Undoubtedly the news that stable employees are to receive a 3% rise in salary is worthy of a round of applause. The media and trainers cannot keep repeating the mantra that stable staff are the wheel that bears the load without remunerating them equal to the skill and dedication they give so willingly to the sport. That said, and this is a subject I have first-hand knowledge of, so can speak with some degree of authority, I believe that the aspiration for a 40-hour week reflects a misunderstanding of the people who choose to live their lives caring for racehorses.
Don’t get me wrong; willingness to work should not be taken advantage of, and fair remuneration for a fair day’s pay should be a given. It is that the racing stable cannot be unionised, at least not in the way of the factory floor.
People come to racing through a love of the horse. Indeed you could not motivate yourself to get out of bed before dawn most mornings of the year, or ride out in atrocious conditions, or risk injury from those you love in stable, on gallops or simply leading a horse from point A to point B, without that deep-seated love of the animal. So the premise that the job can be squeezed into a box measuring 40-hours per week is really neither practical nor desired by those employed in the industry.
Caring for horses, any horse used for equestrian activity, is a leisurely exercise. Horses do not care to be rushed. Rush and important small details will be missed, overlooked. The small nick that allows tetanus to take hold or the bacteria that causes a leg or joint to swell. The first signs that a horse is just a bit off-colour. That a horse’s dropping are a mite smellier than usual or even simply less droppings. Stockmanship is the study of such small things. You cannot rush from one horse to the next and keep on top on the 101 things that can suggest something might be about to go amiss.
Once upon a time, and I am not referring to the 1900’s but the 1970’s, a groom, or lad as he or she was referred to then, would not expect to look after more than two horses. Indeed I own a Stable Management & Exercise book written by M.Horace Hayes F.R.C.V.S. ( I repeat the initials to prove as a veterinary surgeon he had the authority to instruct others in the care of horses) first published in 1900, where it is stated that a groom could not be fairly expected to look after more than 1 horse to any degree of competence. Yet today a groom will be expected to look after 5 or 6. A groom is also expected to ride 4 or 5 horses at exercise, as well as all the other duties that must be observed in a well-run racing stable.
If this 40-hour rule is implement there will exist the real danger that the majority of present owners will find the cost of keeping horses in training unaffordable due to the cost to trainers of having to employ more staff just to get the job done even half decently. Already in Ireland an ignorant judiciary said to Aidan O’Brien that to implement the European Time Directive he should employ 2 people for every horse. We all realise the stupidity of such a statement yet the E.U. is not incapable of putting such stupidity into law.
When an owner puts a horse into the care of a trainer he is giving, on a temporary basis, his horse to a groom. To that groom, that horse is her or his horse and will care for it as their own, not really wanting anyone else to muck it out, groom or exercise it, or even stuff its hay net. I have worked in the industry; some people, and yes I was of their number, would willingly work excessive hours because it is not simply a job but a life, and you cannot live a life and have it limited to 40-hours a week.
Trainers work to margins, as do all other businessmen. Racing as a whole must work within margins. Racing and all its subsections are businesses. You cannot expect a trainer to employ twice the number of staff, even if he or she could recruit the numbers, they do today to comply with either the problem the E.U. are chucking at Aidan O’Brien or the problem that the stringent 40-hour week will cause.
Stable staff are the wheel that bears the load. They should be paid well; they must be looked after and respected. There should be progression through the ranks as in other industries for those who want to progress. But commonsense must be applied to their employment. Stable staff must be protected by Employment Law but the sport must insist that working in a racing stable is a unique environment and cannot be bundled up with employment in other sectors of the workforce. The man at the lathe does not love his lathe; the groom at the stable door loves the animal in which his or her life revolves around. The lathe does not need to fed and watered at regular intervals. The horse does. That is the simple difference.
Keith Knight is a workaday writer of fiction, worker in the real world but foremost a horse racing fanatic. The joy of the sport is the horse - all horses.