If, as science fiction determines, it is possible to either go forward or back in time, who would be most affected a groom from today plonked down in the workplace of 1900 or a groom from that time manifesting in the racing stable of today? For the time traveller first impressions would not be unpleasant. A horse is a horse. A stable-yard is a stable-yard, even if barns may have replaced quadrangles and vice-versa. And a rider is a rider, even if the accents, gender and riding clothes would be radically different.
Very quickly, I believe, the time traveller would think it a mad world he has landed in. Every instinct would scream at him that the job has gone to pot as to his eyes no aspect of the groom’s job would be in replica of his own training. The time-traveller from 1900 would be both astonished and, I believe, appalled at the change confronting him. For instance, in our time-traveller’s era the basic procedure of mucking-out was given as equal a priority as the exercising of the horses and was conceived to ensure the stable was as clean and free from moisture as could be readily expected. Today it is a chore to be carried out as quickly as possible, with the horse free to wander the stable as the groom works away with fork and broom, the muck-barrow in the doorway preventing escape, our time-travelling groom recognising every conceivable accident waiting to happen, at least to his eye and training, with this lackadaisical approach. Of course his ‘master’ – in 1900 the groom was still very much a servant – would have lectured him on the bad effects of carbonic acid and marsh gas that emanates from dung and dung heaps and how soiled litter was a source of disease.
In the time-travelling groom’s day such conveniences as horse-walkers, equine swimming pools, treadmills and all-weather gallops were unheard-of, with in-door schools also a rarity, and though doubtless fascinated by these modern amenities he would remain critical of the lack of time a horse is exercised under saddle as in his day 2-hours would perhaps be the minimum a horse would be out of his stable.
But the greatest divergence from ‘yesterday’ to ‘today’ that would disappoint and surprise our time-traveller is the lack of priority given to actual grooming of the horse, the very activity that gives the groom his job definition. Indeed no aspect of stable life has changed more dramatically than in the grooming of a horse.
In ‘his’ time grooming was considered as important as exercise to the well-being of the horse and was considered so beneficial that a horse doing little exercise would be groomed more or at least to the same effect as a horse in full work.
Our time-traveller would watch the regular practice of washing horses after exercise and lament the loss of natural oils from the skin that encourage and aid perspiration. He would view the cursory ‘lick and a spit’ nature of the ‘doing up’ a horse receives at evening stables as at best inefficient and at worst as lazy and would think the stable was owned by a careless master. He would ask himself why no horse was ‘strapped’, the equivalent of a good massage, a tonic for the skin and blood-flow, and something a wash-down can never replicate and could think of no suitable answer except ignorance.
An expertly performed ‘strapping’, a procedure carried out with a straw or hay wisp, a leather pad, a stable rubber or even the flat of the hands, is good for the circulation of both the horse and groom and was once the main purpose of evening stables. It should not be confused with grooming with a body brush for the removal of dry sweat and dirt. It is a massage for the musculature of the horse, from the top of the neck to the hind-quarters and is carried out in rhythmic strokes with an open hand after a good clean-down with a body-brush. Grooming, when carried out well, lubricates the skin, opening the glands that excrete the naturally occurring oils, softening the skin-scarf remaining on the surface and as our 1900’s groom will know from his master also aids lung function.
As I wrote in a previous piece on the staffing crisis in racing there is merit in looking at the way stables are staffed in America. The image of the stable employee is that he or she should be no larger than five-foot nothing and weigh less than eight-stone. For the gallops and the racecourse this may be true but for all other work in the racing stable size and weight have no bearing.
If a man in this thirties with no experience of horses sought work in a racing yard the first question he would be asked would be ‘can you ride’, not how can I utilise your enthusiasm. In my previous piece I suggested work-riders should only ride out and that a third of the staff could be dedicated to what is considered to be yard-work. To my mind it would be beneficial if some people were employed solely to ‘strap’ or groom, as some people would muck out. If all these jobs were given the same priority great benefit would be achieved for the whole yard, including the health and well-being of the horses.
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.