The Not-So-Secret Shame of Horse Sport

The Not-So-Secret Shame of Horse Sport

For centuries, horse sport has been called “the sport of kings.” No one who has felt their breath catch in their throat watching a racing-fit Thoroughbred gallop toward the wire or a Grand Prix jumper soar over a fence could disagree. Nor could anyone looking at an entry list at WEF, or the VIP tent at the Hampton Classic  each dotted with celebrities, political power players, and the children of some of the richest people on earth. 

But the dark shadow of horse sport in America is that our industry is built on the labor of an exploited work force, primarily undocumented immigrants from Central and South America. You see them at every barn and horse show, filling water buckets, wrapping legs, lunging horses in the pre-dawn hours or standing quietly with them as they wait for their rider. While some of these workers are well-paid employees, with compensation befitting their skills and experience, the vast majority are poorly paid, housed in shabby barn apartments, and offered no overtime pay, workman’s comp, paid time off, or health insurance. 

Many horse owners joke that their horses live better than they do; it’s common for sport horses to be insured to the hilt and regularly seen by acupuncturists and chiropractors, in addition to the vet, farrier and dentist. Meanwhile, the horsemen entrusted with the care of our beloved, fragile, and expensive creatures often go years without access to medical care. A friend of mine once brought her barn’s groom to urgent care for a respiratory infection he couldn’t quite get over. She told me he trembled for the entire visit, and not because of his illness: he had not been to a doctor in years, both due to lack of funds and because he so feared being deported that he almost never left the farm. 

Most trainers and riders will tell you, truthfully, that they adore their barn staff. These men are essential to the daily functioning and often the emotional world of the barn. They know our horses better than we do, and are the first to notice an uncharacteristically warm leg or a brewing ulcer. They are at the gate when we leave the show ring wiping tears of joy or of frustration. They share our pride when our horses go well and our grief when they are sick or injured. We try our best to be part of their lives, too, celebrating their birthdays, bringing them their favorite coffee on early mornings, and asking about their far-away families that they may not be able to visit. 

Yet this intimacy rarely means our grooms are properly or legally compensated. Industry standard is a six-day work week, paid in cash, without benefits like health insurance or paid vacation. This has calcified into “normal” both because most barns simply do not have the profit margin to offer more, and because barn workers’ immigration status and language barriers can keep them from knowing or fighting for their rights. Many clients try to bridge the gap by tipping generously, and the best barns pay well, offer paid time off, and even assist their staff with visas and lawyers. But these are small attempts to band-aid over a massive structural problem, and perhaps to assuage our own guilt as well. 

Even as the world economy ground to a near-halt during the coronavirus pandemic, horse sport boomed. While blue-collar and essential workers were laid off or forced to work in dangerous conditions, the top tier of our society prospered: according to CNN, billionaires in the United States became $1.1 trillion richer in 2020. And while many feared the pandemic would hurt equestrian businesses in an echo of the financial crisis of 2008, that fear was unfounded.

With extra cash on hand from forgoing travel and restaurants, and newly flexible schedules thanks to remote work, many adult amateurs with professional jobs found themselves with more time and money to dedicate to riding. Horse show entries went up: Galway Downs, a premier international three-day event in California, had record entries this spring. The market for horses is white-hot, as shoppers looking for lesson ponies and 6-figure hunters alike bemoan low inventory, high prices, and horses selling unseen in hours based on X-rays and video. 

As a whole, the participants of horse sport are a prosperous and privileged group. According to USEF’s 2021 media kit, the average member has a net worth of $955,000 and owns four horses. Combined, members spend roughly $73 million per year on riding apparel, $144 million on fencing, and $337 million on horse trailers. And USEF oversees only a fraction of the horse sport in America: racing, western and ranch disciplines, and plenty of breed associations are worlds of their own. The American Horse Council stated that in 2017, the horse industry contributedapproximately $50 billion in direct economic impact” to the American economy. 

Yet for all the wealth and power within the horse industry, there has never been a concerted effort to improve the working conditions and immigration status of grooms. There are heirs and philanthropists in the show ring whose foundations rescue animals, provide show clothes for children who cannot afford them, or send talented young riders without the means to compete at prestigious horse shows. These are not unworthy causes: no animal should die in a shelter for lack of a home; and providing access to our elite sport is meant well. 

But there is an element of denial in these good works, a careful looking away from the true problem that plagues us and the people who care for our horses. Anyone who spends long enough in the horse world has been at a show and heard a rumor that immigration authorities were on their way. I once heard a story where, after a coded loudspeaker announcement, every groom at ringside disappeared, leaving clueless dads suddenly clutching the reins of three strange ponies. Is an “underprivileged” teen attending Indoors because their parents cannot afford an expensive horse or even a burgeoning top competitor getting a grant to compete overseas a better use of money than ensuring our grooms, track workers, and stall cleaners don’t have to work in fear of deportation?

Our federations and associations are complicit, too. They grow our sports, regulate horse shows, and fund national and international competitions. The United States Equestrian Team Foundation, the philanthropic branch of USEF dedicated to supporting international competition, is currently fundraising $40 million through their “Raising the Bar” campaign to fund American equestrians at the Olympics, Paralympics, and World Equestrian Games. There are few supporters of horse sport in America who don’t want to see an Olympic gold medal around the neck of our top riders and horses, and all would agree that success at that level takes a village: owners, sponsors, riders, trainers, and countless grooms. The off-the-track Thoroughbred turned elite eventer, the royally bred dressage horse or show jumper, the reining phenom: at some point in their life, each has surely had his legs wrapped, stall picked, and withers scratched by a poorly paid, probably undocumented immigrant, who dropped by a few hours later to do night check, and rose a few hours later to begin his day all over again. 

Despite this, when asked on a phone call during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic about establishing a relief fund for grooms, USHJA leadership privately expressed concerns about the optics of giving charity to undocumented workers, according to a source familiar with the conversation.

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It is important to note that the poor wages and working conditions of grooms are often due to the sheer economic reality of our industry and not any malicious intent. Many equestrian professionals do not offer their staff benefits for the same reason they themselves do not enjoy them: they can’t afford it. Most barns operate on razor-thin margins, and if board and training rates were raised enough to cover actual benefits for all employees, the resulting exodus of clients could shutter their business entirely. The labor conditions of grooms are part of the same systemic, structural issue in horse sport that results in professional riders going without health insurance and working students being exploited for free labor under the guise of education. Each trainer, barn, federation, and breed association is trying to go it alone, rather than combining forces to make real change across the horse world. 

Immigration law is the third rail of American politics; it seems unlikely, if not impossible, that even the most influential donor could influence a law that will permit undocumented grooms to be granted visas as highly skilled workers, or be granted asylum after many years living in the States. But it seems eminently possible for the American Horse Council, USEF, the various discipline and breed organizations, and philanthropic individuals together to make a real difference. 

The US Citizenship Act of 2021, a major piece of legislation proposed by the Biden Administration, offers multiple paths toward citizenship and green cards for undocumented agricultural workers and has the potential to transform our industry if passed. Support for this law from the players mentioned above would be invaluable, as would efforts to educate riders and employers in the equine industry and ask them to write their lawmakers in support of the bill and similar progressive immigration legislation. 

Another basic step in the right direction that our industry sorely needs is an independent, non-profit resource center with offerings in Spanish and English to assist equine industry workers in need of legal aid, medical care, or simple questions about their rights. Many people don’t know that while protections vary slightly by state, as a rule undocumented workers are entitled under federal and state law to almost all of the legal rights and protections as any other worker, including minimum wage, overtime pay, mandated breaks, workers’ compensation, and protection under OSHA rules and regulations. 

There are many excellent programs in other corners of the horse world, or in similar industries, that could provide inspiration for further initiatives: 

  • The UK boasts both the British Grooms Association and the Equine Employers Association, which empower and assist both grooms and their employers by providing legal contracts and protections, access to insurance, and more. 
  • In the racing world, Thoroughbred Charities of America have an app called Cómo that connects backstretch workers to local services ranging from legal aid to healthcare.
  • The Equestrian Aid Fund provides financial grants to horsemen and women facing life-threatening illness or hardship, including “riders, grooms, braiders, trainers, barn managers, judges, show officials, farriers,” and more. Why not establish a similar fund solely for grooms?
  • The National Dog Groomer’s Association of America offers members professional liability insurance, vehicle insurance, health and disability insurance, and life insurance. Access to group health insurance, in particular, could be life-changing to many people in the equestrian industry.

This is all possible, if we want it. We have chosen as an industry to pretend the people we rely on to keep our horses healthy and happy can live on poverty wages with little legal or political protection. But the model of the industry now is unsustainable and unkind.

The privileged in our sport and if you are on the client side rather than the professional side, you are almost certainly among them have slept well for many years knowing our horses were in good hands thanks to these workers. “I never worry for a second about the horses,” I’ve said for years, bragging about my barn’s care. But I have worried about the staff: if they’re nervous leaving the property, if they miss their families, if they need to see a doctor, if they’d ask me if there was something I could do to lend a hand. I cringe as I put their holiday tips into cards every December, knowing that even the most extravagant tip my budget will allow is far less than they need or deserve. 

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It occurs to me that perhaps we have all had it backward. A common refrain in our world is “the horse always comes first.” But then I remember the motto of my very first barn, one with no grooms at all: “human safety first, horse safety second.”  It seems the two are connected: an employee who feels safe and respected will extend that sense of security and respect to the horses in their care. A groom who isn’t worried about paying for a doctor’s visit will find it easier to be thoughtful and kind to their equine charges. On the other side of the coin, grooms who feel exploited or reduced to their labor may be more likely to see the horses in the barn as commodities instead of individuals. 

It’s very easy for me to think of a long list of grooms, working students, and trainers I personally know, who work tirelessly to fulfill horses’ needs for food, shelter, and healthcare while their own basic needs go unmet. I don’t mean being too tired to eat dinner - I mean living in a horse trailer or unsafe shared accommodation, making minimum wage while caring for a dozen horses around the clock, unable to save money or repair your car or take time off to heal an injury. This should not be normal. It is past time for all of us to sleep well, safe in the knowledge that we are properly compensated, appreciated and protected: trainers, clients, horses, and grooms alike.

All photos by Dani Maczynski. 

Read this next: Confessions of an Equestrian Workaholic

Written by Jessie Lochrie

Jessie Lochrie is a writer based in Los Angeles whose work has been featured in Longreads, The Outline, The Awl, and more. She spent her formative years galloping ponies through the woods of Massachusetts before receiving a B.A. in Literary Studies from New School University. You can find her in the jumper ring or at jessielochrie.com.