I’ve been horse crazy since the age of 8. By my middle school years I was hooked. Riding camp in the summer, weekly lessons during the year, as many hours at the barn as I could possibly beg out of my parents. The barn I rode at had a “little sisters” program during the summers –you learned about all aspects of horse care and management, as well as how to groom and prepare your horse properly for a horse show. Part of the program involved learning how to braid manes and tails for horse shows.
Side note: Braiding horses for shows is considered a traditional part of appropriate turnout for a show. It’s based in foxhunting, where braids were put in to prevent manes and tails from being caught on branches or in bushes. Since the hunter/jumper discipline of horse showing evolved from foxhunting, it’s considered respectful and appropriate to braid for big horse shows – it shows judges that you take all of it seriously – not just your riding, but the way you present your horse.
So, turns out that at 15, I had some aptitude for braiding. I was asked to help out at some of the horse shows that my barn went to during high school…but then didn’t braid for 25 years after high school.
I moved from Illinois to Massachusetts in 2008, and after living in MA for a year or so, my wife said that it might be really good for me to take some riding lessons again (that whole work/life balance thing). Smith has a barn, and lesson horses, so boom – I got back into it. The following year, I noticed that the local fairgrounds held several large horse shows every year, and I wondered if perhaps anyone needed braiding – after all, it must be like riding a bicycle, right?
I got some yarn, practiced on some mostly willing school horses, and proceeded to hang up a flyer at the fairgrounds advertising my business because being an SA pro comes with a mad set of flyer-making skills). I picked up some business! What a glorious thing! Extra money and more horse time!
Fast forward. A student of mine at Smith who rode on the equestrian team asked if I had ever thought to go braid in the Hudson Valley, at a large three-week series of shows in Saugerties. I had not, and she suggested that it might be a plentiful market for my work. So…like any good SA pro, I made more flyers, drove the hour and forty, and tried my luck in the big leagues (think…first time doing a campus wide program). Lo and behold, if you post flyers on porta potties…people will call you! This led to several years of flyer braiding at these shows and a few others…until 2013 when my flyer was seen by a professional braider, and she asked me to work for her. Which means I now work every weekend in the summer, a few in the fall, and I fly to Florida a few weekends in the winter. And wow is it lucrative (pays for my own horse, and all sorts of other things). And exhausting. And…time with horses.
A word here about braiders – the professional ones. These are folks that work 40ish weeks of the year on their ladders, living in RVs and hotel rooms, and following the show circuit (here in the northeast that means Florida to Vermont and back again). They work overnight, and the work has no set hours – you braid until the list is done. There’s no clocking out, no sick or vacation time, and no sympathy – the horses in your accounts need to be done no matter what. You work no matter the weather. Your car smells and resembles a barn. You eat whatever snacks you’ve thought to bring, and you make a REALLY great playlist. You are also part of a group of braiders that have long middle of the night conversations, trade accounts when necessary, help each other in a pinch, and feel a bit like a very dysfunctional family.
This side gig has given me another community, much like my Res Life community, but oh so very different. Braiders get no social justice training. They don’t worry about feelings or conflict or learning. They care about producing a great product in the shortest amount of time, and for making sure every horse is done on time. We have “earlies”, we have “lates” (aka: when they show), we have “adds” (last minute calls in the morning – Susie decided to show after all, can you braid her horse?), we have “scratches” (horses that they’ve decided not to show) we have “wigs” (fake tails added to horse’s real tails to give the illusion of big full long tails), we have “tie-ins” (fake tails added to real tails but without braiding the actual tail), we have lists and accounts and trainers and prize pigs (a horse at a small barn that is their big winner…do your best work!). We mostly braid in the color of the horse’s mane/tail (black, brown, grey), but we also love navy and purple and hunter green and sometimes even baby blue (pretty in a grey pony).
As a SA pro, our work is never done. Students have ongoing conflicts, they need advice, and they ask questions. One can never produce a perfect product – training can always be refined, staff meetings can be a bit more productive, a process can be streamlined. Braiding gives me the perfect counter to my Res Life work. The work ends. It has a start, a middle, and a finish. You know when you’ve produced excellence. You can see the fruits of your labor. There is immense satisfaction in four braiders getting a list of 56 horses done in a night, all on time, all looking awesome. You’re exhausted, famished, and your shoulders ache, but you’re done. It makes it easier to work with students and the myriad grey areas, and it gives me a chance to feel productive in a way that happens infrequently in my SA pro life. There are still parents though…and laughter, and tears, and free food.)