Trudging through hard snow before 7:00 a.m. is no way to celebrate Christmas. My hands, stuffed into pockets, are cold even beneath the two sets of gloves I wear, and my shoulders hunch against the bitter, dark winter morning. My cheeks numb as I walk, and my eyes squint against the cold.
My boots crunch loudly along an unshoveled sidewalk, sounding eerily in the still pre-dawn. I don't need much light to see my way; I've walked it enough to know it in the dark. The rest of my body is swathed in layers of clothing—heavy socks, long shirt, jeans, boots, two hats, scarf, gloves, and an enormous new jumpsuit. As I walk, my frozen lips form prayers against the painful cold and Thoroughbread yearlings.
The Savior spent Christmas morning in a barn too. But He had dominion over the animals.
One thought repeatedly interrupts my thoughts: Horses react to the smell of fear.
The dirt driveway of my boss, lined by solemn pines, leads to a small tack shed. The path branches off twice on the way to the shed: once to a corral and row of foal pens, and again to an enormous horse barn. It meanders past the shed to another barn farther down. In the corral, three Thoroughbred yearlings prance and bolt, full of frisky, ravenous energy against the cold. My breath catches as I pass them; I do not make eye contact. I am short, inexperienced, and slower than they. This is all I can concentrate on.
Light beams from the tack shed further up. It should seem cheery in the darkness. But the light is fluorescent—cold and businesslike. It, like everything else on this property, serves a practical purpose.
The boss breeds prize-winning racehorses. Everything purports to their comfort and health. On this property they are pampered and trained, and pampered some more. They are proud animals, and dangerous at times. Prized for their energy and spirit, they sense when humans do not feel in charge around them. My boss has told me this before.
The shed stands shakily, like a decrepit one-quart milk carton. Twenty-five feet square, and 9 feet tall. Empty grain sacks pile almost 3 feet high in one corner; on top of them lies a thick roll of discarded baling twine. A small heater props unused on one of the narrow shelves. The shelves are all built into the walls—4 feet from the floor— and littered with haphazard cans, twine, wrenches, gloves, pencils, spiders, an occasional horse tooth, and sundry small farm tools. Beneath them 4 trash bins stand, filled with grain, oats, and other equine essentials. Ancient rakes and shovels lean by the splintering door. Next to the heater, under the grimy Wal Mart clock and the discount cowboy calendar, lies a small, scribbled-on hotel pad. The employee time card. With the current pay rate, college could be 10 years away instead of 3, and I still wouldn’t have enough in savings.
But it is a job until I turn 16 and can find more gainful employment. And my parents stand firm in their opinion that this job is a great opportunity for me.
My boss waits in the doorway of the shed, his arms folded against the cold. He does not wear gloves, for he fluffs hay more easily without them. His old body bends under the weight of the great winter coat he wears. Small eyes peer through large glasses. His hands, gnarled from work and tender from lotion, fold against the cold. I recognize, as usual, his mixed scents of hay and cologne.
He offers his usual morning greeting and comment on the cold. No “Merry Christmas” or any other salutation of the sort. He lives alone, a recent widower. Inside his neat house no tree stands, no gifts entice, no candles burn, no ham cooks. When his wife was alive, she had me come over to unpack ornaments and hang them. But she’s gone now. To my boss, the holiday means little anymore besides painful memory. Only his horses concern him now.
He sets out the list of tasks for the morning. I am to feed the three horses in the round corral first. Then, with a short nod, he takes four old #10 ketchup cans, now filled with grain, from the small table in the shed and disappears into the big barn nearby.
Always the same. Doesn't he think that he, with his experience and height, is better fit to feed the unruly colts than I; that it is much safer for me in the big barn with the wonderful metal bars separating human from horse?
The clock reads 7 a.m., and I write this on the pad. I have done this every morning for two years.
Undoubtedly the boss’s feeding method works (he rarely leaves a derby without laurel leaves). Perfected over the years, it consists of a series of steps.
First, each horse gets the equivalent of a #2.5 can of grain. The boss insists on mixing this beforehand. It is mixed meticulously: allotted measurements of oats and sweet feed; a tablespoon of salt and a tablespoon of soy for each animal; and a spoonful each of two very scientific-sounding products I can neither pronounce nor remember. Mix gently—without gloves—and then issue to the horses.
I jerk hold of the corral bucket, square my shoulders and, with narrowed eyes and a knot in my stomach, crunch back to the round corral. The prayer repeats itself in my head, and I control my breathing. They can sense fear. I must appear to be in charge.
(click here for Part 2)
(click here for Part 2)