With the kind permission of Amy Murphy, I am delighted to record some of the experiences I have had, working in Amy’s stables over the Christmas period so far.
Firstly I should thank Amy and Lemos for kindly offering me the opportunity to earn some extra cash – not to mention the brilliant patience and warm welcome from their team, including Alex and Jemma … and all of the horses!
So I had some preconceptions of what to expect in a racing yard, having spent a morning at George Scott’s, earlier in the year.
However, the minute details of what to do each day – and the unexpected things that arise, mean there is never a dull moment and you always have to be on your guard when horses are around.
The morning starts at the moment are not too bad, given the time of year (December), it is a 6.30am beginning.
We generally finish around 12-12.30pm, although Sunday’s are earlier. I am back in at 4pm to help with evening stables and usually this is finished by 5.30-5.45pm.
The time in between, I go home and catch up on my website news and have a bite to eat – although not too much, as experience tells me not to do physical work on a full stomach.
The big benefits of working in a racing yard are pay, spending lots of time in close proximity to horses, working in the great outdoors, so fresh air and improved fitness.
To the uninitiated, activities in a yard in the morning, might seem hectic and crazy. In actual fact, there is a brilliantly-worked system to getting first lot out and getting those empty boxes mucked-out, before their return. Some of the horses might not gallop, they may go on the horse walker or simply be turned out in the paddock.
Mucking out means a wheel barrow, shovel, fork and broom.
The boxes vary in levels of dirtiness.
Some horses will pee and poop in the same spot – the key is to scoop out the worst and make sure the wet straw and shavings is cleared. The barrow soon fills!
One of the biggest supply demands in a racing stable is shavings and a yard the size of Amy’s, will go through several high-stacked pallets of shavings in a week.
Each box will get one or two large packets of shavings each day, to replace the dirty bedding.
This needs to be opened up and you then use the fork to break up the compacted shavings and distribute around the box, making sure the shavings are higher around the walls, in order to be brought down and used the following day if still clean.
When the clean shavings are in, you sweep in the straw and shavings into a neat line inside the box, put an armful of hay in for feed and replace the water.
Each horse has two buckets of fresh water and we clean the buckets too, giving them a good scrub. Changing the water can be a messy job as the hooks that the buckets attach to in the boxes, are varied and some are easier to attach than others, meaning you can easily get splashed and wet.
Then the horse comes back in and has everything set up for the day.
Mucking out uses back muscles I haven’t used in a long time and is a physical job – you want to make the box as clean as possible and are always conscious of the time you take. There is something very pleasing when you are mucking out and a horse across the barn takes an interest in what you are doing!
Once the box is done, it is off to the muck heap – or pit, depending where you are in the yard. Empty the wheel barrow and repeat the process.
There will be normally at least two lots – sometimes more – so the works continues throughout the morning.
One of the unexpected things I saw on one morning, was a little mouse, scuttling out of one of the boxes and up the barn.
The dogs that Amy and Lemos own are also regular fixtures, with little Trevor absolutely having a ball, gallivanting around the yard.
During my time at Amy’s I have helped to lead horses out and loaded them on the horse walker.
Putting the bridle on is something I definitely need more experience at! There are a variety of bridles and the way they are put on is confusing as someone new to this! Much like my music headphones, I have a good habit for bridles and chains getting entangled! Practice will make perfect however.
The horse walker can accommodate up to five horses at a time and there is a little console to control speed and direction.
The horse will go on the walker for quite a while and then it is a pleasure to walk them back to their boxes. More intimate contact with these noble beasts.
As the morning progresses there will be a coffee break and breakfast, which might be doughnuts or a sausage sandwich, washed down with a welcome cup of tea. Then it is time for the final push of the morning.
This involves sweeping the barns to ensure they are tidy.
Then at 12 or 12.30 it is time to leave for the morning.
Living about fifteen minutes from the yard, I will go home and often have a change of clothes. I will have a light lunch as I don’t want to go back for evening stables feeling heavy with food.
Evening stables start around 4pm and I will go around each box and check to see who needs a water top up.
I love this part of the job – many of the horses will be eager to watch the process, waiting for their turn. None more so than Mercian Prince … a king of the racetrack and a total mickey-taker at evening stables.
The tap in his barn, is next to his box and he will readily watch, nodding his head in a frenzy of excitement. I think he must be a heavy metal head banger! He is an impatient show-off but a lovely character.
The horses are all so well-behaved and let me into their boxes with no bother and not a hint of malice.
I will unhook buckets that need a top-up and take them out – remembering to fully close the box. Sometimes I have to duck under the head to get to the hooks, talking to the horses all the time.
On one occasion I didn’t fully close the door to a box and Mercian Knight decided to have a short stroll inside the barn, saying hello to his friends in captivity as he revelled in his freedom. I was horrified when I turned around from the tap and saw him loose. Apparently he has done this before and with thanks from my colleagues, it was a short-lived adventure! Lesson learned.
Changing the water at evening stables means being close-up to the horses and you start to get a real feel for the character of each one. Sir Henry Cecil used to describe racehorses as people (as in: “He is a kind person”) and there is a strong element of truth to this.
Perhaps my four favourite horses in terms of character are Easter Eric, Pepper Street, Amor Kethley and Rock On Baileys – all four have beautiful personalities and just want kisses and cuddles. They are so trusting – how could you not fall in love with them?
Jamessaintpatrick recently won for the first time in his Under Rules racing career (although he is a point to point winner). He, by contrast to the above, is maybe not so much a people horse and won’t come over to greet me. But I will continue to live in hope with him and hope we can develop that bond.
Kalashnikov is a total dude and takes everything in his stride with a good nature. So far, only Mercian Prince has tried to have a small nibble but that was just him having a laugh.
One of the hardest parts of the job is sometimes just getting the bolts to move across and open or lock a box. It is easy to take the skin off your knuckles, as I have found out.
As the horses are watered, depending on the weather (and probably the time of year), it is important to ensure they have their rugs on. At present, most are wearing two rugs.
It took me a little time to get used to the rugs and how they are put on the horse – the tail goes underneath the back of the rug and there are two fasteners that go under the horse’s tummy, crossing over and into buckles on the other side of the horse.
At the front, the rug will be fastened by clips.
On one of my first attempts to secure a rug, I did get kicked – gently thank goodness. It was just a little warning to have your wits about you in a box but also to make sure the bloody rug is straight!
Occasionally you will hear the shout of “loose one” or “loose horse” – and everyone will come through to see what has happened and to catch the loose horse and ensure everyone is safe and in one piece.
When all the horses in the two barns, the main courtyard and the wooden boxes have been watered, I will check on Flash the pony, to make sure his rugs are on and that he has fresh water. His stable is separate to the racehorses and the light is on a sensor, so when you are in his box, it will go out.
After Flash has been taken care of, I will help with the feed, which is usually already under way, with Jemma or Alex taking the lead.
Pellets, mix, chaff, powders and oil are all mixed in a bucket (but some horses may not have all of these components) and it is back in the box to put the feed in the manger. Some horses like Lazarus, will be mad keen for their feed and might make it hard to get to the manger, as they want to eat from the bucket! But a gentle shove will usually do the trick!
You get the sense that the horses know you are their friend and food and water provider and that they genuinely appreciate it.
I am loving my time working in Amy’s yard – it is a way of life and I think that I would have to make adjustments in terms of eating habits and sleep time, if I was working full-time and permanently, but it is fun to be with horse-loving colleagues and there is a real sense of teamwork.
I am so grateful not only to Amy and Lemos, but all the team here for their help, encouragement and patience with me. I am maybe not the fastest at mucking out and do feel the physical demands from time to time, but feel I am already getting much fitter.
There is a lot of walking – to and from the yard but also during the course of the morning.
There is a lot of lifting – full water buckets and packets of shavings.
There is a lot of bending over to muck out and sweep, so the back feels it.
But absolutely nothing to be afraid of. You feel a part of the team and you feel the horses depend on you. You want all the horses to do well – just for them – and you want to repay their kindness.
This is a very particular way of life and you will get small cuts on the hands, back aches and tired. But the benefits are physical, financial, emotional and in my case educational. I actually feel very pleased with my overall level of fitness.
Having a positive mindset I am sure is picked up by the horses and it is wonderful to interact with them.
I can only relate to my own direct experiences and the morning maybe pans out very differently for work riders.
I am far from the finished article and have a lifetime of horse handling skills to learn. But I feel very much happier for working in this environment and privileged to do so. I would encourage anyone to give it a go.
As I mentioned, this article would not be possible without the kindness of Amy and Lemos; please visit: www.amymurphyracing.com for the latest news from the yard.