5:40 am—that's when I wake most days. It's dark, cool and quiet aside from the rustle of long-bladed grass against the end of the trailer and the occasional jangle of horses nudging their stall doors. If I'm feeling ambitious, I'll actually do my morning stretches. A breakfast of soaked oats, a cup of a peculiar but comfortingly earthy mushroom-based concoction that could almost pass for coffee if you had no tastebuds at all, and perhaps, an outdoor shower with a breathtaking view over a pasture out to the ocean. A shame I can't appreciate the view with my glasses off. The sky is brightening, the underbellies of clouds streaked in creamy pinks and oranges. Clean the dishes so that the occasional trickles of ants don't become rivers, grab the ice packs from my freezer for the carrot cooler, and it's off to work.
Three ponies in one of the upper paddock watch my every action as I step out the sliding door. Liberty, Early, and the dumpy, notorious food hound: Applejack. It takes about 45 seconds to reach the little plastic shed where their breakfast has been portioned out into buckets by the prior day's shift. Dump the buckets, pour more food—the amount varies depending on the horse or pony—and walk through the upper paddocks to check the water troughs.
Now it's time for the main barn. The horses hear me coming and their doors clatter as they poke their heads out. Some are talking to each other in nickers and whinnies. Down the side closest to me, it's Eden, Raina, Marcus, Warado, and Moku Nui out in the small arena with his specially soaked alfalfa cubes. Then the other side: Moon, April, and Grant—if his mom hasn't already popped out from the house on the property to serve him breakfast. Some of them politely wait as I empty the bucket. Most stuff their heads out the feed window and try to inhale the bucket's contents as though this is their last meal.
Down the hill to the lower paddock occupied by Elvis, Scout, and Toby. Three medium-sized black and white pintos (that means their coats are patches of white and another color). The water troughs at the lower paddock take long enough to fill that I can feed the trio and refill their buckets while the hose runs. Elvis bullies his companions from the first feed bin then the second every morning, regardless of which bin I fill first.
Now it's time for the real work: cleaning. The horses that now occupy the main barn have a clockwork routine: breakfast, paddock, lunch in the day barn and stalls, then dinner at the end of the day in the main barn. Some will be trained or ridden for lessons in the different arenas. I like to think of myself as the housekeeping crew for a quality horse hotel.
Usually, I knock out as much of the day barn as I can before the light fades on the day before. These stalls are comparatively clean since the horses only spend a few hours in them each day. My weapon of choice is a manure fork, which acts more or less like a cat-litter scoop on a much larger scale. Soiled coffee skins (which I thought were wood chips until today) and manure are discarded into large plastic muck buckets. Meal remnants are also chucked into the buckets. Water troughs that have gotten dirty or sat too long are dumped, cleaned, and refilled. The stalls are checked for hazards such as large splinters. A stall can take anywhere from a few minutes to fifteen to clean, depending on the horse's disposition on a given day. Once the stalls are cleaned, it's time to grab more coffee skins from the shed and make sure each stall has a fresh pile of them in the corner for the next cleaning shift.
Finishing the day barn before the horses have been moved out to their paddocks means a short break back at the trailer. The sun is up and the air is warming. Clear, bright days bring a stuffy heat to the barns and arenas. Thankfully, the stalls are all shaded from direct sun, but it's a race to finish as early in the day as possible.
As housekeeping, Moon is my problem mare. She is a beautiful big horse, and she makes a very big, very not beautiful mess. She is the reigning queen of disorder at the barn: an artiste without peer. Judging by her trough, she comes into her freshly cleaned stall each evening, proceeds to chug 5-10 gallons of water, empties her bladder, adds some manure for style, then churns the chips in her stall into a fine puree over the course of the night. As her denouement, she drools prodigiously as she eats her breakfast with her face halfway out the stall, icing everything in range with semi-liquefied alfalfa cubes. She is also a complete sweetheart who is blind in her left eye and acts as a surrogate mother to Raina.
By 10 or 11, work is done. The stalls have been cleaned, dust and hay have been blown from the walkways around the main barn, empty feed buckets have been refilled with alfalfa cubes, and it's off to the trailer or whatever adventure is waiting that day.
Those are the basics. It's a seemingly simple job with a surprising level of complexity. Easy to do, but challenging and demanding to do well, just like any job. Coordination, strength, and stamina are all required, but each stall and horse has its quirks, and numerous other details must be kept in mind to work quickly and efficiently. It's easy to make mistakes like forgetting to shut off a hose. Not that I've ever done that or anything.