If you hate yourself enough to claw out a career in the horse industry, chances are, at some point you will find yourself too broke to afford independent housing. You know, the kind of housing with hot water, electric, heating and air conditioning and—dare I say it—a washer and dryer?
Those lofty prerequisites will be drop kicked aside out of sheer desperation and starvation after your first paycheck is cashed as a horse slave. Suddenly your formerly elitist living standards become simplified and your search engine goes from “two-bedroom loft, horse board included” to “box stall with cot and mini fridge.”
Once your unrealistic standards have been mercilessly torn from you, your options inevitably broaden. You flip through promising employment adds in your local equestrian classifieds. You make a list of phone numbers and copies of your extensive resume. How could potential employers deny a former dog walking, diner waitress, beauty school drop-out, bartending 18-year-old with ADHD, who grew up with horses, but never really wanted to pursue a career in them until last week?!
Furthermore, what kind of jerk wouldn’t want that kind of natural disaster living on their property for the foreseeable future? “This will be a proverbial breeze!” you tell yourself as you skip out of your parents’ house, armed with your FLAWLESS resume and idiotic optimism. You throw the keys in the ignition and head off to your first interview, blissfully ignorant of what a crap covered hell path of employment you have chosen. Everyone starts somewhere… many of us start here.
The first job you take (after numerous rejections) is by all outward appearances too good to be true. You have yet to learn all that glitters isn’t always gold. You have yet to be told “You can spray paint a turd, but get close enough, it’ll still smell like s#%¥.” Unfortunately, like every other lesson in life, you’ll insist on learning this the hard way.
You should have known something was amiss when the first words you’re greeted with upon arrival are, “Damn Brad, you told me she was ugly!” The stout, 60-something, unshaven creep of a man smacks the shoulders of the landscaper standing next to him who is mouthing something to you silently. You don’t quite catch it…but thinking back on it, he was probably saying “RUN.”
The farm is gorgeous, the climate-controlled indoor arena has rubber footing and surround sound. The barn is heated, and features an aquatherapy center. The property has tennis courts, and indoor pools. The apartment you are offered is exquisite. To a more trained eye, it was the perfect spiderweb of a farm, ideal for luring young horse idiots like yourself.
You have the equivocal judgment of a greedy toddler eagerly climbing into the back of a stranger’s van after hearing of the puppies swimming in candy within. Way to go champ. Your parents will claim to have raised you better than this… but you were always great at proving those well meaning idiots wrong.
You don’t notice the cameras in your apartment for a few weeks.
You learn horse cremation is a thing when 20 lbs of expired horse dust, contained in an open cardboard box labeled “Tina” falls from a tack room shelf onto your head and into your open mouth. I like to think I still carry a little bit of “Tina” with me every day considering how much of her I may have ingested.
You find out your new boss (who we will call Steve) does not ride horses, nor have any experience with them, and may or not be in the witness protection program. Steve in fact, is horrified of horses and purchases a mini pony from some “trailer people” in an attempt to help calm his irrational fears. This theory backfires however, when it is soon discovered that the mini, affectionately called Princess, is actually a violent serial rapist, and tasked with her care, you become her favorite target.
Several times a week you find yourself fighting tooth and claw to scramble from her field, her tiny pony hooves clamped firmly around your waist, squealing enthusiastically as you punch her in the head. The landscapers next door cheer you on with encouragement and laughter from the roofs of their trucks. They finally applaud when you manage to throw yourself through the fence, making a harrowing escape.
A few months into “Orange Is The New Black mini horse edition” an ex-girlfriend of Steve’s shows up and takes most of the riding horses away. (Leaving Princess, to your horror.) That same week you’re awakened at 2 a.m. by the sound of gunfire and discover your naked, mole-covered boss running down the driveway from his house firing a hand gun indiscriminately at invisible trespassers. You move out the next morning, breaking up with Princess on your way out. You promise you’ll write to her.
A few years later, after you’ve discovered you’re bad at pretty much everything else, you return to the horse classifieds. The first job with housing turns out to be haunted as HELL, and though you consider yourself to be a fairly grounded individual, you quickly move in with a boyfriend before anymore spirits try to sit next to you in bed.
Inevitably you find yourself single again (brutally dumped) and in need of a fresh start and fresh housing.
The first ad you respond to is pretty far away but advertised as a horse farm management position with housing included. Seems innocent enough to you.
What an idiot. After the guy who placed the add exposes himself to you by peeing from the seat of a backhoe used in his illegal shale operation, a woman appears and offers you a tour of the farmhouse where you would call home if you chose to take the job. You are an idiot, but you are a polite idiot, so you agree to be lead inside the Manson family home.
The room you are offered is actually an attic crawl space, complete with a stained mattress and a door that locks from the outside. “Soooo nice,” you whimper as she explains that her husband is a very “sensual” man and she hoped you weren’t one of those “prudes.” You’ve almost made it back out the front door when, yup you guessed it, sex offender backhoe Manson reappears and offers you a seat for your formal interview.
At this point you’ve pretty much accepted the fact that the rest of your short life will be spent in a silence of the lambs-style captivity situation, so you oblige and take a seat at the kitchen table. He pulls from his pocket a non-disclosure agreement that forbids you from reporting any of the activities of the farm to the appropriate authorities. Scribbled at the bottom is something about sexual harassment suits, which he explains had something to do with “the last girl we had.”
You refuse to sign it. The smartest thing you’ll do that day. You realize you haven’t seen a single horse yet. And you ask about it, hoping to go back outside, potentially giving yourself an opportunity to run screaming back to your truck. You’ve been sizing them up and you’re pretty sure the wife has bad knees so the odds are probably in your favor. They explain to you that the job would mostly be for cattle, they placed the ad when their horses were still “alive.”
They go on to explain that they can’t have any more children and would love to find someone to join their family and possibly provide babies for them. You would be compensated by sharing in the illegal shale profits. “Young lady, you’re sitting on a million, maybe two million bucks worth of tax-free shale,” your captors explain in earnest. “I’m also the best lover in the county. Ask ANYONE,” adds backhoe Manson, leaning back in his chair.
You explain that you, regrettably are late for another job interview and must get going, promising to call them if it doesn’t work out. “I hope it falls though,” Mrs. Manson says smiling wistfully as you trip down the steps and onto the dusty lawn, breaking into a swift jog and saluting a hasty goodbye.
Needless to say, after hugging your dog in the shower for 35-40 minutes, you impulsively accept the next job you’re offered. This time it’s a woman on the line, who assures you she doesn’t care about your resume, because “you’ll either work out or you won’t.” She gives you an address and before hanging up informs you she can’t be there because she doesn’t have the patience, but that her brother would meet with you since you two “would be neighbors.” Click.
If you hadn’t almost just become an attic-dwelling, well loved polygamist baby brooder, you would have probably been put off by the call. However, considering you had just escaped from the set of Camp Crystal Lake, you decide to push your luck and head off to meet with “the brother.”
The gravel driveway crunches under your tires as the picturesque farm comes into view. “I think this might be our new home, buddy,” you tell your waterlogged dog who’s pouting at you from passenger seat. You see a beautiful farmhouse, a big red barn and a small blue shed. The buildings are older but lovingly maintained. So far so good. “HELLOOOH!” You fear-pee a little as a squirrelly man with Coke bottle glasses appears from the ether and throws a law like hand through your open window in greeting. “You here to see the cottage?”
You manage to tell him meekly that you are, and he laughs in your face. “Hope you aren’t picky,” he says, ripping your truck door from your death grip and leading you toward the small blue shed. He kicks open the apparently sticky front door. “Home sweet home.” The shed is small but surprisingly homey, a large stone fireplace takes up the majority of the wall opposite you, and a tiny winding staircase leads up to a loft-like second floor bedroom. The lower level even boasted a tiny bathroom and kitchenette and appeared to be freshly painted. The shed, in its entirety was about 350 square feet.
“I’ll take it!”
The shed was devoid of any furniture with the exception of a moldy blue couch hosting a small mouse settlement in its upholstery. Your new neighbor offers you the couch as a housewarming gift, but you politely protest and he offers to help move it. “How kind,” you think, lifting one side as he grabs the other, generations of mice families toppling out of the cushions grabbing for their children and sprinting like pilgrims towards the new America that is the kitchen.
Once outside he directs you towards a red outbuilding in front of the barn, through a large barn door and up a steep flight of steps. You are on the higher end of the mouse couch and are walking/being shoved backwards up the steps by the strange man on the other side of the couch. You are reminded of the scene where Buffalo Bill used similar tactics to abduct his own blonde skin suit. Once you’ve both summited, you help to clear a spot for the couch and prepare yourself for murdering.
When this doesn’t happen, you return to the shed and start the process of cleaning and moving in, making this adorable new space a home. About a month after moving in, you decide to write a social media post reflecting on the previous four weeks of your life in the shed. The post reads as follows:
My life is a fairytale. I live in a beautiful cottage on a farm, surrounded by flowers and ponies, birds, honeybees, and puppies. In the morning I wake up to nature, literally in my house.
These woodland creatures don’t assist me with my clothing, sing to me or braid my hair. Instead they fly around my room screeching angrily until they are stunned with a pillowcase and flung outside. The squirrels, instead of zipping me up and applying lip gloss, make their bachelor pads in my walls… Literally right next to my bed so that I can hear them making their babies at night and exuberantly gnawing through my ceiling. The mice don’t serenade me OR tie bows. Instead they make shredded underwear nests in my drawers to have their babies in.
The “honeybees” are, in actuality, horrifying black wasps that live under my siding and let themselves inside to torture me as often as possible. Fortunately they’ve worked it out with the squirrels that they cover nighttime torture shift, and the wasps take care of the day so that I’m NEVER EVER alone.
Of course every Disney princess has her trusted animal sidekick—Ariel had her crab, Pocohontas had her raccoon, Jasmine her tiger and I have my buck-toothed, laundry defecating, chronically regurgitating, smelly, vindictive, yet charming puggle.
The gallant steed I ride does not respond to song, he does not kneel for me to mount him, he bites the holy crap out of me and runs happily far and fast in the opposite direction if he doesn’t immediately detect carrots or bribery mints. My prince charming doesn’t ride a white stallion. He doesn’t wear riding britches or boots and fancy jackets. Actually it’s not unusual for him to wear nothing at all, hang out on my couch and eat ice cream out of the carton.
At night the pack of friendly farm dogs become a vicious pack of hungry wolves and hunt me on my way from my truck to the house. Sometimes I have the presence of mind to pack throwing ham to distract them whilst I make my escape into the cottage. I’m often dirty and poo-encrusted, there is often hay in my hair and pockets, I’m often exhausted, often yelling, often exasperated, but often genuinely overall very happy with my dirty Disney princess life. Couldn’t and wouldn’t have it any other way. *heart emoji *heart emoji* horse emoji*
In truth you loved that cottage shed, even though the post was written before winter and long before the discovery that hot water was only possible when a fire was built in the basement of the yellow farmhouse by your kind, if not neglectful landlord. If cold water spring-fed showers in the dead of winter weren’t harsh enough, the fact that the bathroom had zero insulation in both the walls and flooring made it all the more cringe-worthy.
It wasn’t unusual for the shower curtain to freeze to the side of the tub. If you managed to stay in the shower long enough to wash the horse dirt off of yourself, your feet were in real danger of freezing to the tile floor upon exit. Not one to be defeated by such trivial details, you invent MacGyver worthy solutions.
First, you wedge a large electric metal heater between the toilet and sink, accepting the fire hazard over the prospect of frozen butt cheeks. You replace the light fixtures with reptilian heat lamps you found on sale at the local pet store. They are meant for lizards and are red, but who are you to complain. Want a luxurious heated floor? You find heated adhesive reptile mats at the same pet store and stick them all over the tile. The risk of electrocution is a small price to pay for warm feet after a hypothermia shower. As an unexpected bonus, you can even warm your towels on the oversized toilet heater adding just a touch more danger to the bathroom of death.
You also fail to mention to your social media audience that the charming winding staircase to the second floor absolutely prevents a mattress of ANY kind from going up them. Again, unfazed, you come up with an acceptable solution: two queen-sized air beds stacked, giving the illusion of a box spring and mattress! Your genius knows no bounds it seems—that is until winter comes and the space heater you’ve been using to stay alive burns a small hole in your inflatable box spring and the entire air bed folds up around you and your dog like a taco. You dig around frantically calling his name fearful he would be suffocated in the melting taco death mattress from which eventually he groggily emerges unharmed.
Fortunately for you, despite the struggles of tiny shed living, the boss woman on the phone, the brother, their family, fellow employees and an angry Mexican named Miguel become your family. Sticking it out was the best call you could have made. Additionally, finding a husband is as easy as forcing a 6’4″ bearded man to share 350 square feet with you and a small brown dog suffering from irritable bowel syndrome. Some say it’s Stockholm syndrome, you call it love.
You may someday eventually move to a house with hot water, insulation, pest control, Stearns and Foster mattresses and most decadent of all, a washer and dryer. But probably not. If you find yourself wading around in the exclusive niche market of horse job housing, chances are you’re going to need to be flexible, inventive, and have a good sense of humor.
Be ready to work hard, self-start and most importantly, have extremely low standards for personal quality of life. Be aware that living on-site means your bosses know your location at all times and won’t hesitate to walk in and drag you outside when needed, regardless of your pants status.
Look on the bright side, if you live on a working horse farm you won’t spend hardly any time inside your crappy housing at all—you’ll be too busy working. And if you think you’ll care where you rest your deliriously exhausted bruised and beaten body at night… don’t worry. You won’t.
A career in horses is optional. You could go to school, get a comfortable indoor office job with a 401k, health benefits and even a nice company car. You could buy a nice house and live a normal life. But you know better.
I think Springsteen says it best, “Tramps like us baby, we were born to run.”
* The misadventures recalled in this piece are authentic accounts of events experienced by the author.
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.