Several years and jobs ago, on an early weekday morning, midway through mucking, shortly before my fifth cup of coffee, and after a hearty breakfast comprised of a single fruit found abandoned in the tack room refrigerator, (barn fridge is an altar of sacrifice, you leave it, I’ll eat it) a new client sauntered into the barn.
I think I smelled her before I saw her, and she smelled expensive. It was that exotic unicorn Lilly, endangered species tested, Chanel approved, blood diamond expensive. I startled her by involuntarily cough/dry gagging on stall dust. She looked genuinely frightened, clutching at her tennis bracelets defensively while asking if I was “alright?”
She used that guidance counselor/social worker “I can HELP you” voice and I realized, to her, I likely resembled a woman recently released from an underground apocalypse bunker after 12 years of cult captivity.
I hadn’t looked in the mirror yet that morning, but could only assume the situation was grave. After we’d established I wasn’t in need of the American Red Cross and that her riding instructor would be there momentarily, we parted ways. Her perfume hung in the air long after she was gone. I tried to recall a time when I walked out of a room leaving a lingering scent of anything other than horse turds and Thrush Buster. I could not.
This prompted the question—what must it be like to be “that girl”?
We all know the type, that woman who has it together, all of the time. Her silken hair is always clean and free of farm particles. Her nails are meticulously polished and devoid of Cheeto residue, she can wear lipstick without smearing it all over her teeth, hands, sleeves and husband. Her clothes are always fashion forward, drape her svelte form like fine art and are never worn more then once. She accessorizes.
She smells good and her white shoes have NO sign of fecal matter on them.
Women like this can’t be real and I’ve always comforted myself with the fantasy that under that impossibly sterile exterior, there is something really sinister going on.
I’ll probably never know for sure, but in the years since that barn encounter I’ve picked up a few life hacks, beauty regimens and cosmetic wisdom that fellow horsewoman use when attempting to be female. We may never achieve that level of Kardashian perfection, but damnit, no one is more creative or resourceful than a horsewomen.
A Morning Ritual
I assume “normal” women wake up and shower, but you don’t have time for that noise, it’s 4:30 a.m., the horses are hungry, you’re hungover and at some point last night you probably splashed some water on yourself. Good enough for government work.
On the upside you still have some residual makeup on! You look like the crow in a wig. You tone that look down with your sleeve as you mainline coffee and cry softly.
There are several hairstyles equestrians have adopted out of convenience and necessity. My personal favorite is the “dreadlock knot.” This fun, practical look is achieved by refusing to brush your hair, bunching it into a pom-pom-like softball and securing it with an elastic hair tie… or twine, or plaiting bands, or Vetrap, to the top of your head. The dreadlock knot can be moved to different sections of your scalp to accommodate a helmet.
Another popular style is the “Elsa braid.” It’s a side braid, and is useful for collecting straw. Some benefits to this look are you don’t need to modify when wearing a helmet. Sometimes your horse thinks it’s a fun treat and will literally try to swallow the entire braid.
A close cousin of the Elsa braid is the “side pony.” Chapstick is a magnetic attractant for this edgy style and riding in the wind becomes a cute little struggle for survival.
A crowd favorite for those who gallop Thoroughbreds is the “Brett Michaels”—you simply wrap your head in a dirty bandana that lives in your helmet. This popular look not only keeps the hair and sweat out of your eyes, but is also rumored to keep your helmet from getting too “gamey.”
You don’t really know if this is true because your Brett rag only gets washed if it can stand up of its own volition.
For the most seasoned and road weary equestrian, we have the “full native”—this bold look is for those special ladies who have just given up all together. No more washing, brushing or pesky hair ties…just let yourself go. These women have seen it all and have zero expletives left to give. The horses don’t care and that’s all that really matters anyway, am I right?
HA HA HA Work in the horse industry long enough, and you too can have leather for a face!
Occasionally you’ll catch a little residual horse ointment of some kind. Use it as moisturizer, it probably won’t give you cancer.
Keratex is an amazing nail varnish that strengthens and promotes growth. It also smells like Armageddon.
Thrush remedies are effective for infections under the nails. Seriously.
Farrier tools can be used to trim/remove acrylic nails. The late legendary blacksmith “Tater” Pruitt demonstrated this when forcibly removing my “claws.” At 16, I was an unwilling participant, yet was impressed with the skill involved and relieved to still have fingertips after nippers were utilized where the rasp had failed.
Horse bathing products are a cheap and effective alternative to expensive salon brands. We’ve all seen Mane ‘n Tail brand shampoo and conditioner at the local drug store. There is a reason.
Another great product is “Showsheen”—a little goes a long way with this this one. Unless you want to look like a greasy member of Iron Maiden, be conservative.
For the blondes out there, a vast selection of whitening shampoos are available. Beware the bright white, however. The purple hue of this shampoo is an effective brightening agent… for HORSES. Do not assume your freshly lightened plumage and FACE won’t absorb the color purple. A week before your best friend’s wedding. Because IT WILL.
Puffy eyes? A small dab of liniment gel massaged onto the eyelids will get you back to racing shape in no time. Be warned, if you rub it beneath or into your eyeball you will immediately regret your entire life. And then you’ll go blind. You know what? Don’t put liniment on your face.
Many of the everyday products you use in the barn can be used effectively on yourself. The only real way to discover what works is by trying them ALL. Just remember you can’t win if you don’t play and warning labels are for dudes.
Evening Beauty Regimen
It’s been another one of those “longest days of your life” at the barn. You’ve been tarred and feathered with sweat and dirt. You don’t want to take your boots off because then you’ll have to look at what once were your feet. Shavings and hay particles that you’ve unknowingly collected throughout the day flutter to the floor as you peel off your clothes.
There is grain in your bra. You consider it a natural exfoliator.
Your tan looks pretty great, but immediately washes off in the shower, because it is dirt. After your initial rinse cycle, you create the ultimate antioxidant bath marinade with leftover Epsom salts from your barn’s chronic little abcessor and some liniment you found in the wash stall.
Sinking into the water, you reflect on all you did that day, each sore muscle telling a different story. There are other lifestyles, and there are other jobs, but you? You get to spend your days among giants.
You may never be one of those women that perpetually smell of lilacs and have poop-free hair, but look at what you had to start with. In the irreverent words of James Baldwin, “Know from whence you came. If you know whence you came, there are absolutely no limitations to where you can go.”
We came from the barn James, and now we are going to bed.
Alice Peirce was raised as a self-described “feral horse farm child” in Howard County, Md. She’s made efforts to leave the horse world over the years but always comes back and has worked for a number of people in various disciplines. Currently she’s riding young racehorses and training foxhunters in Monkton, Md., where she hunts with the Elkridge-Harford Hunt.