[In this contribution, Rebecca Richart from the University of California – Irvine uses video from the backside of a Kentucky horse-racing track to examine rapport building between racetrack workers and their horses.]
By Rebecca Richart
“We are observing the best groom on the racetrack.”
“I believe you. Fifty years right? He’s been doing it.”
“Well, there’s many people that’s been 50 years, but they don’t know nothing. They just never learned. But he’s a guy who’s got something to show and there’s nobody to listen.”
Every morning, every day of the year, the area of the racetrack known as the “backside” bustles with activity as workers and trainers care for the daily needs of Thoroughbred horses and train them to race. The world of the “backside” is hidden from the “frontside” where guests enjoy watching the races, betting, eating, drinking, and socializing. On the backside of the track, the daily labor, which involves intimate interactions with the horses, is performed by people within a particular labor hierarchy. Each trainer is the boss, in charge of the horses under their care and determines the training regime. The trainer hires exercise riders to ride the horse on the track every morning to train them for racing. In addition, each barn’s workforce includes grooms who muck out the stalls, give the horses their feed, wash the horses, brush them, pick their feet, and bandage them. After each horse comes from the track, the hotwalkers walk them around the barn to cool down following their daily exercise. All of this labor is hidden from the guests but is nevertheless essential to the horse racing industry.
One morning I visited a barn on the “backside” of the track where I do my fieldwork in order to capture on video some of the tactile work performed by the grooms. All of the horses had already exercised on the track, work that begins at 5:30am. As the last horses were being washed, brushed, and bandaged around 8:00am-9:00am, I recorded a groom’s work with a focus on his hands to show the importance and consistency of touch when working with racehorses. As I recorded, grooms and hotwalkers chatted with me about other tracks, joked with each other, whistled, and recounted TV episodes. Unprompted, a hotwalker approached me while I was recording and said the quote included in the text above, as we both watched the groom perform his work. Hotwalkers and grooms often mention that their work and those of others goes unrecognized for the industry; however, within the backside community, they do recognize the skill of those whose abilities with horses are well known.
These video clips focus on the work of a groom whose labor often goes unrecognized but who has incredible skill. He is known in the barn where he works for his ability to calm even agitated horses. This skill is not only based on the technical tasks performed, but on the way he subtly touches the horse, interacting with its body. To protect the privacy of workers in these videos, I have chosen to not show their faces but only their hands as they perform their work. While conducting fieldwork for my research on social and labor relations in the horse racing industry, I have learned about the high degree of skill required in the work that grooms perform. The trainer—who is this particular groom’s boss—told me that the way this groom works is beautiful to watch, because it is almost like he is caressing the horse. The type of touch and the way it is performed is a key part of a groom’s skill. As shown in the video, the groom works smoothly and calmly with additional caresses to the horse and offers of peppermints.
As evidenced in the video, the groom is constantly touching the horse. Through this series of video clips, we see a groom bathing a horse in soapy water (00:00-00:13) and combing the mane (00:14-00:25). Then inside the stall, the groom brushes the horse (00:26-00:30). He constantly feeds peppermints to the horse, holding his hand flat so that the horse can find the treat with its lips (00:20,00:37,01:48,04:46). The horse returns the tactile interaction. Sometimes the horse reaches its head to nudge the groom, or to explore the lens of the camera with its nose and lips (00:42-00:59, 01:35-01:38). Noting a hotwalker in the shed row, the horse stretches its neck in search of another peppermint (01:05-01:21). The groom picks the horse’s feet and packs the hooves (01:52-02:38). The groom then rubs the horse’s leg with alcohol (02:39-03:23) and wraps them in bandages (03:24-04:00). He combs the mane (04:02-04:08) and brushes the horse until it shines (04:09-04:42).
Grooms learn and practice skills that are enveloped in a very tactile experience. They must not only perform the technical tasks of bathing, brushing, bandaging, and picking feet, but they must touch the horse in more subtle ways. These tactile interactions provide a basis for building rapport with individual horses. The groom touches the horse in a way to build trust and provide security. Horses are easily spooked, so the grooms must consistently interact with them in a way that puts them at ease. Grooms constantly give out peppermints as rewards and to create a bond with the animal (00:20,00:37,01:48,04:46). They stroke them and interact with them, indicating with a touch that they are present, how they want the horse to move, or that they are about to perform a particular task (02:13). In their work, grooms observe and draw meaning from the nuanced bodily interactions with the horses. The groom is using his sense of touch to note any changes with the horse. He runs his hands over the horse’s body (01:33-01:42) and especially its legs (02:39-03:22) every single day. If he notes any heat, cuts, or swelling for example, he will immediately report those changes. Considering that the horse racing industry depends on a labor hierarchy, grooms’ observations of any subtle changes with the horses are key to the horses’ health and training. Grooms are the ones who touch the horses every single day. They will most likely be the first to notice small changes and report any problems to the trainer, who depends on their skills and conscientiousness with the horses under their care.
This particular groom has perfected his skill through fifty years of work and practice in the U.S. horseracing industry after first immigrating from Mexico as a teenager. While it is not true for all grooms, this particular groom describes his work as his passion and says the horses are his family. Through touch he is communicating with the animal, building rapport, and intaking information in ways that are highly skilled based on years of experience and diligence in his work.