The Tao of Stall Cleaning


Tao is a Chinese word signifying 'way', 'path', or 'route', or sometimes more loosely, 'doctrine' or 'principle'. Within the context of traditional Chinese philosophy and religion, the Tao is the intuitive knowing of "life" that cannot be grasped full-heartedly as just a concept but is known nonetheless through actual living experience of one's everyday being.

So what does an ancient Chinese philosophy have to do with cleaning the stalls of horses? After many hours spent trying to solve mental problems and road blocks while cleaning stalls, I'm starting to actually think it has a lot more in common than most may think or see at first.

I've been trying to teach him to clean his own stall, so far our attempts have been futile at best

If you own, love, work with, or train, show horses, you have more than likely come in contact with cleaning stalls. You may do it yourself or you may pay someone to do it, but either way, your show horse has probably had their stall cleaned many, many times in its life. Recently, a few "Looking For Work" ads have caught my eye in the cutting horse world, and they've all said "not too proud to clean a stall." Which, at first may seem a little redundant, if you work with horses you have to clean stalls, what does that have to do with "pride"? But, in reality, if you dig into it a little, it isn't as cut and dry as one may think.

One of my first jobs in the horse world consisted of cleaning 30 stalls, that had to be pristine when I was done with them. Let me tell you, that is some back breaking work, day in and day out, especially in the winter hauling waste out and shavings back in to the barn from outside. Many barns are lucky enough to have stall cleaners, whose sole responsibility is to keep the barn and stalls clean and in working order. Many show barns i've been too don't turn out their horses every day, and as such, their stall cleaners will clean stalls 2-3 times a day to make sure they stay as clean as possible. This is much more common in the States than up here in Canada, where many Canadian lopers find themselves also being the stall cleaners, or starting out in stall cleaning roles and going up the ranks from there. No matter which side of the border you lay your hat, or if you have a stall cleaner at home, if you are on the road going to overnight shows, chances are you as a loper will be cleaning stalls as part of your roles and responsibilities. Let me tell you how I feel about the concept of being "too proud to clean a stall". If I were to bring someone to a show, and have them turn their nose up at the thought of cleaning a stall, no matter how good they were on horseback, that person would be heading home on the bus. It's as simple as that in my mind.

Tucking Lady into Bed for the Night
That brings me to the concept of the Trainer or Client cleaning stalls. I have had many clients that prefer to clean their own stalls, or are happy to help clean the stalls of the horses that we have brought to shows. At the same time, I've had other clients that don't offer to help. In my mind, if you pay a lot of money to have your horse in training, you do not have to clean your own stalls unless you want too, that is part in parcel for the monthly training bill and show bills you pay. As a trainer, if you have honed your skills enough to be able to have horses in training and pay employees, then you definitely don't have to clean stalls. In a way, you have graduated from that level. But, this is where that pride thing comes in again, if you are too proud to clean a stall, to lend a hand when your employee desperately needs the help, that's a bit of a different situation entirely.

I remember a time with a previous boss where a high maintenance client demanded she clean her own stalls at shows because she felt we took too many shavings out, however she did a terrible job. Later on, after the client had left, I came around the corner to see my boss cleaning her three stalls over again. I told her that she had already done them, and her response was "not good enough." She shrugged as she picked through the waste and said, "Look, she doesn't want to pull all the urine out because she wants to save money on shavings, but that's not how I do things around here. Stalls have to be clean at all times. We ask so much from these animals, and then to return them to a dirty stall is unacceptable to me." She continued, "It doesn't have to be a big thing, and I'll use my own shavings from my turn back horse if I need too, and I also don't want you to have to deal with it, so i'll just do it." She showed me then that she wasn't too proud to clean a stall, and paid enough attention to her operation that even small tasks such as that were important to her. More over, the entire story shows that her horses health and comfort was the most imperative thing to her, before anything else.

All this pride talk aside, there is another few key aspects to stall cleaning that can't be overlooked. You can learn a lot about a horse by what you find in their stall in the morning. If there's no manure, that may show signs the horse is colicing. If you have a horse that is very consistent in how they "keep their house", and all of a sudden it's changed, that may reflect upon something as well. If the horse was clearly restless and pawing and pacing all night, that may effect them during the day. What about how much water they've had to drink? If they finished all their hay, or if they pawed through it? There are so many insights in your horses activity the night before that you can glean from a stall.

Too Tired to Horse Today, Human, Maybe Another Time
Furthermore, like I alluded too earlier, I find I can solve a lot mentally while I'm cleaning stalls. It's the peacefulness of the earning morning, just you and the horses in the barn, where you can fully engrossed in your own mind as you go through your stalls. I often can think of blog posts, visualize my day, and how I want it to go, or my show runs, and how I want those to go, while i'm cleaning stalls. I can "solve world problems" as it were, as I quietly go through a task that is so key in our horses comfort. While i'm in those stalls, I am also with the horses, and you find out the small things about them that you wouldn't while riding him. This horse loves having his neck scratched, another is younger and a little wary of your rake, go slower, bond with them a little during the process.

So, if you grappling with some issues that you haven't solved yet through cups of coffee and conversation, why not go grab a fork and clean a stall, it might help. If you are questioning how your trainer is treating your horse, or their employees, be more observant at the next show. Is he, or she, around to lend a helping hand if needed, not even really to help the employee, but to ensure that your horse is getting the absolute best care they can receive? You can have won all the millions in the world, but if you don't care about how your horses are being treated and the care they're receiving at even the smallest level, then maybe there's some darker issues at play there.

Now, let's bring it back to my own situation. In any given day, we find ourselves very, very busy at our operation. I also find I am not the fastest stall cleaner in the world, there's no shame in my stall cleaning game, but it may take me thirty minutes longer than the next person. Hiring a stall cleaner has helped relieve atleast one to two hours out of our day to focus on the training and riding of our horses. It has been a big help, and not only that, it lessens even a little bit the physical aspect of what we do. So, if like me, you are lucky enough to have someone that comes to clean your stalls, and keeps your barn clean, tell them thank you, and that you appreciate them. They deserve it. Finally, if you are "too proud" to clean a stall, maybe you should go ahead and check yourself. Just saying.

Rewards of Stall Cleaning, Two Year Old Kisses

Comments

  1. I find this so important... stewardship matters.

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  2. As a former "professional" stall cleaner, I agree with you. It not only is important for the horse's health, it gives you time to think and helps keep fit when you have 30 or so stalls to clean. I worked at 2 different thoroughbred barns and a reining barn. Just being in a job that was all about horses was wonderful and I sure enough kept fit between mucking, feeding and fixing. Never did get to do any of the riding though. :(

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  3. Stall cleaning is about as close to raking a zen garden as I'll ever get ;) Chats with barn friends while cleaning stalls have solved all the problems in our worlds.

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  4. I am with you if anyone who has a horse is too proud to clean a stall (or anything else related) they need to give thier head a shake, it all starts at the bottom. That was my job for a couple years and it was good we had a couple of us and we had some pretty deep conversations while stall cleaning.

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  5. feeding and fixing. Never did get to do any of the riding though. :(


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