Once you decide on a horse life, you learn pretty quickly that you’re going to need some financial support in order to pull it off. At 15, I was able to find summer and weekend work at a local Standardbred farm. With regular paychecks burning a hole in my pocket, I burned through the first couple at the local tack store, until mom and dad started giving me more financial responsibilities anyway. Years, and a few other jobs later, I finally thought, “well, if this is where my money is going to go, I may as well at least get a discount,” and applied at the same tack store I’d been shopping in. It wasn’t the most well thought out plan, if you’ve ever worked retail, you know it usually involves a lot of evenings and weekends. If you want to work in a tack store because of the discounts and doing a job that you’re really comfortable with, then chances are good, someone else thought of it too, and they’re also working there, and they’re competing for weekend time off requests just like you to go to shows. It seemed like a good idea at first?
Working there did have other benefits, apart from the discount. I learned a lot about the other disciplines, medicines and supplements, and customer service. The women I worked with were great, a mom, her two daughters, and a variety of other smart, funny horse women. I really enjoyed spending time with customers the most. Not every customer admittedly, but you have them everywhere. I loved the ones who you spend an hour or two with, maybe putting together outfits, debating bits, comparing whitening shampoos. Any customer who was genuinely appreciative of your help, when they’d smile and thank you after leaving the cash register, then come back the next week and tell you how everything worked out, those were my favorites. I loved building those relationships, learning about them, their horses, their lives, it all helped me take better care of them the next time they came in. You learned who wanted quick and efficient help, sometimes they’d come in with just a list for you to work from. It was important to them to be able to find what they needed, or help them make a choice on the fly. We didn’t always have everything of course, but I was usually pretty good at tracking it down, even if it meant sourcing it from another store. Some customers came to see us as friends and I think came in more for the conversation than anything.
Working there eventually took me to trade shows like Equine Affaire, and the Quarter Horse Congress. People seemed to think that was the glamorous side of retail, and parts of it were, but mostly it was more, harder work, for the same money and less time to do it in. Don’t get me wrong, there was absolutely fun to be had, but that wasn’t the whole gig.
Depending on the nature of the show, you got different crowds of people. One tended to pull more of the bargain shoppers, looking for a deal on everything, where the other was more of a showcase of how much money a person (at least allegedly) had to spend. At Equine Affaire, we often would stock up on things like out of season ladies jeans. The shoppers thought it was fantastic, they could get several pair for what they’d usually pay for just one. The end result for us though, was ransacked racks that needed re-organizing every hour or so, and dressing rooms piled with discarded jeans. On one cleaning-out of a dressing room, an employee not only found a pile of discarded jeans, but also discarded jeans belonging to one of the customers, as well as used (ahem) feminine hygeine products stuck inside. Another time, during my first year working at Quarter Horse Congress, I was faced with a drunk couple, very late in the day, who’d come back into the store under the premise of finally buying a saddle they’d been eying. They haggled with the owner for a while, then the woman decided she would need some clothes to go with it. She grabbed several items, took them into the dressing room, and shortly after her husband decided she needed his assistance, so he joined her inside. Now keep in mind, these are temporary dressing rooms, designed for one person to quickly and uncomfortably try on clothing, not intended for parties of two or more. He asked for a few different pieces to be swapped for size or color, each time I’d look at the store owner with a raised eyebrow in a non-verbal, “how long are we really going to entertain this?” He’d nod, I’d fetch their request and hand them over the top of the door. After a while, it became clear there was more taking off of clothing, followed by who knows what (or at least, I’d prefer to not think about it again), before the owner finally stepped in and asked them to leave.
My favorite trade show memories usually involve the “Corral” bar at Quarter Horse Congress. We’d often stop in for anightcap after our shifts, where they had live entertainment most nights and two full bars. Even though the bar is secured by State Troopers, for a couple of years before I was 21 I still managed to sneak in a drink. I’m not sharing because I’m proud of that, but it wasn’t always easy being the youngest kid at the store, so you did what you had to do to fit in. See kids? Everyone has peer pressure to deal with, and we all make bad decisions.
For a few years in a row, I would bump into a gentleman named Paul, from one of the Texas or Oklahoma hatteries. He would buy me a drink, ask me to dance, and propose to me. He was very sweet, probably much closer to my dad’s age than mine, and more than likely very drunk, but it was flattering anyway. He’d tell me all about “our” farm and how I’d have anything I wanted because he would treat me like a queen. Truth be told, maybe it worked out that way, who knows? I would apologize profusely and decline as politely as I could, he would appear crestfallen, and we’d part ways again for another year.
The last year I worked there, on one of the last nights, we were out as almost the entire group. My sister who worked the odd weekend for extra money was there, we were all having a fantastic time. I was approached by a man I recognized from earlier that night in the store, who told me he needed to buy my belt, and asked how much it would take. This was when Kippy and BB Simon belts were just coming on the scene as the new “it” items to have. Leather belts in a variety of colors and styles, covered in a variety of crystals. They’re still popular now I believe. When he was in the store earlier, his girlfriend had been shopping them, and had made it clear she wanted one, but he’d ignored her plea. Now it was costing him. I was too surprised at first to throw out a number, so my manager stepped in and told him $500. He tried to bargain with me, every lower number he pitched,,,, I met with a higher one. He pouted and said I was trying to screw him. I said, “no, you’ll be screwing yourself though if you don’t get your girl a belt like you should have done earlier when it wouldn’t have cost you as much. Now leave me alone and don’t even think about coming back without $500 in CASH.” He finally walked away, and I thought sure that would be the last I’d hear of him, we all went back to our evening. An hour later he turns up again, with the cash. I looked at our blanket guy and informal bouncer of the store, and asked him to count it for me. I couldn’t believe it was happening. He did, nodded at me we were good, and I took off my beautiful belt. The guy took it and handed it straight to his girlfriend, who looked quite pleased with herself. Then I asked if she liked my ostritch boots, I’d go $700 for them! He grumbled, grabbed his girl, and they took off. We all cheered and my manager announced the next round was on me. I asked our bouncer to please keep and eye on my for the rest of the night, it’s not often I have that much cash on me, and in that kind of setting I wasn’t super comfortable with it. We had a great rest of the night, and I eventually went on to buy a replacement belt at my employee cost, and a new water pump for my car. It all worked out.
Collectively, I spent about five years at the shop, and they were good ones. It isn’t the ideal situation if you’re busy with a family, or hauling every weekend to shows, but if you can make it work, it’s a great right of passage for any horse lover.