While spectators perch on the edge of their seats and harness drivers steer horses around the track, a group of people who have worked tirelessly all morning long wait at the finish line to congratulate or console their racehorse, and administer post-race TLC to the athlete.

“When a horse that you love wins a race, I don’t know how to explain it. It’s just a great feeling,” said Emily Stiffler, of Washington County, who has worked as a horse caregiver for 10 years.

Stiffler is one of thousands of horse caregivers nationwide who dedicate their lives to the well-being of racehorses. The industry’s unsung heroes were celebrated Wednesday during the first Pennsylvania Horse Racing Caregivers Appreciation Day. Excitement filled the paddocks at Hollywood Casino at The Meadows, one of three harness racetracks in the country that offers year-round racing and stables, where caregivers readied athletes for competition and enjoyed cupcakes while horses raced.

The day of celebration was hosted jointly by the Meadows Standardbred Owners Association and the Pennsylvania Horse Racing Association, who gave out swag and treated caregivers to lunch. Horse caretakers were invited to try their luck at raffle giveaways throughout the day and received extra thanks from harness drivers and trainers.

“You definitely have to love your job to do this. It takes up a lot of your time. (Caregivers) are the ones that spend the most time with the horses. They put in all the work. A lot of them don’t take breaks. The cold, the hot, they’re here no matter what,” said Dawnelle Mock, a Chartiers-Houston graduate, horse owner and digital content director for PHRA. “It’s a lifestyle. We always say the horses eat before you, they sleep before you. The horses come first.”

Horse caregivers are the mothers and fathers of the racing industry, said harness driver Aaron Merriman, of Ohio. They arrive to the stables, often before sunrise, every day, rain, shine, blazing heat or snow, to ensure horses are healthy, happy and able to perform their best on the racetrack.

“They just do it all,” said Dave Palone, a Greene County native and the winningest harness racing driver in North America. “I literally am out there for four, five minutes and the caretakers have to look at the horses seven days a week. They’ve won more races for me, spending the extra hours putting them in the ice. They’re the unsung heroes, for sure. I think every trainer will tell you the same thing, you’re only as good as your help.”

Caregivers are responsible for up to seven horses at a time. Along with caring for the animals, which includes feeding, bathing and grooming pre- and post-practice or race, caregivers shoulder the dirty work.

“I get there about between 6, 6:30 in the morning, and clean water buckets and feed tubs, start getting horses ready,” said Stiffler. “Then it’s sending horses out, whether they’re jogging or training. Bathing them, put them away, clean stalls. All the work.”

Though not always glamorous, caregivers are passionate about their work and get attached to the horses with whom they spend their days.

“I love all of it, really,” said Sandy Sokol, of Belle Vernon, who trained her own horses and has served as a caregiver for 35 years. “You put a bunch of time into them. You’re with them all day long. One (horse), I could have a really bad day. I’d just go in the stall and hug him and he’d hug me back. They’re my peace.”

Many caregivers are, like trainers and drivers, born into the racing industry. But Courtney Polan, of Scenery Hill, discovered caregiving in high school, when she took a job helping her best friend’s father – a trainer – in the barns.

“I went to college, came back for the summer. I graduated college and came back,” Polan laughed.

Now, about 10 years into her career, Polan can’t imagine doing anything else.

“Just being around them every day, see them win a race and know that your hard work finally paid off” is the greatest part of the job, Polan said.

“Losing one, or selling them – that’s the hardest, when they leave the barn,” she added.

The caregivers who log long hours and experience the joys and sorrows that come from loving animals so much were grateful for acknowledgement on caregiver appreciation day, but they’re not in it for glory.

“All the hard work that you’ve done, and the love and time and attention that you put into these horses, it’s fulfilling,” Stiffler said.

Original source credited to theobserverreporter.com

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