Writing From the Right Side of the Stall

Carefully curated musings about the writing life, horses, bitterness and crushing career disappointment. Fun, right?


I’ve been neglecting my faithful blog readers this month, and would like to offer heartfelt apologies to both of you.

The reason is simple enough:  I’ve been useless.

Such is the nature of the writing biz these days – for me, at least – that I have stooped (and stooped and stooped) to a relatively humiliating alternative in an effort to help pay the rent.  I’ve been mucking stalls at two different local barns. And by that I mean, in addition to my own.

I could put an officious spin on this and say I have taken on positions as a barn manager.  But let’s not obfuscate.  I’m shovelling shit.  (Okay, and throwing hay bales around, scrubbing water buckets, sweeping floors, and, in the case of one of the two barns, spending quite a lot of time playing Molly Maid with a swiffer.)

Lots of horse-crazy teenagers shovel shit in exchange for being in proximity with the producers of said product.  For pocket money, in exchange for riding lessons, to help work off the board for their own horse.  It’s something of a rite of passage, and I did my share of it in my misspent youth.  For a winter or two in my undergrad years, I groomed four horses for a fairly prominent trainer at Windsor Raceway.  Grooming Standardbreds (and I’m assuming here that this hasn’t changed much in the quarter century since I was so employed) entails mucking stalls, grooming the horses, harnessing them for jogging and then unharnessing them afterwards, giving them baths, wrapping legs and/or blanketing, and lots and lots of cleaning harness and sweeping floors.  (All of which is ever so much more fun when it’s -30 C.)

I hate sweeping floors.  But hey, it’s part of the gig.

Doing this sort of thing does instil a certain work ethic.  Which is something a lot of youth are sadly short on – so it’s a good thing.  It also cements a sense of responsibility for the living things for which you’re caring, and that’s invaluable.  But it also creates something that the rest of the world views as something of an imbalance.  The average horseperson may be an indifferent housekeeper who can happily look the other way at clumps of mud on the floor, tufts of equine, canine, and feline fur on the furniture, piles of stinky saddle pads and blankets and a general eau du cheval (consisting of equal parts equine and human sweat, a hint of ammonia, and the rather more pleasant base notes of leather and saddle soap) on, well, everything … but that same ambivalent domestic engineer is more than likely to hold her barn to a far higher standard.  I wouldn’t necessarily say you should eat off the floor of most barns … but you probably could, at least before the horses come back inside for the night.

I learned a long time ago that there’s no point in doing a half-assed job of any of this, because somehow, with horses, if you do you just end up with five times as much work the next day.  And it’s not like horses give you a day off from shovelling shit.  They are herbivorous fibre-consumers.  They pretty much dedicate themselves to producing the stuff like it was their life’s work.

Still, I had kind of hoped that I had reached a point in my life where any stall-mucking I did was by choice, not by profession.  Not exactly for pleasure, I guess, but as part of the package of owning my own horses, part of what I signed on for by having the darling critters in my backyard instead of at some posh boarding stable.

But here I am, with a couple of degrees and a little handful of journalism awards, a bit of (ahem) big-fish-small-pond street cred, not to mention my national coaching certification, and a background in public relations, marketing, editing, and equine nutrition … and I am wielding a muck fork six mornings a week to help make ends meet.

The vagaries of job-hunting have become so baffling that I’ve pretty much thrown down my weapons in utter defeat.  A couple of months ago, for example, the Ontario Equestrian Federation advertised that it was looking for a communications coordinator.  I ask you, in all seriousness, how could I be any more qualified for that??   It wasn’t a matter of my having outrageous salary expectations or blowing the interview …. I didn’t even get an interview.  Or acknowledgement of any description, come to that.  I can only assume — since I am assured by someone in the know that it was a Real Job, not one filled internally nor cancelled due to budget cuts — that I must have inadvertently pissed off someone at the OEF, perhaps in a past life since I cannot seem to recall such an incident in this one.

If I wasn’t such a goshdarn cockeyed optimist, I might just find it deflating.

The worst of the mucking thing is that I am sooooooo not a morning person.  Never have been.  Totally screwed up circadian rhythms.  Which my own horses understand completely.

The horses at my two other barns, apparently, not so much.  They all expect me to show up at a truly ungodly hour of the morning.  It’s bloody killing me.

I have never really understood why horsepeople seem to think horses need to be fed breakfast in the pitch-black of pre-dawn.  It’s just one of those idiotic, hideous, fucktarded traditions.  (Or is that just me?)  Admittedly, at this time of year, when the humidity makes both humans and horses feel like they’re dog-paddling breathlessly through the atmosphere, there’s an argument to be made both for turning the beasties out in their paddocks early, while the temps are still relatively humane, and for getting the most backbreaking of the barn chores out of the way then, too … but my body and my brain still protest about getting up at an hour more appropriate for a morning-show radio host.  I am not adjusting well.

It might have something to do with my being 49, I ‘spose….

I do know that being 49 has everything to do with the fact that, by the time I am finished with the morning barn chores at either barn (I do one place on weekdays, the other on weekends), I am pretty much finished, period.

As in knackered.  Fried.  Trashed.  Destroyed.  Like tits on a bull for the rest of the day.  Unable either to shit or wind my watch.  About as helpful as a screen door on a submarine.  Akin to a hedgehog in a balloon factory.

As evidenced by my exceedingly feeble and pathetic collection of euphemisms here.

It’s a problem, since mucking stalls (surprise!) doesn’t actually pay all that brilliantly.  It’s only morning work, and the theory is that I then have the rest of the day to meet all my writing obligations, generate new assignments, and keep up with all the other freelance stuff that, combined with the grunt work, will pay my rent.  Great theory.  But I’m finding the execution is … well, something of a struggle.

When I get home, I need to have a nap.  Then I try to rally enough to have a shower or otherwise scrape off the filth, do yet another load of reeking laundry, and answer some e-mail. Most days, that’s about as far as I get.

I am not doing terribly well in terms of completing any of the paid writing.  Much less the blog.  Which of course is weighing rather heavily on the brain.  I’m hoping I will adapt.  (Of course, I am also hoping that all of these extra trips to the manure pile will lead to some excess poundage effortlessly melting off my frame, and tragically, that doesn’t seem to be materializing either.)

Recently, the Canadian government announced some revisions to the employment insurance (EI) program (formerly the unemployment insurance, or UI, program, but hey, that was such a downer).  It decreed that you now could not just wait to accept a job which was in your field and for which you were qualified (at least not while you were collecting pogy). You had to take just about anything that came along, even if you were over-qualified (or completely unqualified), massively underpaid, and totally disrespected.  Critics argued that this would just create a downward spiral in employment, with each succeeding position being a little meaner, a little more demoralizing, a lot less well-paid, until all of us were working in pointless, dead-end positions with zero benefits and miserable hours, and all 30 million of us opted to fling ourselves off bridges en masse.

Somehow I’ve managed to put myself in a similar death spiral.  It’s not like I don’t appreciate the value of honest, necessary work.  It’s not that I don’t like being in barns … clearly I do.  It’s not that I’m afraid of callused hands, an aching back, filthy hair matted to my head like steel wool, a farmer tan, or arms all scratched up to ratshit by slinging hay bales.  Nope.

I guess I just figured at this point in my life that I’d already paid my dues with pitchfork, shovel, and broom.  That I’d moved past having to do that stuff for other people’s horses.  And I’m having a bit of a hard time getting over myself.

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18 thoughts on “Knackered

  1. Add 13 years and you’ve got me. Up until last year I was totally in your boat, rowing upstream with half a paddle. Then, at least, I qualified for my AMAZING CPP retirement income – ha! Significantly less than $500 a month. Since, like you, I’ve been self employed most of my life that means to corporate pension. Unlike our MLAs and MPs, I have no lucrative government pension (paid for by my hardworking colleagues – oh wait – paid for by the underpaid hardworking people of Canada). Luckily we are a 2-person household and both of us are still working as much as we can – and probably will be until we drop in the streets. I totally understand your pain.

    Enjoy that agricultural exercise program you’ve signed on for! Others pay a fortune to go to gyms for far fewer benefits (hee hee).


  2. Typo: should be “no corporate pension” – big surprise there, eh?


  3. Love you and your blog, Karen. Is that you with the broom?


  4. Working at a barn in my last year at college I learned so much about myself. Chiefly that what I thought were my limitations were false, and that physically I could do more. This helped show me that one never knows what they are capable of until they try.


    • The thing about this sort of work is you always do end up doing quite a bit more than you bargained for! Maybe that’s why my shoulders are in knots all the time …


  5. Think of it as great exercise for the body and the soul. Getting close to the realities of the world by taking care of living things reminds me of how we are all interconnected, and how we all need to be taken care of. The fact that the world is a messy place does not change the fact that the world is a beautiful place. Cheers!


  6. Now is that time to write that Great Canadian Novel that will bring in the royalties while you bask in the sun. But seriously folks, I reach. When I started as a zookeeper, by the end of the day, I was near tears with exhaustion.


  7. The first month is probably the hardest. And then it is ok to not get over yourself. But now that you have indulged, it is time to get over yourself. Find a way to make your barn time more productive, mentally I mean. I am pretty sure you have plenty of time to think about cool stories, ways to get more paid writing work, learn a new language, etc.
    Time will fly and when you get back home you’ll have more energy to keep going.


    • I have been ruminating a bit on an idea for a novel as I work, actually. The trouble is I am not writing it down as I think of it, and by the time I get home most of the detail is gone again! Maybe I need to start pulling out my Blackberry and recording the skeleton of the plotline as it comes to me …


      • Oh I can relate to that and I think you should record the ideas as they pop into your head! I am looking forward to your novel 🙂


  8. I’m not cleaning stalls for a living, but I’m raising a damn puppy. Same kind of thing minus the paycheck. Basically, I’m getting up way too early and picking up far too much crap for someone my age. Add a couple of horses to the mix, a few extra dogs and … well, I’m knackered too. Thank goodness for your blog. Reading keeps me from losing my mind when I get a moment off from providing one energy-draining service or another for the critters. Still, I’d pretty much rather spend my time in the company of animals than people any day. Maybe that’s the only plus, but it’s a really big one for me! Hang in there!


    • Ah, puppies … the cute factor is the sole reason we get talked into that degree of PITA! If only we got baby bonuses for raising ’em. Sometimes I think I should have stuck with flushable pets.


  9. It is amazing what we go through to make a buck!


  10. good honesty. 48 year old barn owner – 11 horses…tedonitis, its sunday and Im four hours late and I dont wannnna go out SIIIIDE…but when I get there – I LOVE IT. Love it all. lol.. keep showing up to the page…all will be well lol.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I must still love it on some level or I wouldn’t keep putting myself through it … but I admit, I love doing my own horses a lot more than I love doing chores for other people’s. (Though that’s mostly about the stupid things some other barn owners expect … like sweeping the shavings back from the door in a perfect rectangle, and dusting the tops of the stall partitions (!). OMFG.)

      Liked by 1 person

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