Becoming A Groom

I’m 19 years old and in college to work with horses. I love your blog and read it avidly. I was curious to know if it was too late to start as a groom (I only know the basics) and what it truly entails and takes as a career. If you could give me any and all insight into your experiences and the job itself I would greatly appreciate it. Thanks! – Danielle M. from Morgantown, WV

Danielle,
Whilst standing in the busy show jumping warm up at the fork this past weekend, the Canadian coach asked if I knew of any good grooms needing work… Honestly, the answer …no. As a professional groom I am often asked if I know of someone looking to be a groom. What I have witnessed over the years are many young people who are happy to help but they all want to ride, very few people these days want to remain on the ground and whole heartily take care of the equine athlete from nose to tail.

I first came to the states when I was 21. I came from a strong hunting background but also having passed through the ranks of pony club. I was lucky enough to ride during my first USA job and actually made it through prelim, having said that I knew I would never make an amazing rider. You’ll often hear me say that I always use to win the turn out prizes but not many riding ribbons! I think maybe someone above was trying to show me the way! One trip to Blenheim CCI*** in the UK and I was hooked on grooming! I wanted to fly with horses all over the world. Since then I have not looked back, Hong Kong, Rio, Germany and Amsterdam have all been visited and now I have an amazing second family and have had and still do have many sensational horses in my life.

emmaFord
Waiting to board the 15 hour flight to Hong Kong. 2008.

As a career, grooming can be one of the most rewarding jobs when working with animals, however there are plenty of heartbreaking times that will have to be negotiated along the way. Learning to groom starts at the barn. Being there day in, day out understanding what makes each horse tick puts you on the right path. If you think an eight hour day is long, grooming is not for you. Dedication to the daily health and care of each individual horse many times will take a 10 hour day and at competitions that can go up to a 14 to 15 hours a day, repeatedly. Obviously it all depends on the barn you work at, how many horses you take care of, whether you have the appropriate amount of help and many other factors.

As grooms, we are the behind the scene people, the rider needs to train the horse but it is our job to ensure the horse looks and feels healthy and comfortable at all times. At competitions we are expected to run the day as smoothly as possible so the rider can concentrate on riding and not be worrying about whether a horse will be at the ring on time. Again it all comes down to the individual situation, one horse at a one day event is very different to seven at an away show. Attention to detail is a must when taking care of horses, knowing what is normal, whether a splint just appeared on his leg or he hasn’t eaten his lytes, being able to look at him and think “something is a little off” is all so important when trying to keep these equine athletes at their best.

America needs many more grooms, especially in the eventing world. If you are looking for recognition, a big paycheck or that 401k then grooming is not for you. However if you know you have the drive and dedication that is required to help realize each horse’s full potential, then maybe it is the right path. The eventing community is a close knit group that always offers support and advice where and when needed. As grooms we stick together and help each other do what is best for each horse. When times are bad we are the first to give hugs but when celebrations are in order we will be the first to throw a party.

I don’t want to sugar coat the job, there are days when you feel that horses are all you do. There will be nights that maybe a stall is your bed, you will get to see many 3am alarm calls or you’ll be feeling so sick that you will ask yourself why you do it. Why do any of us do it? Because we love and respect these horses for what they give and mean to us. Watching Connaught win Rolex in 2008 will always be one of my personnel highlights. He was a quirky horse to take care of but all he wanted to do was please and trust you, when the stars finally alined for him I was a sobbing happy mess when we knew the result! However on the downside, losing Woodburn was a day I will never forget, he was a horse that never got to realize his full potential, it comforts me that I was with him till the end. If you ask any groom that has been in the job for years they can all give you their personal highs and lows. All of us get up every morning because in truth we need the horses companionship more than they need us.

Emma Ford
About

Emma Ford is one of the most respected grooms in US Eventing. Born and raised in the UK, Emma came to the US in 1998 to groom for top eventer Adrienne Iorio. After seven years with Adrienne, Emma moved to True Prospect Farm to work with five-time Olympian and 13-time USEA Leading Rider of the Year, Phillip Dutton. During her tenure with Phillip, Emma cared for many famous equine athletes including Connaught, TruLuck, Woodburn, and Mystery Whisper. She’s groomed at Burghley, Blenheim and Boekelo, cared for horses at the 2006 and 2010 World Championships, 2007 Pan Am Games, and 2008 and 2012 Olympics, and groomed at Rolex Kentucky and Fair Hill International every year since 2001. And now she’s here to help you! Submit your grooming questions and Emma just may be able to teach you a few of her tricks!

Posted in Ask The Groom

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3 comments on “Becoming A Groom
  1. Cheryl says:

    Danielle,
    You are incredibly fortunate to have had Emma’s advice. The Europeans in general, British (IMHO) in particular have an entirely different outlook on their horses than Americans. In England, Pony Club starts young riders to be caring, considerate and educated horsemen and women. Pony Club grows with them – like family – until the junior rider becomes an adult, who frequently then joins the British Horse Society and continuing their riding endeavours through the various organizations.
    Growing up Yank, I had a dream of going to the UK to study for MY equine endeavours through the British Horse exams. I was barely 18 when I got to a school named Porlock Vale. My plan was to work for 9 months in their working student program, then take my Assistant Instructors exam, return to the US and earn my living. It turned out a little differently! I was at Porlock for 8 months, shattered a kneecap, and had to take a little detour to heal up. But after a couple months, I went to work for a wonderful man named Tom Durston-Smith, an eventer, who took me on as a groom in exchange for being a student. By then I had already decided that I so very much preferred being the groom than the competitor.
    While at Kyre, with Tom, an American named Bruce Davidson made his debut on the European circuit. He came to stay at Kyre to train up for the European events. I ended up being his groom for one of them and, as they say, the die was cast – hook, line and sinker, I wanted to be a groom.
    I did, ultimately take and pass my AI at Talland in Cirencester. I took enormous pride in adding the B.H.S.I. after my name. Several years later, I took and passed my full Instructor’s exams and passed. I love teaching and watching riders grow into horsemen/women.

    I always watch for those who would make excellent groom prospects – they are special to me! Generally, they are about your age, have done some riding and competing, and so understand how important it is for the rider to be able to focus on their rides. But, they are also the students who ask to get their horse ready before class, take care of the horse after the class and have bazillions of questions about everything. “Why do Dunnit’s shoes have those things coming off his shoes, but Katie doesn’t have shoes at all?” sort of questions. Or “I noticed a rub under the girth.” Or “The new horse loves having her ears scratched.”
    These sorts of things tell me the person is looking at the horse as an individual, a partner, a living, breathing entity to be cherished in its entirety.

    Emma is telling you up straight: Highlights and heartbreaks. In America, you can also add a lot of thanklessness! The groom should be able to turn over the horse to the rider and answer any questions that rider might have. I had one rider who would show up at 10:00AM every morning to school and ask if the horse had had his coffee or not!(and yes, the horse would have a 1/2 cup coffee in his chow). I had one owner present me with a magnum of champaign – because we found a hair care product that allowed his appy hunter to finally get braided. I had another owner who felt I was the whipping boy if he didn’t win every class!
    At Porlock there arrived a listed horse for the Olympic team, who’d suffered a nervous breakdown (they can, you know). His groom literally slept in the stall for weeks with him, broke his feeds into 8 little feeds, which she fed him by hand; maybe a quarter flake, with a mix of double handful grain, shredded carrots and apples. All between her regular chores, 2 other horses, and studies. She quit taking her days off. She hand walked him, starting with 15 minute walks, letting him graze. It was weeks before she could turn him out on his own. It was months before she got him down to 3 feeds a day. She came up with the idea of letting him “go scruffy and just be a horse” meaning not giving him the usual hour long clean by grooming, letting his bridle grow in, his fetlock hair grow out. Just brushing him off 2 or 3 times a day and special attention to his favourite spots – and whisping him because he so enjoyed it. That idea – just letting him be a natural horse – is what finally turned him around. To this day, 40-odd years later, I always consider Corinna the ultimate groom, and hold her as my standard. It is she who returned the horse to his happy competitor self. That is the groom’s job: Keep the horse happy and safe, know and understand him – often better than his owner or rider!
    As a groom, you won’t get much in the way of payback – other than your own personal satisfaction, and that is between you and the horse – and likely not a great salary. Especially in the US where grooms are not always as respected as in the UK. It is like being a teacher – the rewards are personal to you. BUT, having said that, if it’s your personal calling, go for it! You won’t regret it.
    Good luck! Work hard and learn lots.

  2. Valerie says:

    I loved reading these comments , as a horse lover who does all my own horse care I was touched to read the deep commitment of the groom and the special care and love given to their horse wards, so to speak. You have given me a glimpse into your world . Thank you !

  3. Orlenda says:

    wow-very cool article and comment! I really do wonder what its like to fly with a horse though! Would love to see an article on that! My horse would never make it! she’d prob pass out and die! BUT-she never was the sort to be cut out for competition and I love her just the way she is! She’s extremely special needs and thats kinda fun actually (if you dont consider teh vet bills that come with her medical problems)! I love you Bella, my sweet girl!

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