Grooming At The Top

Behind the Scenes With Three Unsung Heroes

By Tania Millen

Top notch grooms are crucial to the success of upper level riders, doing everything from providing day-to-day care for hundred thousand dollar horse-flesh, to ensuring riders are on time for their horse show classes. Rarely in the limelight, grooms are the essential but unsung heroes of horse sport - the behind-the-scenes pit crew that make the magic happen for well-known riders. But who are these magicians that care for horses that fly overseas on jets, while ensuring that every piece of equipment needed for a barn full of world-class animals makes it to a show? And what do they actually do every day? Better yet, why do they do it at all?

Kelsey McDonell, who grooms for show jumper Brian Morton, says Spitfire is her favourite horse. Her most memorable experience so far was when the pair won the Purica Recovery EQ World Cup Qualifier at Thunderbird Show Park in 2014. Photo: Kelsey McDonell collection

Kelsey McDonell works for Canadian show jumper Brian Morton, looking after the feeding, veterinary program, farriers, horse show scheduling, logistics, and day-to-day care of 16 horses. When the horses are at home, McDonell says, “I usually work six days a week, sometimes seven, approximately six to eight hours a day. In the morning, I make sure the schedule is up-to-date, all the staff know the plan for the day, and I check on any horses that have issues.”

She continues, “When we’re on the road, the schedule is different and days are much longer. We usually start at 5 am with feeding, unwrapping, and hand walking. Then the horses get hacked in the morning before they show. Our day usually finishes around 5 pm, but we always do a night check around 9 pm.   

“I really enjoy grooming. I’m always keen to bath horses, roll wraps, clean tack, clean stalls, and do all the hand walking. It’s very important to know your horses - know how much they’re drinking, what their legs look like, what’s normal and what’s not normal.  

“My most memorable experience so far was grooming for Brian when he and Spitfire won the Purica Recovery EQ World Cup Qualifier at Thunderbird in 2014. Spitfire’s my favourite horse and had a lot of issues, so I was always trying to keep him in top form. It was the perfect day and everything fell into place.” 

But McDonell says it’s definitely not all roses. “I really dislike the ‘hurry up and wait’ aspect of horse shows. Things don’t always run on time and I would much rather be busy all day. Teardown day is also not my favourite. It can be chaotic. Horses are still showing but you have to pack everything up and be ready to load the horse trailer.” 

However, long-time grooms like McDonell genuinely enjoy their jobs. “My favourite part of my job is seeing people reach their goals. Whether it’s winning the grand prix or a young horse successfully jumping around their first course at a show, I really enjoy seeing it all come together. I also really enjoy working with amateur riders - it’s so nice to see them come out of the ring with a big smile on their face.” 
 
 
Across the Atlantic, Danielle Searson is the senior groom for England-based Canadian three-day event rider Rebecca Howard. She says the best part of her job is riding the horses. “It's such a joy to ride quality horses with such great training. I do the hacking and conditioning with the other grooms, and occasionally get the chance to school or jump them. I also really enjoy big competitions. Early mornings and late nights on the show grounds with my ponies and a good audiobook are the best. Setting up our little strip of barn aisle at a show makes me stupidly happy and I take a lot of pride in my set ups.”
 
However, like all grooms, Searson admits there are parts of the job she’d rather not have to do. “I hate pulling tails - partly because I’m terrible at it and partly because our best horse hates it. I also really dislike unpacking after competitions, when I’m tired. And I hate braiding, although I’m really good at it.”
 

Danielle Searson’s workday is long, and her duties include riding and caring for the horses, as well as overseeing the other grooms and the operation of the facility. Photos: Rebecca Howard

Searson says her schedule is pretty much the same as other yards, starting at 7:30 am and ending around 5 pm, but jokes, “We pick out our horse’s feet non-stop and I spend a lot of time making sure every rug that is not on a horse, is folded correctly.” Her work includes overseeing the running of the yard, making sure the horses are happy and properly cared for, that the other grooms are happy and doing their jobs, and that “…the boss lady can focus on competing.” 

Love of horses, supporting top riders so they can achieve their best results, and long hours on the job appear to be the common themes of grooming.

Rebecca Howard’s Riddle Master (Rupert) checks out the digs at Blair Castle International Horse Trials, Scotland. Howard’s senior groom, Danielle Searson, enjoys the big competitions and says, “Setting up our little strip of barn aisle at a show makes me stupidly happy.” Photo: Danielle Searson

Scott Hie can attest to this, although his grooming job is a bit different from that of McDonell and Searson. Hie is an Ontario-based chiropractor who grooms for top-level endurance riders at big competitions, by request. He’s been grooming for Canada’s Wendy MacCoubrey and other international riders for about 15 years, getting requests from riders anywhere from a year to five days in advance of an event.

Hie explains that at endurance events, there’s usually a team of five people working with each horse-and-rider combination, and as the head groom, his role is to manage that team. He says, “Not only am I hands-on, but I’m the go-to for the rider and others on the team. My responsibility is to allow the rider to focus on riding, by overseeing the ground management of the horse.”

In the days leading up to the event, Hie says his job entails making sure the horse is eating and hydrating enough, plus watching for any indication of injury. Competition days start with a 3 am feeding, followed by tacking up and warm-up at 5 am, and a 6 am start. During the event – which can last from 13 to 24 hours - the team ensures the horse receives electrolytes and food, massages, and stretches, and that the tack and rider are okay, too. Following the event, horse care continues to ensure that the horse recovers well. Of course, not every event goes right, and Hie admits having a horse pulled out of an event – for whatever reason - is one of the hardest parts of the job. 

But Hie loves grooming and feels the rewards are well worthwhile. His favourite moments are watching his horse and rider come across the finish line, then hearing the ground jury say that his horse has successfully completed the event. He says, “This has happened many different times with many different combinations. But my most memorable moment was when Wendy MacCoubrey and Mariah crossed the finish line at the 2008 World Endurance Championships in Malaysia. We overcame so many barriers on the road to WEC, but finished 39th against all odds.”

He says, “I love the excitement of being part of a team and helping horses and riders fulfill their dreams and goals. Being able to meet so many new people and see some beautiful places has been really rewarding, along with the opportunity to meet some of the best horseman in the world.”

Scott Hie grooms for top-level endurance riders at major competitions, including Canadian Wendy MacCoubrey. As head groom he manages the team of five who work with each horse-and-rider pair. During competitions, the days start at 3 am and can last up to 24 hours. Photo: Chad Larsch

Do You Have What it takes?

Working with the best horses and riders in the world at international competitions may sound like a dream job, but it’s not for everyone. 

McDonell cautions, “This is not a nine-to-five job. The horses always come first, especially when you are working with upper-level horses. Sometimes you have to drop everything and rush back to the barn for a sick horse. It’s not always easy to live a normal life but they’re such amazing, kind animals; they make it worth all the hard work.”  

Searson has similar views. “Work for someone you like and respect. It’s long, hard hours, and it’s just not worth working for someone who’s difficult. You have to be excessively thorough with everything, and if you can’t put in the occasional 20-hour day, it’s probably not the job for you.” Searson’s dry sense of humour stands her in good stead as well, and she adds, “A roll of mints, double ended snap, pulling comb, and a bit of twine in your pocket can save lives!” 

Grooming for a top-level rider encompasses everything to do with horse care. For the unsung heroes who care for our top horses and support their riders in pursuit of their goals, it’s a dream job. Photo: Tania Millen 

The long hours and sometimes grinding workload are a deterrent for some, but for those who are keen, Hie advises, “The only way to become great at something is through time and experience. So listen to those that have greater knowledge and experience, talk to many vets and riders, help out anyone that needs help, and ask about what you don’t know.” 

Throughout the horse industry, the diligence of hard-working grooms is what keeps top level horses sane and sound. The hours in the barn aren’t for everyone, but for those who choose to live in the shadows of horse and rider giants, experiencing the heartbreak and thrill of caring for horses competing at the highest levels makes it all worthwhile.

Main article photo: iStock/Catnap72

This article was originally published in the Summer 2018 issue of Canadian Horse Journal.

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