behind the scenes of the equestrian industry
The sport of horseback riding is a complex one with many elements. The pictures in 'Workhorse' were taken over the course of a year as I photographed life around a busy lesson and show barn- the moments that take place outside of the arena. This behind the scenes look at the lives of those who dedicate their life to horses showcases the work that goes into making it look effortless.
Nathan Mazak (17) looks on as the barn's farrier works on a horse. Nathan works multiple days per week cleaning stalls, fixing things around the barn, and learning about barn management and horse care from older employees.
THIRST FOR KNOWLEDGE
A barn can be a loud place just as easily as it can be a quiet one. In the middle of a summer day or during after school hours in the fall, hooves are constantly moving up and down the aisles, while shouts of "I need a hoofpick!" echo into the vaulted ceilings.
Other times, late at night, early in the morning or just during a slow afternoon, the space is quiet, when only the sounds of birds chirping and horses softly munching on hay can be heard.
The one near- constant is that there will always be someone at the front of the barn, perched on a tack trunk, gazing up at the bulletin board filled with schedules. More often than not, that person is a teenage girl.
The guidelines for properly blanketing horses hangs on the bulletin board in the barn alongside the lesson schedule and what equipment each horse requires, among other care information.
These girls are ones that TV and movies often depict as rich and spoiled- complaining 'Daddy! I want a new pony!' Watching these girls work shows the complete opposite.
Despite often being between the ages of 15 and 19, girls that work as grooms take their jobs seriously- professionally welcoming new riders to the barn and educating visitors with their vast knowledge of not only horseback riding, but equine care as well.
Frequently working 5 to 8 hour shifts, the young grooms get lesson horses ready for riders that don't yet know how to tack up themselves, having up to 3 horses ready for one time slot. Telling each student "Have a great ride!", they quickly get back to what must be done, as falling behind schedule can cause a pile-up that no one wants.
For many young riders, working in the only way they can afford to ride. The stereotype of a spoiled rich girl with a pony originates from the fact that horseback riding is an incredibly expensive sport. Even for some equestrians who are privileged enough that their family is able to afford the hundreds of dollars per month is costs to keep a horse, working covers the other expenses that come with competing and buying gear for themselves and their horse.
Cecilia Pandiscia, an 18 year old from New Jersey, laments about automatically depositing all her pay checks into her 'HITS' fund. HITS is a major horse show with multiple locations throughout the country which costs an average of $1500 per week to compete in. Though her parents pay for her horse's board and lessons, Cecilia puts all the money she makes toward the costs of going to HITS for one week. When she needed to buy a new saddle (which averages around $2000), Cecilia worked 6 days a week during the summer as both a camp counsellor and secretary at the barn's front desk.
For others who are less privileged, their pay checks go toward more basic expenses such as having a horse at all.
SMILE AND SWEEP
Rebecca Kaplan (15), laughs as she pauses sweeping the barn aisle. Part of her job as a groom is to keep the main area free of dirt and hay that horses and riders track in.
Gwynneth O'Donnell, 18, also worked multiple jobs so that she could have a horse for just three months. Having to pay for most of her lessons, equipment, and a large portion of boarding fees herself, Gwynneth worked anytime she could- picking up shifts from anyone and working at summer camp, as a groom, and at the front desk.
However long, sweaty, dusty, and frustrating the days are, riders feel that the rewards are more than worth it. The dirty work that comes with horse care is considered part of the experience, and something that equestrians don't shy away from. It's not at all uncommon to see a rider step in manure, shrug, and move on; nor to walk around with a layer of dust covering their skin. Washing poop stains off a horse's coat is just part of life, as is bending over constantly while changing an injured animal's bandages or to clean up their stall. Women with lean bodies easily heft heavy tack into their arms and carry it across the stable to tack up, then hoisting it above their head to place it on a tall horse's back.
THE DAILY GRIND
Jane Hilsenrath (19) helps a young student lead her pony to the ring. Jane works up to 6 days per week as a groom and acting as an assistant trainer at the barn's summer camp.
Rebecca Kaplan (15) cleans up after Misty- a horse she's about to school. Rebecca is frequently asked to work horses that are either acting up or are simply not getting the exercise they need.
Even actually riding the horses, generally considered the highlight of time spent at the barn, is no piece of cake. Riding is a very physically and mentally taxing activity that requires leg and core strength, extreme body control, and mental fortitude.
Some people will be asked to ride up to five horses in day, adding up to about 3 hours of physical activity.
Certain horses are more difficult than others. "I'm going to die today." Rebecca Kaplan jokes as she leads Misty, an easily spooked thoroughbred mare, to the arena. Some horses are more nervous than others, and bolting, rearing, or spinning away can get a rider an unexpected date with the ground. Falls can result in anything from mild soreness to broken bones, concussions, or, in extreme situations, fatalities.
ALL THE LOVE
Though, it is often the difficult horses that teach you the most. Riders of course start out on so called 'push-button' horses so that they are able to hone their own skills and athleticism. After what is often multiple years of training, a rider can move on to working on a horse's skills rather than their own.
For many, this is more rewarding than jumping higher or winning blue. Cecilia Pandiscia reminisces about her former horse, Charles, saying "I put so much work into him and everyone knew that. They knew that I rode him and worked with him and made him into the horse he was. He made me into the rider I am."
Of course, the very thing that makes horseback riding such an amazing sport to be involved in also makes it one of the most difficult. Unlike a soccer ball or hockey stick, horses are living creatures with minds of their own.
Chloe Cosenza (19) smiles as her horse, Hope, licks her face. Chloe got her as a 'green' (not fully trained) youngster and took great pride in developing the mare's skills. "So proud of this mare and our progress" she said in an instagram caption.
For many equestrians, their horse becomes one of their best friends, and a deep bond is forged through silent communication and long hours spent together.
Losing an equine partner is far worse than any long day, broken bone, or last place. "It's different than having a pet. I felt like I lost of piece of me." said Cecilia Pandiscia of her horse Sir Charles, or Charlie. In the days following his unexpected death, Cecilia found herself unable to walk past his stall or collect his tail, which had been cut off as a memento.
Rebecca Kaplan also lost her horse, Pashi, though the situation differed greatly from Cecilia's. Passion had a longstanding injury which the vet discovered could not be rehabilitated and was causing the mare pain. "It was the kindest thing we could've done for her," said Rebecca's mother. Many riders have to make this decision for their horse's as their are many injuries horses can suffer which can healed in other animals, but not horses. Horse's cannot use a wheelchair or crutches, and remain on their feet for the vast majority of their lifetime. Limbs cannot be amputated and unfortunately the kindest thing in many situations is to put the animal to rest.
Rebecca Kaplan (15) spends quiet time with her horse Pashi in the days before the mare was to be put down due to a chronic injury.
A rider's locker hangs open in the tack room, revealing their own equipment along with their horse's.
"It just sucks," said Rebecca, of Pashi, "we were supposed to do so much more together."
It is a testament to the maturity than riding instills in people that these young adults can deal with such intense issues and cope with them. "But I know that if she hadn't died I wouldn't have gotten Metro" said Rebecca when speaking about her current horse. "And he's so great so it's good and bad I guess."
As she brushes her new horse Booji, Cecilia reflects on all she's learned from being involved in the sport for over half her lifetime. "I've learned a lot of maturity and responsibility that most people don't learn until they're a lot older than I am."
Cecilia Pandiscia (18) laughs as her horse Charles pulls funny faces as he's groomed. Charlie died suddenly and unexpectedly in August of 2018, leading to Cecilia taking a break from horse ownership for a couple months.
GRAB YOUR GEAR
Despite the heartbreak that can come from working with these delicate animals, equestrians are highly dedicated the sport and find leaving their boots behind to be much more difficult than say, hanging up soccer cleats. "Riding makes me who I am." said Cecilia.
Involvement with the sport doesn't end when riders leave the barn. Almost every equestrian has a photo of their horse as their phone background, and their bedroom walls are plastered with ribbons and photos. Closets and dresser drawers are filled with breeches and athletic tops. During the summer, a rare beach trip has girls laughing at the stark difference in paleness of their arms compared to their legs.
Throughout all four seasons, equestrians wear breeches with knee high socks. The socks prevent the pants from riding up inside the knee high boots, technically called field boots but more often referred to as 'tall boots'.
A rider's locker hangs open in the tack room, revealing their own equipment alongside their horse's.
When schooling at home during the summer, riders wear athletic tops similar to those a runner would wear, tucked into their breeches with a belt. For competitions however, dress code requires a similar look below the waist, but a button up, dress-style shirt underneath a blazer-style show coat. Accessories include wrap collars that go up to the chin and gloves, with hair neatly tucked up into a hairnet.
The height of show season is during the summer, and riders will usually wait until the last possible second to put on their show coat. Traditionally, these coats were made of wool but new technology has thankfully made more lightweight and breathable materials for both show shirts and coats. In cases of extreme heat, competition officials will waive coats and riders will just wear their show shirts, but oftentimes competitors are forced to endure the heat.
But through the literal blood, sweat, and tears, equestrians cite time spent at the barn with their horse and 'barn friends' as some of the best.
COMPETITION HEATING UP
Amanda Leone (15) takes a drink of water in between jumping rounds at summer horse show on a 90+ degree day
Show team captains Cecilia and Rebecca (15 and 18) crack up as their trainer's horse, Brasil, nips at Cecilia's collar during team photos.
One only has to spend a short while in a barn to learn that there is so much more to the sport than the athletic aspect of it. The immense amount of effort that equestrian's put into caring for their horse, their equipment, and honing their craft is immediately apparent when you speak to someone involved in the sport.
The goal of this photo essay was to showcase the hard work that this group of people put into their passion, work that so many people are either ignorant to or don't believe exists. I can only hope that readers now understand that there is so much more to the sport than a horse that does all the work and fancy equipment. There is love, dedication, skill, grime, sweat, tears, and soul that comes together to build an amazing community- one I am proud to be a part of.