BY SARAH MASLIN NIR, THE RIDING REPORTER
The post popped up on my Facebook feed this week. Never mind that the un-sourced numbers it contained were not remotely true, a persistent meme that had been thoroughly debunked by the fact-checking website Snopes and others, it was who posted it.
A well-respected horse show judge, whose throwback taste in classic thoroughbred hunters and old-school horse sense I’ve long admired. And a person who has over the years worked alongside and with dozens of undocumented workers, to whom in some part they – and the entire sport – owes their success.
It’s the plain truth of the sport that it is entirely underpinned by immigrant labor, mostly Latino men drawn by the informal economy of cash pay and fact that with horses, language barriers are never an issue. Data does not exist for how many lack papers to be legally employed in the country. But in my 34 years in barns from San Francisco to the Hamptons, and in my investigations as a reporter for the New York Times into the darker side of the industry, I’ve met far more such grooms who are undocumented than are legally permitted to work.
The industry wants it that way: make no mistake about it, the sticker-shock you get at your board bill would be triplicate were the people who undergird the sport – the men who feed, longe, turn out, bring in, blanket, brush, watch over and sometimes medicate, your horse – not in part subsidizing your bill.
Paying rock-bottom wages to these grooms (not to mention demanding the industry standard six day work week) and free from costly and legally mandatory things like workers’ compensation insurance, employers falsely depress what it costs to keep horses. Yes, it is astoundingly expensive to keep horses; now just imagine your bill if grooms got overtime pay for the six or more days a week they frequently work (as the law requires). Or if employers routinely carried necessary insurances, or in a job where you can get tick borne-illness, tetanus, kicked and trampled, bosses provided their staff with health insurance.
In my investigation into labor exploitation in New York City nail salons for the Times, a yearlong project that was a finalist for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize, labor researchers told me time and time again, “Someone is paying the cost of your discount – and it’s usually the person who can least afford to.” That feels true even in our wildly expensive sport too.
As a reporter, I am not permitted to express an opinion about political issues, to be on one side or another. And I’m not doing that here. I felt prompted to write because the anti-immigrant post by the judge, and many others I have met in the sport, strikes me as out of step with the reality of their profession which relies on this population to survive. I was similarly struck by the bumper-sticker in support of deporting “illegals” on the Lincoln Navigator of a race-horse owner I met at Belmont Race Track in New York. I was there reporting on the death of a track worker. Interviewing grooms in the squalid, fetid track worker barracks, not one of the owner’s staff told me they possessed working papers.
Those who hire barn workers point out that this workforce often demands being off-the books; it enables circumventing taxes and employment law. That puts employers in a tough spot. But the shadow economy also leaves staff vulnerable to the whims of bosses, with little legal recourse. Few such grooms are aware of the fact that even if you do not have documentation to legally work in this country, you are entitled to minimum wage and can sue your employer in court for failure to compensate you fairly. Few feel empowered to speak up when treated poorly.
At stables, some grooms are given housing to supplement their low wages, employers point out. But they are often bunked in sub-standard lodging, firetraps built on top or behind barns, roomed with strangers they do not choose. A groom I know was attacked with a machete by a drunken colleague hired that week and shoved in with him in the trailer he lived at a New Jersey barn. But the victim did not seek appropriate ongoing medical attention. He could not afford it, and was afraid doctors would find out he was working in this country illegally. Today he still walks with a limp.
Grooms tell me they worry of I.C.E. raids like those that have blasted through the Saratoga racetracks, or cower at the farms on which they live, afraid to be stopped while driving. In the horse country of Bedminster, New Jersey, where farms sprawl beside Trump International Golf Course, Frank Mata, a groom who emigrated from El Salvador two decades ago, told me some workers have spent the administration holed up in the properties at which they work. “Some are afraid to go to supermarkets,” he said.
Employers say they can’t afford to pay more, and what’s more there is a dearth of documented workers willing to take the tough, dirty, underpaid ranch work – people who can legally work in this country, know they can make more, with benefits, far from a farm. Like the employers in my nail salon series, many stable owners say they are giving an unemployable population a shot. If that is their belief system, why not do so at federal minimum wage as is legally required?
The relationship breeds toxicity. Stable managers complain of no-show workers quitting on them, stealing from them, or being inept. But where are the safeguards against this burnout, like language or vocational learning – I can imagine an online Spanish language class offered by the United States Equestrian Federation – for grooms who want to stick in the industry, improve their skills and succeed? Where are the routes for these men that could transform the backbreaking labor of mucking into the launch pad of an equestrian career?
Walk on to any horse show grounds early enough and bear witness to a shift change from extreme underclass to extreme privilege. In the misty pre-dawn the majority of the people up and feeding or working the animals are brown-skinned men. As the sun rises, enter the trainers and riders who are majority white, just like the clients who arrive later.
Why does the script rarely flip? Where are the white employees or working-students standing in the center of a longe circle in the morning dark? Where are the Latino men who rose up from mixing bran-mash, were given the opportunity to become riders and trainers, schooling in the warm-up ring? And without them, where is equestrian sport?