I’ve loved horses all my life and thought that working with horses would be a dream job. The reality is working with horses is hard work for low pay. Sometimes you’re dealing with really rank horses and really rank bosses.
Too many people told me I wouldn’t want to a job working with horses, but, well, you know how it is. Everyone has to live and learn.
Standardbreds are amazing horses. I really love the breed. They’re the kind of racehorse that pulls a sulky with a driver guiding them.
On December 23, 1982 I bought myself the best Christmas present ever: a Standardbred horse named Mark Missile.
Mark was a 12-year-old racehorse who’d finished his career at the Cloverdale Raceway near where I lived. His owners were retiring him and just wanted to him to go to a good home. I’d met their son who came in to the gas station where I worked from time to time. He told me he worked with horses and I let him know I was looking to buy a horse, either a Standardbred or a Tennessee Walking Horse. He asked if I’d be interested if he found a horse for a good price. I gave him my number and a few weeks later he called.
Mark belonged to this guy’s mother and she was asking $450 for him. I came out to see him and fell in love with this big beauty. I rode him bareback around an arena and he did nothing wrong, especially since he hadn’t had a rider on him in ages. These Standardbreds pull carts, but somewhere along the line, someone got Mark started under saddle.
They’re such a versatile breed!
Mark was the love of my life until he passed in 1996.
A SON CAME WITH THE HORSE
A few months after I bought Mark, a man phoned and identified himself as the son of the woman I bought the horse from. Not the man who came into the store where I worked. He had a few brothers. Apparently this one was nearby when I tried out Mark and decided he liked me.
Kind of a slow mover when it comes to asking someone for a date!
We didn’t date too long. Only a couple of months or so.
He worked at the Standardbred racetrack as a groom and I stopped by the backstretch from time to time to visit.
MY NEW BOSS?
A man who worked in the next stable saw me hanging around and approached me one day to see if I’d be interested in a part time job. He had five horses and was looking for someone to help clean stalls and groom.
I told him I already had a job, and although I usually worked the afternoon to closing shift, I sometimes worked the day shifts and wouldn’t always be available in the mornings.
No problem, the fellow said. He’d be happy for any help Monday to Saturday, however many days I was available. The job paid $50/week.
And so that’s how I became a groom working on the racetrack. I just kind of fell into the job.
Things ended with the son who came with the horse. He started dating anther woman and I started dating another man.
It was a little uncomfortable seeing him most days at the barn. Especially after he quickly broke up with his new girlfriend and started hinting to me he’d like to get back together.
I was feeling squeezed. Between working 8 hour days at the gas station, plus a few hours at the barn, plus taking care of Mark, plus a boyfriend, it all started to become too much.
Also the ex was making a lot of snide remarks to me because I wouldn’t go out with him again.
Ah yes, the joys of being 22!
I finally told my boss I didn’t want to work there anymore. Two jobs was too much for me and I was getting tired of the ex hassling me.
It took him about half an hour, but somehow he talked me into continuing to work for him. Man was he ever desperate! Ha ha!
However I only lasted another month working there. Even though my boss yelled at my ex to leave me alone, I couldn’t put up with the drama anymore.
WHAT DOES A STANDARDBRED GROOM DO?
What exactly were my duties as a Standardbred groom?
Luckily for me, this was a part time job during the summer when there was currently no horse racing going on at the Cloverdale Raceway. Otherwise I would have had way more work to do!
Depending on who arrived at work first – I think it was mostly my boss – the horses had to be fed.
Stall cleaning was mostly me. Back in those days the bedding at the racetrack was straw, not as easy to clean as sawdust. I’d take the horse out of the stall, clip it into the crossties, and mucked out the stall.
Next I brushed the horse and helped the boss harness it so he could drive him around the track. Meanwhile I’d get the next horse groomed and stall cleaned.
When he brought the horse back from the track, I’d help him remove the harness and sulky, and then take the horse to the wash stall to bathe it. Due to the limestone track, it’s very important to give the Standardbred horses a good hose down.
Sometimes the horse’s legs needed to be rubbed down with liniment and bandaged and the trainer taught me how to do this. This knowledge became helpful to me over the years for doing first aid treatments on my own horses.
HORSE RACING SEASON
During racing season, it’s a whole different scenario for Standardbred grooms. In Cloverdale they race during the winter months, October until April.
During race days, or more likely, race nights, the last race might not run until 10:30pm or 11pm. After the race, the horse is bathed and the groom has to stay at the barn until the horse dries, brushes it, rubs the legs down, and puts it back in the stall for the night. It can be well after midnight before the groom is done for the day.
The groom probably began their day at 6am to feed the horses. If a horse is in the last race of the night, it can be a very long day. Though generally the groom will have the afternoon off, returning to feed dinner and stay for racing if it’s a race night.
Many trainers are on the move at least twice a year, following the tracks that are racing. For example, Standardbred horse people in British Columbia head to Alberta or California during the summer months. All in the quest of making a living, getting an income.
WHAT DO YOU GET PAID AS A STANDARDBRED HORSE GROOM?
There’s a difference between work and pay for horse grooms in Canada versus the United States, and I don’t know why that is.
In America, a trainer assigns two, maybe three horses, to a groom. Those horses are the grooms full responsibility from feeding, cleaning stalls, grooming, bathing, harnessing, to working nights when that horse races. The rate could be $100 to $200 a horse per week.
The difference in Canada is that grooms are not usually assigned specific horses by the trainer. It depends on how many horses are in a trainer’s stable and how many grooms they employ. If the stable has more than one groom, generally they all work together to feed and clean stalls. Getting horses ready for the track is when specific horses could be assigned to a groom. Generally the groom gets a weekly or monthly salary.
In most Canadian provinces the horse trainers are required to follow employment laws regarding farm labor, and that means a minimum hourly wage must be paid. It also means that overtime pay might be payable after eight hours work. There are a lot of horse people who skirt the employment laws.
If you’re working in the horse industry, it’s important to keep track of your hours. If the owner or trainer isn’t paying at least minimum wage, you may be able to file a complaint with the governing agency in your province or state.
Always keep in mind when getting a job as a groom is that you won’t be paid a lot of money and sometimes you won’t get paid at all. There are a lot of sleazy horse people out there who take advantage of grooms.
Top grooms who have a lot of horse and racing experience can make around $30,000 a year or more.
DO YOU NEED A GROOM LICENSE?
Believe it or not, you will need a groom license if you are working on a Standardbred racetrack.
Like you need a driver’s license to push a wheelbarrow around!
Years ago I paid a dollar a year for my license. All I needed was a trainer to sign a form that I was working for them as a groom, paid my buck, got my picture plastered on a laminated card, and I had access to the barn area.
These days the license is around $30 and the groom has to take a short test!
FINDING WORK AS A STANDARDBRED HORSE GROOM
It’s unlikely that Standardbred horse trainers are going to advertise for grooms on Craigslist or Indeed.
If you’re interested in finding work on a racetrack as a Standardbred groom, how do you go about it?
If you already know someone working at a Standardbred racetrack, have them ask around to see if anyone’s hiring a groom.
Generally, the best way to find work as a Standardbred groom is the way I did it, just by hanging around the barn.
Head to your racetrack, but don’t go to the grandstand entrance. Drive around to the backside where the horse barns are located. Here it can get tricky if the track has security guards. They check licenses when unknown people arrive in the backstretch.
Some racetracks employ 24 hour security guards during the entire racing season, but not during the off season. Other racetracks only hire security guards on race nights.
You won’t know about the status of the security guards until you show up at the backstretch. If there’s a security guard on duty, walk up to their shack and let them know you’re looking for work as a groom. The security guard might have a list of trainers looking for help and will page that person to come to the gate to meet you. Other times the security guard announces over the loudspeakers that there’s a groom at the gate looking for work. Then hope someone shows up to hire you!
Other times the security guard lets a potential groom go to the racing office and post a “job wanted” notice on the bulletin board.
If there’s no security guard, or if this track is OK with having outsiders wander around the barn area, head into the barns and start talking to people. Horse people are friendly, they love talking horses. Just keep walking around and talking to people and leaving your name and phone number. Eventually you’ll run into someone who is looking to hire a groom or knows someone who is.
BOOKS FEATURING STANDARDBREDS
Just about every book about horseracing features Thoroughbreds, the most popular type of racing where a jockey gallops the horse around the track.
I wrote a few books, available on Amazon Kindle, featuring Standardbred racehorses. I always tell everyone don’t buy my books until you’ve read the free preview available on Amazon. You should know after reading a couple of chapters if it’s your thing and you want to buy. 99¢ is a great price for a book, which is why I keep them priced at a point where I like to buy. Even if I buy a 99¢ book and don’t like it, at least I’m not out too much money. After all, the author did put a lot of work into writing it.
As always, if you click through to Amazon and make a purchase, I’ll receive a commission for the sale.
ARE YOU LOOKING FOR A HORSE JOB?
Are you looking for a job as a Standardbred groom. Do you already work with Standardbreds?
Share your story in the comments about how you found your job.