Are They Kidding?

A funny thing just happened. On a routine trip to the market, I noticed a small laminated sign hanging discreetly next to the chewing gum and chocolate bars above the conveyor belt at the checkout register. It was so small and partially hidden that it seemed like whoever put it there might have been embarrassed about it. And with good reason. The sign said: Thank you for unloading your grocery basket yourself. You are saving our cashiers from repetitive motion injuries.

Say what? I drove all the way home wondering whether I’d really seen the sign or just imagined it. Maybe I am ignorant of statistics pertaining to workplace injuries, but I guess I assumed grocery store cashiers were on the lower end of the risk spectrum. Were there really that many injuries from repetitively unloading bunches of carrots and soup cans? Was the task of scanning bar codes on juice bottles now seen as code orange? I concluded that if folks were getting hurt unloading small items from grocery baskets there was truly no safe place to work anymore in today’s world.

Now, don’t misunderstand me. I didn’t mind unloading the basket myself. In fact, it gave me something productive to do instead of reading trashy tabloid magazines while standing in line. What I minded was that somebody was looking out for these guys, these alleged injury-prone cashiers. I was just plain envious. Here was a real-world example of an employer taking action to prevent a breakdown in the workplace. Granted it wasn’t in the high-risk places I would have envisioned like mining operations, or skyscraper construction projects, but here it was nonetheless. Somebody looking out for the poor soul who shows up at work every day just trying to make a living.

Of course my envy stemmed from the fact that it would be a big fat joke if I tried to apply the same idea to my own place of work. Yet, if workers are now entitled to save themselves from repetitive motion injuries, we horse trainers should be first in line. For a second, I imagined making a sign similar to the one at the store today. It would say: Thank you for riding your skittish, ill-tempered, bucking horse yourself. It saves this horse trainer from yet another trip to the chiropractor. Or how about: Thank you for understanding that this trainer will not be attempting complicated maneuvers with your fussy, fidgety mare that is in a raging heat.

Obviously, these signs would be pointless in my world. After all, it’s part of my job description to ride the bone rattlers and spine thrashers as they show up at my training barn. Actually, more to the point, it’s my job to turn them into something BESIDES bone rattlers and spine thrashers. Many days, my torqued and twisted joints would happily trade places with the inflammation caused by chucking soup cans through the checkout line at the organic market.

When I was a kid, I watched my parents’ colleagues (also horse trainers) hobble around like Quasimodo. They walked with spines bent like coastal cypress trees, hitching along with a gait that resembled a limping jog. I remember thinking how ungraceful they looked when not mounted on a horse. It was as though, as soon as their feet hit the ground, they turned into stiff, geriatric shadows of themselves. I naively assumed that, perhaps due to poor genetics, the warranties had run out on their bodies. It never occurred to me that they had been battered this way by doing the work they loved so much. Pretty quickly, though, I figured it out.

A chiropractor told me at 25 that my spine resembled a 75-year-old’s. When asked what I could do to change that, he suggested I avoid “any repetitive jarring” to my back. I repressed a chortle and hobbled my septuagenarian spine out of his office. Since then, I’ve taken up yoga and other antidotes to my daily dose of battering as a horse trainer. Yoga can only do so much, though. I will admit that I was highly tempted to drive over to that organic market and apply for a job in that haven of protection for workers’ knees and elbows and spines. For a second, it didn’t matter that I know nothing about organic produce and bar codes. Or even how to tender change. What mattered was that every day I could go to a workplace where we stood on gel mats and treated our bodies like temples, telling customers “Sorry, I’m not going to lift those packets of Ramen noodles for you; I am protecting my tendons today.”

Just as I turned my car around to go apply for a job, though, I came to my senses. Indeed, my ailing joints and complaining back do menace me sometimes. But, despite that, they’re a badge of what I’ve accomplished. And many times that is no small feat. Many times when my body whimpers at me, it’s from the effort of helping an unbalanced horse find her way gracefully into a canter depart. Or riding an antsy, fidgety Thoroughbred through to total relaxation. It’s from helping these horses become more solid and confident, stronger and happier. The enormous satisfaction that comes with this overrides the bodily aches and pains. In fact, when my back twinges these days, I can smile gratefully knowing that it’s due to the work of creating strong equine backs that DO NOT twinge. It’s my gift to them. So when I, unlike my injury-free organic supermarket counterparts, am old and twisted like a hunchback, I hope they return the gift by carrying me softly astride no matter how poor my posture, how crooked my spine.

By then, I’ll have my own sign hanging discreetly some place that reads: Thank you for overlooking the accumulation of repetitive motion injuries of this trainer.

Do Not Go Gentle Into that Dark Dawn

My personality doesn’t come by desperation naturally. But stick around the horse world long enough and it’s inevitable. Something about being in an equation that involves getting up before the sun, large unpredictable animals, cold weather (which is also often damp, icy, or muddy), and the fact that you got to bed too darn late last night leads us to form attachments to comforts that can pull us through. For most of us, that’s a steamy cup of coffee with enough caffeine to help us see our situation a little brighter.

Without this piece of happiness in our hands, we are left to dwell on other details like the fact that our feet are freezing or that everyone else you know is still tucked in bed right now while you’re ankle deep in mud. A hot cup of joe goes so far in changing one’s perspective that I’ve wondered if it might be one of the cornerstones that makes being an equestrian possible.

Lest we sound like addicts, let me clarify that the coffee habit isn’t initially about caffeine. It has more to do with providing us with a distraction to an otherwise grim morning. Clutching a hot beverage in our frozen claw-like hands allows us to think about something else, something warm and pleasant. To borrow from Freudian lingo, it is a transitional object to a better portion of our day. Without it, we would be faced with our own current reality, which would leave us just plain grumpy.

In my mid-twenties, I worked for a trainer in Hawaii who owned a sprawling hillside ranch on the northern tip of the big Island. I was responsible for feeding the horses every morning at 6am. In Hawaii, this is not as simple as walking out to a barn and tossing hay through stall doors. The horses lived together in herds of 10 or 12 in vast pastures, some nearly a quarter mile away. Feeding them required me to drive the tractor all over the countryside, depositing little piles of oats and forage as I went. It also meant being in the middle of excited horses and hooves kicking up in the pitch dark. It meant driving around in the darkness trying to find and open the wire gates that connected one pasture to the next. This generally resulted in grabbing an errant strand of electrical fencing and receiving a bone-sizzling zap that caused my insides to burn. Needless to say, morning feeding was my least favorite part of day. In fact, I looked upon it with such dread that it weighed on me as I drifted to sleep at night.

When I first went to Hawaii, I wasn’t much of a coffee drinker. My experience with it included a few sugary concoctions from Starbucks on hot summer days during college graduation week. But on the Hawaii ranch, everyone carried insulated purple mugs of caffeine for the first two hours of each day. The fat purple mugs were as much a part of our equipment as our boots and gloves and utility knives. At first, I found the sight of a half dozen people marching around with their insulated mugs held out in front of them a little silly. After a couple weeks of those dark morning shifts, though, and I was a willing member of their tribe.

That warm concoction changed the grimness of a herd of mares charging at me and the annoyance of grinding the tractor gears to set it on a bucking lurch straight towards a tree. By the time I was half-way through that purple mug, I stopped complaining and feeling sorry for myself. I quit asking why in the heck I’d come to a remote island to be up before the sun every morning, and instead I watched a pocket of orange and pink swell open on the horizon line as the day started. The beauty of that island sunrise made me stop the tractor and stare. In the new light, I noticed the spiky Rose Apple flowers glinting and smelled the perfume of magenta Plumeria. On clear mornings, I could see across the water from our top pasture all the way to Maui’s spiny mountains. Suddenly, life never seemed so good, bucking tractors included. Within minutes, I would pick fragrant guava, bananas, and papaya fresh from the trees and count myself among the luckiest people on the planet.

Since those blessed mornings on the island, coffee has been my loyal companion in this horse-obsessed life. Even without fresh papaya and tropical flowers, it helps tease out the joy in that potentially gloomy pre-dawn terrain. This has never been clearer than last week.

It was one of those moments that causes you to stop and ask a question like “is this really what my life has become” that has no answer. These wake-ups tend to come at times you need them least, when you cannot recall what series of actions and decisions landed you at this particular juncture. For me, I had a startling sense that someone’s life had hijacked me. I witnessed a dishevelled version of me staring back from the dark 7-11 store window. Sunrise remained two hours away and the weather at this unsavory hour had combined too many elements: fog, rain, cold, and now my growing misery. In a few hours, I would mount a nervous, snorting horse and join dozens of other folks with similarly poor judgement in a competition. I needed coffee. Desperately.

The image of me reflected in the window fell just short of 7-11’s primarily homeless clientele. I wore not one but two lumpy barn jackets with emergency supplies stuffed in the pockets– gloves, snacks, rags, random tools. My unwashed hair frizzed out beneath an unattractive but warm wool cap. My make-up- free face wore a dazed expression that begged others to not speak to me. Once upon a long time ago, I might have been embarrassed to be seen in public like this. But that was before I had a coffee habit. Nowadays, enough time in the horse world has taught me that it matters not how disastrous I might look or feel. What matters more is how soon I can get my hands on coffee and how hot it is.

Everything else will fall into place. My snorting horse will seem less deranged to me. The number of times I bang my head on the tack room door will annoy me less. This life will seem a little saner. With any luck, I just might answer that question: “so THIS is what my life has become?”