The Mane Course

No blue-plait special for this horse braider

It takes about an hour to braid most horses, including their tails, Angelica Romero tells me. And that's if a SWAT team doesn't barge in looking for escaped convicts, which has happened to her. "Two years in a row at Tucson, early in my career, there was me and maybe one or two other women braiding in the dark," says Romero. "You know where the facility is, Pima County Fairgrounds, way south of everything, an exit away from a prison? Two years in a row I'm braiding by myself, and a SWAT team comes through, guns drawn, and says, 'Have you seen a man in a gray suit with a number on it?' And there's no security."

Well, if this is what she's used to, I think, then she can handle lunch with me. There are those who would tell her it'll just be one more hour spent with the aft part of a horse.

The only danger might be nodding off into her plate -- as one of a handful of professional braiders who work the American Horse Show Association circuit in the Southwest, Romero keeps a seriously nocturnal schedule. "I usually work from 8 at night to 5 in the morning," she says. "That's ideal for me, because then the grooms show up, and the Mexican polka music starts, really loud, and they start pulling horses out of the stalls to lunge them and bathe them. Plus, they tow your car. So when the sun comes up, you've got to be gone."

But giving horses traditional 'dos for hunter/jumper competition is seasonal, feast-or-famine work, and Romero's on a break at the moment, spending time at the home she shares with her mom in the Valley. When she's working, she's on the road, usually up and down the Southern California coast. "I work mostly San Diego, right by the Del Mar racetrack -- there's a big horse-show facility there -- San Juan Capistrano, Huntington Beach, Burbank, Santa Barbara, and I've gone as far as Pebble Beach." She also works the major show in Indio, California, and, closer to home, shows in Scottsdale and Tucson. The schedule is harsh, the work is physically demanding, the impact on her social life considerable.

So I ask Romero, as we wait for our lunches at Eddie Matney's, how she happened into this, surely one of the more specialized occupations in our society. She launches into her tale. As is so often the case, it has a lot to do with her father.

"I started riding with my father when I was 6," says the New Jersey native. A Texaco engineer and first-generation American -- from a Cuban father and Puerto Rican mother -- her father was a "kind of eccentric" man who had grown up poor, but cultivated an interest in travel, wine, horses and other such swanky pursuits. "He was in the equestrian club at NYU," Romero says. "He was into historical stuff. He liked to wear the outfit. He was wearing a cravat to go trail riding with me in the peach orchard. It was sort of embarrassing at the time, but now I think it's really cool that he was like that, and not like the other fathers who were watching football. He was riding with me on the weekends."

A salad topped with ahi tuna is placed in front of Romero, while I get an offbeat special, the Moroccan fish and chips -- pollock with Moroccan spices, French fries and mango tartar sauce. We strap on the feedbag, as it were, and Romero continues her story.

"We moved to Saudi Arabia for three years," she says, "and we even rode there" -- Arabian horses, natch. But it was when Romero and her family returned home that her equestrian interests got more serious. "When I was a teenager, a trainer got ahold of us, and that's what happens," she says. "Trainers put pressure on their clients to go to horse shows. So as a teenager, that's what I got wrapped up in. I didn't realize that I didn't really have a chance of winning on my little quarter horse compared to the Du Pont descendants I was riding against. It's very political, who can afford the most expensive horse, and who comes from a certain trainer. It's a very political thing. Even now."

Romero's father died when she 14, and at 16 she quit hunter/jumper competition. "My mother [a teacher] continued in it with me for a while; she would drive me an hour each way in the snow," she recalls. "When I quit, she was so relieved. Not only financially, but just her driving me every day, and sitting there reading her book while I rode, and then I'd cry when it didn't go well. It was just very high-pressure and very competitive. And I started having injuries -- I had two concussions in two years, and broken wrists, you know. There's all this pressure on the kids. You have to have the best horse, you have to keep upgrading, you have to have the best clothes, you have to stay thin, you have to, you know, fit in with these kids who are really doing it. So I discovered boys, and I quit."

After college in Burbank, Romero landed in the Valley. She briefly studied art history at ASU, then worked at a framing store and for a golfwear firm, both in Scottsdale, before happening, almost by chance, back into the horse world. An acquaintance with horse-show connections casually asked her if she knew how to braid, and she had picked up the skill in her own riding days. It constituted an upturn in her career fortunes. "I said, 'Oh my God, this is a great job.' I mean, people were buying property, and having a life."

We decide to splurge on dessert. While we wait, I note to Romero that the world in which she works is just one more subculture that the rest of us don't know exists. She corrects me -- braiders, she says, are one of several sub-subcultures in the horse-show world. "You have the grooms, that are 99 percent Mexican. Which is different from back East, because back East they're young WASPy girls, teenage girls who are like working students, but here they bring in the Mexican labor." Grooms are lower than braiders on the horse-show hierarchy, while trainers are above all -- except, of course, for the customers. Romero's own taste tends to be cautiously populist. "I generally hang out with grooms more than with the customers, but you have to draw a line there, too," she says.

And where do the horses fit into all this? Is it a hard life for them?

Her response is frank. "I don't think a horse really wants to jump jumps," she says. "I mean, maybe it's fun for a little while, but when they're made to do it over and over until their soundness is in question. . . . You can tell if a horse is unhappy if he's biting you, and a lot of people miss that as a sign that maybe the horse doesn't want to do this anymore. As braiders, we do feel sorry for them. We're very loving and we give them treats."

Our own treats are set before us: bread pudding with cappuccino mousse for Romero, good old crème brûlée for me. As we attack them, she tells me of her satisfaction that it doesn't cost her money anymore to spend time with horses -- whatever she would have spent back in her horse-show days, she now takes home. "Some braiders still show!" she marvels. "I'm thinking: 'How can you give this money back to these people?' . . . I get my horse fix, and it doesn't cost me what it's cost me all my life."

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