Caring for horses isn’t easy work, laborers say

By Joyce Duriga
Sunday, October 16, 2016

Caring for horses isn’t easy work, laborers say

Marcelino leads the choir at Immaculate Conception Church in LaGrange, Kentucky, on Sept. 20. (Karen Callaway/Catholic New World)
A cat reclines outside of the lodgings of workers at a farm in LaGrange, Kentucky, on Sept. 20. (Karen Callaway/Catholic New World)

Marcelino is 38 and has a screw in his shoulder. He also has problems with his spine, knee and ankle. These are a direct result of his work with horses in Kentucky.

Marcelino is one of an untold number of undocumented workers who staff the horse farms in Kentucky to support the multibillion dollar horse racing industry.

It was people like Marcelino whom Auxiliary Bishop John Manz visited Sept. 19-22 on behalf of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee on the Pastoral Care of Migrants, Refugees and Travelers.

For over 10 years, Bishop Manz has made annual visits to dioceses across the United States to talk to migrant workers and to assess their pastoral and other needs. He makes recommendations to the local dioceses and the bishops’ conference on how the church can better minister to these often-invisible groups.

On Sept. 20 Bishop Manz visited with workers at a farm in LaGrange, Kentucky, where he met Marcelino.

The horse racing season in Kentucky runs mid-March through December. After that many workers follow the horses to tracks in Florida and New Orleans. Others like Marcelino work on one farm all year. The Mexican native has worked at this farm for 15 years.

Workers at farms like the one Bishop Manz visited work seven days a week from early morning until about noon exercising the horses. Afterward many work on the grounds.

Hot walkers (those who walk the horses around the barns after a training session to cool them down) earn about $250 a week. The next level up in terms of pay are grooms and then exercise riders. Marcelino is an exercise rider.

Many of the women work as hot walkers, which can be dangerous when the horses become aggressive. When both parents work they must also pay for babysitters.

Because they are undocumented they often have no access to health insurance. Owners allow them to go to the hospital if they are sick but workers still have to pay the bills.

Each day they rise at 3:30 a.m. to start work cleaning the stalls until the exercise riders get there. The women will take a short break around 6:50 to walk the children out to the bus stop for school.

Some people live on the farm in dorm-like accommodations. It’s one room with a bed, kitchen and bathroom. It’s not a large space and often families live together there. It’s hard for them to live like that.

Since most are undocumented it’s difficult for them to obtain a state driver’s license. Those without vehicles rely on others to get them to the store or doctor’s office.

Why do they choose to come to the United States and work labor-intensive, dangerous jobs with no insurance and live in constant fear of deportation? It’s still better than life in Mexico.

“Here we have a place to live. Food is easy to find,” Marcelino told the Catholic New World. Back in Mexico they eat what they grow and don’t have access to work. “I have my mobile home. I have my car and my family. My kids go to school.”

Since his faith has recently become more important in his life, Marcelino appreciated the visit by Bishop Manz and staff from the Archdiocese of Louisville and the U.S. bishops’ conference.

The father and husband never went to Mass until about two years ago.

“My Mass was soccer every Sunday,” he said.

He didn’t go to church because he told himself—and anyone who asked—that God was always with him, everywhere. However, one day a man he knew asked, “Yes, he’s with you but are you with him?”

“From there God became a lot more important in my life,” he said.

He now directs the choir at Immaculate Conception Parish in LaGrange, Kentucky, each Sunday.

His faith also helped Marcelino come to terms with the birth of a daughter with Down syndrome, who he calls a “little angel.”

“God said, ‘You’re going to love her and she will bring peace to your life,’’ he said.


  • immigrants
  • immigration
  • immigration reform
  • undocumented workers

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