Life As A Professional Horse Groom
By Tina Hammond
The life of a professional show groom may not be quite as you envisioned and it is not a career path to take lightly. Long hours, hard work and an exacting level of diligence are required to be successful in this field.
When I began as a show groom on the European showjumper ‘A’ circuit I thought my experience would set me up for immediate achievement and accolades. The intensity and high-pressure job issues woke me up to reality with a hard stop. Advanced riders have little patience for mistakes. The horses came and went with such frequency it was hard to get a handle on any particular individual. I learned ‘cocktails’ did not mean pre-dinner drinks. Privacy for sleeping and living in general was non-existent. Not one minute of the day was entirely my own.
There is a steep learning curve to becoming a true expert in the world of professional grooms and respect does not come easy. You don’t get to choose your boss they choose you and there are people to avoid that you don’t learn about until it is too late.
There is a lot of travel, but not the glamorous sort you think about. You enjoy the inside of a horsebox for tedious hours usually in the wee hours to avoid traffic. When you accompany horses on flights you spend hours and hours standing around waiting and worrying. The horses in tins on the hot tarmac cause you nightmares, the seating for you on the plane is noisy and uncomfortable. Wherever you are, you often bed down with the horses, by the horses, near the horses. They wake you up. Your wardrobe is limited to what you can easily fit into a cubby space. By days end, whatever hour that may be you’ll forget about a hot shower or shower of any kind and plop into bed. You won’t care about who is sleeping in the same quarters, you’ll just be happy to have time to sleep for a few hours.
Showgrounds all blend together in your head after a few months. No visits down the High Street or out to restaurants for you. When the show events finish, often late at night, you will have been on your feet for 18 plus hours. The horses will be handed to you while the rider and their entourage head off for drinks and dinner. You’ll need to soak the horse’s legs, bandage legs, clean down tack, pack up gear, load trailers, fill out paperwork and follow those vet instructions to the proverbial ‘nth’ degree. Especially if they come from an FEI vet.
Half vet tech, half groom who can braid a horse to perfection at the drop of a hat. You must confidently handle a 1500 pound psycho horse on the end of a line and somehow convince it to load on the box, provide mental and physical therapy for horse and the humans that surround him and be cheerleader, chief bucket and bottlewasher. Well. You get the idea. So why do it?
At my parents behest I took a gap year between school and Uni and hit the ‘A’ circuit running. My job as an Assistant to the Head Groom took me to Switzerland, Austria, Italy and Germany that year but it is all a blur. I followed orders and found myself at times lonely and overwhelmed. I nearly quit. But as the summer progressed I made a friend in a horse called ‘Stu.’ Not his real name of course. He was a top level showjumper and was consistently in the money. Head groom became sick with salmonella. We were always getting bad tummies from something but this one put her in the hospital. So I was now Stu’s primary caregiver.
A big bay horse with oodles of air time over fences, Stu would crib consistently. He rubbed his braids out if left for a split second and as a warmblood from the Western Star line he was true to his genetics and would kick at anyone that entered his stall.
That included me. Life caring for this horse was madness.
After several close calls this gelding finally let me in. On one occasion his rider left the ring disgusted with the effort Stu had put in and hopped off and just left the horse there for me to catch. I grabbed the reins just in time before he took off. It was a long way back to the stables and it was raining hard outside. I was allowed to exercise ride some of the horses at this job though had never been invited to ride Stu. I made the decision to ride Stu back to the stables regardless.
To my surprise he stood as good as gold while I mounted which he never did for his rider. We were soon trotting on to the stables. A lorry in a hurry to leave sped up toward us and splashed mud all over us. Stu hit the lid in a panic and bolted the rest of the way to the barn. Thankfully the stable doors were shut due to the weather or I would have been beheaded. I hopped off, threw a sheet over him and led him in circles to try and calm him down. He was shaking. I was shaking too, both from the cold rain and from the near catastrophe of being hit by the horsebox.
Then he just stopped and put his head down. I walked closer to him and he dropped his large head against my chest. Just stood there. The two of us in the pouring rain together. Alone. After a moment or two, I picked up the rein and we walked to his stall. I thought once he was dried off and toasty, and back to himself he would revert to his temperamental self but he never did. Well, at least with me. The rider was annoyed with Stu and took him off the show roster so I got to exercise him every day for the rest of the show. Our bond deepened. By the time we arrived at the next show Stu was back in form and back on the show roster. Everytime I let those reins go as his rider mounted and hit the arena Stu would look back at me. When the round was over he made a beeline toward me. By this point this difficult horse would let me do anything with him on the ground or in the saddle.
It was hard to say goodbye to Stu when I headed home to attend Uni. Each semester break I would be back on the circuit again. Catching rides, exercising horses and doing pro groom chores for little money but for the joy of working with the horses. I secured my degree in Communications and then opted to go back to the showworld. A glutton for punishment I guess. By this point I was on the ‘poach’ list with some of the riders, who would regularly ask me to come work for them.
I got to know who was who and what was what. I got up close and personal with some marvelous horses and some not so marvelous riders and owners. Finally, I found a good rider and team and stuck with them for three years. I loved doing everything I could for the horses in my care and throughout everything that was the best part.
But the constant travel got old so I looked around for something that would give me a proper home base. Eventually I landed a job in Lausanne, Switzerland at Greta Kemmer’s dressage and jumping yard. An elite yard where talented top young horses were brought on for sale and an international array of promising students were coached and brought on too. Through that I worked also in England and spent my time for several years developing my skill sets as a trainer between both places.
What of my communications degree? That was very useful as it turned out. I helped market the horses for the Kemmers and worked with their clients too. I worked with clients worldwide including the U.S.A. and have met some wonderful people in my career.
If you contemplate entering the pro groom world I’d caution you to do your homework and try and locate a rider and team that will treat you with respect and pay you a decent wage. A maximum of 2/3 horses to take care of at a show is enough. Don’t be tricked into doing more. It’s impossible to do a good job when you are spread too thin and everyone suffers.