“I Hadn’t Been Near a Horse in 30 Years”

Former corporate executive Lucy Hooper decided to make her office a barn. Photo by Karin Strickland

At an age when many executives are retiring, Lucy Hooper is happily mucking out horse stalls, pushing wheelbarrows full of manure, and pitching flakes of hay. A second-career groom, she works at Full Circle Farm in Columbus, where she wears muddy boots, badly stained canvas pants, and a sweaty T-shirt. Her auburn hair is a little wild, with wisps of gray at the temples, and her arms’ muscle tone would be the envy of folks half her age. Most grooms start in their teens or 20s, and it’s hard work for anyone. Hooper, meanwhile, is a grandmother of five.

You had a long career in textile machinery, including being a company president. Why this, why now?
In 2014, when I was 60 and facing the end of one career, I looked earnestly for another full-time job. But my options for office work in this area of North Carolina were limited. I also came to realize I didn’t want to settle for being on someone else’s clock. So I decided to see if I could make my new office a barn.

What’s your average day like?
I start around 7:30am, leave and come back [several times], leave for good by 6pm. I call it hospitality for horses. “Room service” is feeding and [giving] meds and supplements, with loose hay midday, always checking for fresh water. “Housekeeping” is shoveling manure and wet shavings out of their stalls. “Concierge service” is bringing horses in or turning them out, to get them where they need to be. “Security” is making sure stall doors are clipped, gates are closed, electric fence wires are hooked, and lights are off.

How did you train?
The summer of 2015, I signed up for a four-week Groom Elite class at Isothermal Community College’s Polk Center campus in Columbus. We went half the time to area barns for hands-on instruction; the other half we were in a classroom for lectures. It was intense … I had started riding in Holland when I was 5, and kept circling back to it as a teenager and young mom, but at this point I hadn’t been near a horse in 30 years. Everyone else seemed to come to class straight out of the saddle. … I had to ask to borrow someone else’s horse to practice studying body parts and tack. But I ended up doing well. … I went to work at one of the instructor’s barns, and went back to ICC last year to take a higher-level class. It definitely opened all the right doors for me.

If you don’t do it for the money, what do you get out of it?
Whoa, now. I appreciate the paycheck! But you’re right, it’s about more than money. This work satisfies my soul, teaches me patience, keeps me humble, keeps me curious, and makes me very, very grateful for the privilege of working outside. [I can hear] baying from Tryon Hounds kennels and families of deer rustling in the woods. But mainly, beginning to end, I do it for the horses.

What did you do with your executive attire?
I’ve kept pieces not because I think I’ll be back in an office, but more because they remind me of places or people. … Who knows? This may give me the push I need to make a clean break.

For more information about the equine programs at Isothermal Community College’s Polk Center in Columbus, call 828-894-3092 or see isothermal.edu/polk.

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