and caring. Originally Laura worked in corporate America, at a big company where she got up every day, put on her suit and heels, and played the 9-5 game. Then one day she looked around at her life, realized how deeply unhappy she was, and walked away from it all to pursue a career that would make her feel happy and fulfilled.

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her handwritten notes on Henry’s stall

First she worked at the race track, as a hot walker, then a groom. She worked longer hours and more days and made less money, but her heart was happy. Every single day she felt like she was making a difference in the horse’s lives, and every single day she got to enjoy being outside and moving around instead of chained to a desk in a cubicle. I can identify with that part of Laura in a major way, and I admire the courage that it took for her to walk away from stability in favor of something more satisfying.

Eventually Laura made her way to my barn, which is of course where I crossed paths with her. When Henry moved in he was fresh out of rehab for his saucer fracture and required a pretty strict routine for his first month or so. Laura impressed me right away with her dedication to making sure that he was taken care of appropriately. No matter how inconvenient, she did it all to a “T” with no complaints.

who do you think put all these fans in the crossties for him?

It didn’t take long for Henry to become one of Laura’s favorites. She thought his cheeky personality was quite funny, and I was getting texts in the middle of day asking something like “Can Henry have banana?” or “Henry wants some of my Bugles, can he have some?”. She shared all of her snacks with him, but his particular favorite was her extra salty sunflower seeds. Eventually she got to where she would buy two bags at a time, one for herself and one for him.

Laura also knew the behavior of every horse, inside and out. When Henry colicked last winter, she called me and said “Henry is half-heartedly eating his breakfast, and every once in a while he stops to paw. I’m worried he’s colicking.”. And she was right, he was. But she caught it so fast that a little bit of Banamine and a 20 minute walk fixed him right up, and for the next few weeks she soaked his hay every day and gave him alfalfa, “just to be sure“.

Henry isn’t the most maintenance-free horse to take care of. In the summer he really can’t stay out past 10am or he’ll sweat to death, and in the winter he requires close attention be paid to his blanketing needs. Laura had no problem with any of it though, always stopping in the middle of chores to bring him in, or coming back down to the barn late at night to put his blanket on. I never had to worry about whether my horse was too hot or too cold. And she always tossed him extra hay.

and let him clean up the aisle after a hay shipment was unloaded

If she saw me packing up my trailer to go somewhere, she’d stop what she was doing and help me pack, despite my protests. Before I could even turn around she’d be tossing hay up in the bed of my truck or packing Henry’s grain. That’s just her nature. It didn’t really matter if you needed the help or if she had other things to do… she’s a helper, and she was going to help. And every single time we got back from the show, she was the first one asking me to see pictures and video. She thought Henry was just a blast to watch. But really, that shows you how invested she was in “her” horses, and how much she genuinely cared about them. Laura even asked about Presto all the time, and became deeply invested in his journey too.

Laura’s husband had a stroke a few years back, so pretty much every spare minute she had was spent taking care of him. They lived in a mobile home on the property, and she would buzz back and forth from the barn to the house, making sure everyone was taken care of. That was her job, 24/7. But eventually her husband required more and more care, and she decided to retire and move closer to family so she would have some help. A decision I totally understand and respect, but I miss Laura a lot, just the same, and I think Henry does too. If nothing else, he’s wondering where the heck the nice lady with the sunflower seeds went. I still send her texts and pictures, because I know how much she’s missing the horses, too.

who wouldn’t miss this charming face?

Barn workers in general are overworked, underpaid, and a lot of times very under appreciated. Because of that, good ones can be really hard to come by, yet they have one of the most important roles in our industry. They’re the ones that interact with our horses the most, and they’re the ones that are entrusted with their overall health and well-being. So if you have a good one like Laura, make sure they know how much you appreciate them and everything they do for you and your horse… I guarantee they will be happy to hear it.

15 thoughts on “An Ode to the Barn Worker

  1. The barn worker at my last barn was a saint of a man. The number of times he did something just because I asked…or he would call me at random because he thought one of my horses got cut….

    Or there’s the time I came home after an 8+ hour drive, hadn’t considered the route I was driving to drop my horses off at their pens, and I got my truck and trailer stuck in the mud. After frantically texting my husband (minimal cell reception at the barn), he got a hold of the barn worker, who jumped on the tractor, in the rain, who helped tow me out. Oh, he laughed at me. And he teased me about it, but he did it with a smile (despite having just laid down on a hot pad for his aches and pains). I gave him all the cash I had in my pocket and a huge hug of gratitude.

    Then there was my barn owner/barn worker. I was still pretty new to horses, and she KNEW mine in and out. Caught a colic, and then stayed up all night long walking my horse, checking on him, despite me saying I would do it. Or when it was so cold, the water was cold, and the horses weren’t drinking, so she and her son hauled warm water to the horses all night long.

    They really are the reason why a good barn is such a good barn. I don’t care how fancy your facility is, if you don’t have good and caring people looking after the horses, it’s not where I want mine at.

    Your barn worker sounds like an amazing woman. I have nothing but respect for people willing to take the plunge from something “sure” to something that is emotionally and spiritually fulfilling. You and Henry were quite lucky!

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  2. As a barn worker who has been doing this job for eight years, this made me tear up a little. I had to leave my first barn because of how I was treated. The owner would throw things at us and change the rules all of the time so that he was always yelling for us “doing something wrong”. My second barn I ran a farm of 30 horses on my own. I worked 12+ hours a day and got paid for 6 of them, never was told thank you, and the day before I quit was told that I wasn’t working hard enough or good enough. I still follow the social media of both barn because I wanted to keep up with the horses. Every time I see a picture of the pony who I saved from severe founder just because I noticed he was walking slower than normal, or every time I see that horse who I called about because of colic, or every horse whose wounds I spent days cleaning and bandaging and sitting on a bucket cold hosing…. it makes me sad that none of it was appreciated. The only thing that kept the regret away was knowing I made horses happy. This post kind of feels like an indirect omnipresent hug for all of the years I put in my everything and got told I was nothing in return.

    Everyone should tell their barn workers how much they’re appreciated. It can literally turn a bad day into a good one instantly.

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  3. It is always incredible to find someone like that. And letting them know they are appreciated goes a much longer way than most people think. Once you work in a barn being underpaid and overworked, you realize you do it for the horses you love and for the people who love those horses. When those people say a simple thank you, it helps validate all the time and effort you put into their horse. From someone who recently worked as a barn worker, thank you for appreciating your workers who love your horse like their own.

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  4. Aw – good barn workers are worth their weight in gold, and it sounds like Laura was priceless! I remember when I was a teenage groom at an A-show barn, one of the moms bought me a pair of fingerless gloves for Christmas because she noticed I couldn’t tack up horses with regular gloves and she thought they would keep my hands warmer. That was almost 20 years ago (ack!) and I remember it so fondly. A tiny gesture of appreciation goes a long way!

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  5. My giant baby went for a walk-about one night at a horse show last year, when you are that tall apparently opening the too tall stall door is no big thing. One of the neighbor’s guys found him and wandered around looking for an empty stall and put him back, then made sure he came back when he saw our group pull in to let someone know that he had escaped. Its hard to appreciate everyone that goes into taking care of our special babies at the level most of them deserve, but we can always keep trying. And BTW, I pity the poor person that has to replace Laura, sounds like there is little chance to live up to that expectation.

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  6. It’s such incredibly hard work, both emotionally and physically, and so underrated. I have a “barn manager”, and while she knows the horses and is more than capable, she doesn’t seem to have the same investment in my horses as she does her own. I’d give anything to be able to care for my guys myself or to be able to work at a barn again (….and make the same amount with benefits, which seems to be the cost of doing what we love).

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  7. Laura sounds amazing and very selfless. I read this whole post through the lens of the CA wildfires. The personal stories I’ve heard about the heroic efforts of all the barn workers to save horses with no regard to their own personal safety. . . and many of them have lost their homes and belongings. These wonderful behind-the-scenes barn folks are saints. I hope Laura has a happy, relaxing retirement.

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  8. Laura sounds amazing, I’m so sorry she had to move away. It’s so hard to find people like this out there. And I agree, you HAVE to let your helpers know how much they’re needed and appreciated. It’s not a glamorous job by any means.

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  9. Barn workers like her are a gem. I miss the care and attention that Scarlet got in his last barn. They made sure he got turned out when the ground was too wet for much. They even walked him for me when he was swelling up around his sheath from lack of movement. It’s definitely something to not take for granted and I look forward to finding a similar barn someday.

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