Maintaining health and fitness when working with horses
by Becky Parker
It’s an occupational hazzard that when you work with horses, sooner or later you will succumb to ailments and injuries of some sort which may have short, medium or even long term consequences and are specific to our industry.
Working with horses + age = creaking gate syndrome, hard to avoid…or is it?
A healthy groom is a happy groom!
In a profession that demands so much physically, it is often heard by even those working with horses “the life of a groom is a young person’s game’. Undoubtedly a higher proportion of the grooms on our books are under 35. The older, more experienced grooms are few and far between but it has to be said they are usually snapped up in no time. As a recruiter, I find it frustrating that we, as an industry, don’t have more of these fabulously knowledgeable older grooms with their frank, honest talking and no-nonsense approach to getting the job done. They represent how reliable, trustworthy and valuable a good groom can be and show to employers why it is worth investing in looking after your staff so they stay for the long term. Yet as an ex-groom myself I also understand why we don’t always take good care of ourselves.
Being a groom is darn hard work and the hours, exposure to the elements and occasionally, the injuries can really take a toll on the body. In the list of priorities for the day, taking care of yourself appears so far down the priority list it’s somewhere near the earths centre!
I wonder if we applied just a fraction of the endless TLC we provide for the equines in our care to ourselves it wouldn’t make a significant difference to the longevity of our equine careers. In this article, we take a poignant look at the common ailments of the battle-hardened grooms trying our best, where possible, to add some humour and offer suggestions on how to dodge the bullets of gradual deterioration specific to us and which accompany the normal life processes as we grow older and wiser.
1. Fitness for the job
Equine jobs have the reputation of always being flat-out fast-paced and while this is true for some it is not, in fact, true for ALL horse jobs. For those with a less mucking out and little to no riding while you may be on your feet a lot of the day this is not the same as getting a true workout. Few jobs will involve any cardio workout and I guarantee none will include any stretching at all. Fitness is sadly not made up of strength alone, the one thing grooms can boast an impressive amount of compared to the average office worker! The alarm bells should ring at the point you find yourself gasping for breath after a 200 metre jog back to the lorry park for a forgotten whip, the arm strength failing after one run up the gallops on a keen one, burning legs just walking up the field after checking the youngsters, aching in one area/side of the body more than the other. Sound familiar?
Regularly taking part in a different form of exercise outside of working with horses.
- Cross training will have immense benefits on your all-round health.
- For those ambitious riders out there working on your flexibility and core strength is proven to provide significant improvements to the depth of your seat, straightness, posture and ability to keep the heels down. For everyone else it can work wonders to relieve back pain, decrease the chances of muscle strain and lessen overall aches and pains at the end of the day. Popular options are running, swimming, cycling, yoga, pilates, cross fit, kickboxing and kettlebells.
- Wearing a pedometer and counting steps is very much a ‘thing’ these days. However, whilst the volume of steps we take a day has its health benefits, it is no indicator of or contributor to fitness. Short bursts of fast walking (even as little as 10 minutes a day) will help stamina and fitness far more than 10,000 ambling steps. You can easily get your daily fast-paced activity by striding out to bring horses in from the field, or when heading to the feed store.
The BGA (British Grooms Association) recently discovered through their Grooms Minds survey that 83% of the grooms who took part had suffered from stress-related mental health problems. A groom’s role can often be high pressured and the responsibility of caring for these beloved and frequently valuable creatures can take its toll. As the survey showed, the very qualities that make a groom good at their job – the OCD tidiness tendencies, the high standards of work, the emotional involvement with the horses – can be just the traits that work against them. Bullying is sadly a problem in all workplaces, not just equine ones and despite what many a forum may have us believe it is not just from employers, fellow grooms are just as guilty of bullying each-other!
Talk to somebody! Anybody is better than nobody! Preferably a human though, great listeners as our equine and canine partners can be, they are not known for their pearls of wisdom advice.
- Always talk to your employer about any issues you are having at work. Whether you feel over-burdened with your work-load or another member of staff is not “pulling their weight” and you are picking up their shortfall, or if you are having personality clashes with another team member, the best advice is to discuss it with your employer soonest.
- Here at Caroline Carter Recruitment we are all for job longevity but not at the expense of your mental wellbeing. We take too many calls to count from those wishing to share and receive advice in these areas amongst others. We are happy to assist and try to do so in a sensible and balanced manner whenever called on to do so. Do contact us to discuss your current situation and any potential career move. We are always happy to give impartial, no obligation advice to you.
3. Maintaining a healthy work/life
The horse world can very easily become all consuming. When you live in the middle of nowhere, quite possibly all on your own, or with a bunch of equally obsessed horse lovers you run the risk of becoming a crazy recluse. You smell like a horse, eat like a horse, brush the horse’s hair more often than your own, the yard is tidier than your house and you only ever talk about horses. It’s safe to say at this point you are pretty much married to the job. If you have somehow had time to locate and marry someone, I feel sorry for your spouse.
- Be sensible and be responsible in your decision making. If your income and the roof over your head depends on you getting a job as a groom, don’t assume that it’s fine to get yourself a couple of horses (or more!) and take them with you or livery them locally. Be realistic about what you can manage in a day. Could you really muck out, care for and ride a horse, let alone multiple horses, at the end of a long day on the yard mucking out and looking after multiple horses at work, 5 or 6 days every week?! You can read more about taking horses and pets to a new job here.
- Make the most of your downtime. Plan ahead and ensure you get regular time away from the yard you work and live at, especially if you have your own horse stabled there and therefore spend pretty much 24/7 there. A change of scenery and time spent with family and friends can be a real sanity-saver when you’re full-on at your place of work.
4. Feeling Exhausted
This can be closely linked to point 2 in many instances. Be it hunting/competition yards/polo/foaling when your mid-season or short staffed there is no denying your working hours can get stretched and the workload a touch excessive at times. However, there is also no denying that the social scene in many disciplines, particularly on the show circuit, can also be a touch raucous. Many of our younger grooms are also at that ‘living life to the fullest’ stage where a night out on the town holds considerably stronger weight than an early night with a cup of tea and an episode of Game of Thrones (more fool them!) In a demanding job such as this, where quick reactions and full strength can be the difference between narrowly avoiding disaster and a trip to A&E, a good night’s sleep is vital. There is also no underestimating the effect lack of sleep can have on your ability to shrug off or address stresses before they escalate into a full-blown issue.
- If it is your working hours that are causing the issue then organise a mutually convenient time to sit down somewhere neutral to calmly and rationally discuss the matter with your employer or manager. Rather than making your arguments in an accusatory way try to show how extra staff would benefit them/their horses’ welfare…then point them our way. 😉
- OK, I know it’s boring but be responsible. If you know that you have to be up at stupid o’clock and suchandsuch day for a heavy day at a show, or taking sole charge whilst the team are off elsewhere, don’t go out on the razzle the night, or even 2 nights before. Your job is important, and there will be plenty of other nights for tom-foolery that won’t jeopardise your health, safety and career!
- For the occasions when a clash between work and a night out is entirely unavoidable there are some great remedies out there for helping you cope the next day. For example, drinking plenty of water before, during and after your night out will help your body cope with everything better, and you can talk to the Pharmacist at the local chemist about suitable off the shelf and over the counter remedies you can buy.
5. A&E Trips
If you have somehow made it past your 18th birthday growing up around horses and are yet to make a trip to A&E I demand to know your secret! When it comes to spending all day every day dealing with 3/4 ton animals with a mind of their own, no matter how careful we are accidents are bound to happen. More often than not we will shake it off, chalk it down to bad luck/lesson learnt and carry right on. Other times it doesn’t end so well. When this happens remind yourself, it is there opinionated, quirky ways that make us love them right?! Speak to the British Grooms Association about insurance whilst working as a groom.
Minimizing your trips to the local black hole of time consumption can be effectively brought about through a few easy safety precautions and a big dollop of common sense.
- Gloves are a great skin saver and save many a loose horse from injury.
- Wear a hat when dealing with tricky horses or tricky situations from the ground as well as on board. You’ve no doubt heard the saying that hat hair is preferable to a shaved and bandaged head sporting umpteen staples. It does happen, and all too often.
- By putting your safety and those around you above your pride and not getting on any crazies just to save losing face is another top tip.
- Never being too proud to ask for help with a tricky horse on the ground, be it turning out/lunging a slightly off its head fresh one or bathing/clipping/tidying a baby. What would be a big fight and palaver possibly resulting in a bad experience for the horse and injury for you won’t be time-saving in the end so don’t battle on through fear of piping up and asking for a 2nd pair of hands.
6. Muscle Strain
On a similar note and before you think I’m preaching in an overly critical manner, believe me I was always the worst for this hence why I know it’s an issue, poor technique when lifting is THE fastest way to end up broken. Lifting with your legs not your back is plastered all over Health and Safety stickers for a reason, strangely enough. Hauling that hay bale across the yard by yourself because you are stubborn – not wise. Overloading the wheelbarrow then falling on your butt trying to get it up onto the trailer – comical but painful. Impatiently wrestling the soaked haynet you couldn’t be bothered to wait to drain – frustrating and annoyingly damp… my list of examples could go on and on. We are always in such a rush to go faster we constantly shoot ourselves in the foot. When you are injured and crippled you won’t be going anywhere fast and we all know us horsey lot are THE WORST patients.
- Wherever possible, take 2 minutes longer and go fetch the correct tool or extra pair of hands for the job.
- Be conscious of lifting things and riding with a better posture engaging the core and legs, not just the arms and back.
- When injuries do occur, get them checked by a doctor/x-rayed and then actually pay heed to their advice to rest.
- Use physio exercises to slowly build the strength back up.
The black dog of the outdoorsy type, an all too common demon we see plaguing the older generation of our world. An almost inevitable side effect of the toll living an active will take on our bodies yet something we can hope to keep at bay for considerably longer by taking a little care to look after ourselves. Gnarled hands and calcification around old injuries and worn joints are the most common form.
Health experts advise 3 things:
- Eat Fish or if this is not to your liking take Cod liver oil tablets. For Vegetarians, Flaxseed oil or Vegan Omega 3 supplements made from algae do the same job.
- Maintain a healthy weight and do not smoke – this is proven to increase your risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis. You can read more on healthy eating for Equine grooms here.
- Allow injuries time to heal properly.
8. Weather Related Issues
As a groom, particularly one based in the UK, we really just can’t win when it comes to the weather. We spend the whole winter (and much of the summer it often feels like) battling soggy feet, colds that lead to chest infections, chilblains, frostbite (or again it feels like it at least!) Then the summer comes and instead we complain about sunburn, sunstroke, dehydration, insect bites, allergies and ridiculously dodgy tan lines!
Keep an eye on the forecasts and dress appropriately for the weather. There is a famous Nordic saying, “there is no such thing as the wrong weather, just the wrong clothes”. Be prepared for all weather conditions, particularly if you are heading off to a show.
Spring and Summer: Keep a bottle of sunscreen on the yard and in the lorry just in case it does make a miraculous appearance.
- Did you know that the higher the SPF (sun protection factor) does NOT necessarily mean the greater protection you get from harmful UVA rays? Check out the back of sunscreen for the UVA icon – how many stars are shown indicates how effective the sunscreen is against harmful UVA rays. You will find that some SPF30 sunscreens actually provide more protection than a lot of SPF50 sunscreens do!
- The dry oil spray sunscreens are particularly useful when working with horses – a quick spritz over your exposed bits and you’re good to go, with no need to rub it, along with all manner of dust and grime, into your skin.
- Supermarkets and chemists are now regularly stocking pocket-sized sunscreen creams, lotions and sprays, from as little as £2! Ideal for travelling light on days out at shows.
- Top Tip! Save a few £££ on your sunscreen – childrens’ sunscreen is cheaper than adults’ as there is no VAT to pay on it! And it’s equally as effective!
Autumn and Winter (and Spring and Summer in the UK!): Most grooms can offer super tips for keeping warm and dry in bad weather, and it would be great to hear them all! In the meantime, here are some basics…
- Scientists say that the human body loses most of its heat through the top of the head, so whilst a furry/woolly headband might accommodate your ponytail and current fashion trends, it isn’t going to keep you as warm as a proper hat.
- Body warmth is more likely to help keep your hands warm than gloves alone. Layering up helps trap warmth against the body and a waistcoat/bodywarmer/gillet can go a long way to maintaining warmth in your arms and hands.
- Wet clothes can contribute to joint damage over long periods of time. When the forecast is for hours of rain consider taking some dry clothes to change into halfway through the day.
Have a read of my article Keep warm working with horses in winter where I share all my tips and advice on what to buy, what to wear and what to do to help keep toasty in the harsh weather.
Contrary as it may seem at times, working with horses is actually a good and healthy lifestyle! I have always pitied the office and shop workers as I trot down the road on a gorgeous summers day laughing with a fellow groom and friend. Sun shining on my t-shirt clad tanned arms admiring the view as I hike back up the field from turning a horse out, walking further in that brief 15-minute diversion than they will all day. This lifestyle leaves us far fitter, stronger, less prone to illness and better able to bounce back from injury than a great proportion of the population. Few jobs give you the added bonus of keeping such fitness as part of your daily chores. Once experienced it truly is a lifestyle that is very hard to walk away (read escape) from so it is incredibly important to look after the body and mind that allow you to sustain it. I think asking a dedicated groom to put themselves first is wasted breath but at least try to ensure you feature somewhere on the visible horizon of that to-do list.