Photo by H. Covey

Way Back When….Grooming during the Depression

“What’s a ‘maytag’?” my 14-year-old student asked me.

Ahh, I answered. That is a old fashioned way of washing horse things in a bucket. It was a bell-shaped piece of tin attached to the end of a broken broom handle. (Think toilet plunger!)

Grooms would put a handful of detergent in a bucket with water, add the dirty leg wraps, and push the handle up and down, creating a washing action pretty similar to the way your washing machine works today with a motor….except this way, your arms are the motor. They would then take the bandages out, rinse, and hang to dry in the shedrow.

Do you know what a “skip” is?

A “skip” is a burlap oats sack, split open on the seams, and spread out like a table cloth. It’s laid in the aisle, just outside the stall door; you’d muck the stall into the skip, then pick up the ends, fold it up and carry it on your back to the manure heap, back up to the pile, and drop the ends letting the manure fall.

What do you do with it when done? Roll it up, and put it in the eaves of the barn to keep it from being underfoot in the aisle. Many old-timers did not believe in having wheelbarrows around the shedrow, thinking they were dangerous to a loose horse. Skips take up less room and are much safer. (But a bit dirtier for the groom!)

Can you put all of your tack in one trunk and keep it organized and clean, placed in front of your horses’ stall? Have you ever turned out a horse for a top horse show or competition using just one old brush, a rub rag made from an old horse blanket, and cold water? The old time grooms could, back in the day when horse racing was the biggest spectator sport in North America.

Could you get up before dawn, and work your harness racehorse on the track, holding two raw eggs in your hands with the reins? Knowing that those eggs were your breakfast when you got back to the barn….what a way to learn about soft hands!

These are just a few of the great old stories told to me by some very old horsemen and women who have been around many, many decades. These stories told of the way they used to take care of horses without hot water, without electricity in the barns, without many of the modern conveniences that we take totally for granted today in our horse care life.

Old time grooms made a lot of their own tools, and learned a lot of the trade by passing on information, tips, and techniques by word of mouth. Many grooms were illiterate in the early days of the century, and could only work with their hands, but were smart in the ways of caring for horses.

Good grooms were not paid well, and so often moved from stable to stable to find better circumstances, and as a result, much of the best techniques were shared from stable to stable. A groom that was good at braiding manes and turning out horses well, or had a good skill at calming a hot horse, or rubbing legs of lame horses, was in demand. If you had a skill that a trainer wanted, you had a job. So many grooms learned tricks that helped them stay employed especially during the Great Depression era, in the 1920’s and 1930’s.

The great movie “Seabiscuit” was very true at portraying the actual time and care that took place in the racing stables of the 1920’s and 1930’s. If you take your time to watch the movie carefully you’ll see a lot of things that characterized the horse care of the time.

For one thing, horses moved by train a lot, and train stops in towns with racetracks had special side tracks made for unloading the horses, who were then walked to the trackside stabling. Traveling by train was not cushy. Grooms stayed with the horses in the horse car for the most part and slept on the straw bales stacked in the corner of the car. It was often cold and alternately hot. Upon arrival, they’d often be expected to lead a horse several miles to the stabling at the track. If they were lucky, the track would be close to a siding where the horse car could be unloaded, and the walk wasn’t as far.

Primarily, horses were bedded in straw in those days. I have heard stories of some parts of the east coast where horses were bedded in shedded pine needles, raked up from under the trees each day, and spread in the stalls in the morning. Every groom learned to be quite intimate with a four or five-tine pitchfork, and good tools were jealously guarded and never left behind. They sharpened the tines daily.

They used them for reaching things, and for handling wild cats and dogs, among other uses! They were often painted in stable colors, and marked with the initials of the groom. Not only was it a tool, but it was a weapon too, and there are stories of fights and arguments that ended in tragedy when a groom, experienced with a pitchfork, used it to make a point!

Things are a little easier today, but grooming is still a hard job! photo by Eiren

Grooms ate with the horses, and cooked in the barns over small cooking fires or hot plates. Often their breakfast was a handful of cooked oatmeal, made with oats stolen from the oat bag or out of a slow-eating horse’s feed tub.

A few chickens under the shedrow would give eggs, or the track kitchen occasionally would be visited by the better stables’ grooms who were paid enough to eat regularly.

During the race meet, they would sleep in the tack room, to guard the equipment and the horses, or because the trainers and owners simply couldn’t or wouldn’t bother to afford them a room at a rooming house or hotel near the track.

It was an itinerant life, near to the poverty level, but most grooms loved the horses and wanted to be near them, and preferred to sleep in the tack room.

Race meets were not the yearly affairs they are today. Most were short, only a month or possibly a few weeks, and the barns were often ramshackle, unused county fairgrounds.

As such, there were often wild animals that had taken up residence while the horses weren’t there, such as rats and other rodents and pests, and the grooms had to clean the barns out before bedding themselves and the horses down for the night. This was long before campers, camp trailers, or motor homes.

But the racehorses were a big show, much the way professional baseball and football players are today, and the grooms were part of that show – and the fame and glamour of walking a fit, glowing, and wild-eyed racehorse to the post for a big race was a lure many grooms couldn’t resist, and made all the hard work worthwhile.

If you didn’t like a stable, or the way you were treated, or how you were paid, then you walked – to another stable, or hitched a ride on a train or horse van to another track. It was not beyond a groom to simply leave in the night, shocking a trainer who arrived the next morning to find the horses unfed and stalls dirty!

Some grooms went with the horses if the owners moved them to new stables, but that was rare, and only under special circumstances (usually very rich owners who paid for a groom’s loyalty, and told the trainer the groom was a part of the deal.) Most of the time, if an owner walked in, and announced the horses were going to a new trainer, grooms knew they were out of a job.

Today’s racetrack grooms live nearly the same kind of life, but I think have a better situation than grooms of that era. It’s still an itinerant type of life, and it still attracts people because of the fame and glamour, yet needs the blue collar workers to make it go ‘round.