Grooming at the top

  • Every groom has a different idea of what their ideal job would be, but a dream position with a well-known name is an aim for many. So how do you go about getting it? Do you go to college and get qualifications? How do you progress from one job to the next?

    “I’ve never actually had a career plan,” says Sara Shears, who, after 12 years in the industry, has found her perfect job looking after show jumper Sarah Lynch’s three horses.

    “I just followed the opportunities. When I was offered a job in Holland I just went for it. Don’t turn down any chances because you don’t know when you’ll get the next one.”

    A college degree or a recognised qualification is the preferred option for many young grooms, but hands-on experience will always be the ultimate tool in finding a great job.

    Sara left school at 16 and enrolled at Brackenhurst Agricultural College, where she gained her BHS Assistant Instructor qualification.

    “I would say to anyone who wants to work in a BHS-approved yard, go to college and learn everything correctly, if in a slightly protected environment,” she advises. “But if you want to be a competition groom, be aware that each employer will do things differently, so you’ll have to keep adapting, and what you learnt at college may go out of the window.

    “Watch other people and when you’re at shows ask other grooms for advice. I’m still learning every day.”

    Sara’s first job was with Olympic show jumper-turned-trainer Malcolm Pyrah, at the kind of yard she believes every young groom should learn in.

    “Everything I do now is because of the high standards I was taught there. Whatever you did had to be 100% correct, which was great discipline and has remained with me ever since.”

    It is hard work and sheer pride in what she does that has helped Sara get the jobs she wanted.

    “You build a reputation by working hard,” she adds. “You learn from grooms like Ronnie Dawes, who looks after Tim Stockdale’s horses. They’re always immaculate. You’ll never get that great job by leading your horse to the collecting ring covered in shavings. It’s hard work and long hours but people don’t learn that in college.

    “If someone is needed to work late, put yourself forward. You’ll be remembered when the next job comes up. If you turn things down you’ll find yourself getting less and less opportunities until you have nowhere to go.”

    Some great sounding jobs won’t suit everyone. A sole-charge position in a beautiful rural location might end up being the loneliest job in the world, while a post with lots of travel could leave you permanently jet-lagged and exhausted.

    Caroline Dawson has worked for Olympic dressage rider Carl Hester for more than five years, but has also held positions in hunting and showing yards.

    “I like living on the job, so I was looking for somewhere with accommodation,” she says. “Grooming isn’t the best paid work but the job satisfaction can really compensate for that.”

    Sara Shears agrees: “You’ve got to love what you do but sometimes you do have to make an effort to stay cheerful. If it’s the middle of winter, you get back late from competing and the next show starts at 8am the following day, you just have to get on with it.”

    She also believes that a person’s idea of their ideal job will change over time.

    “I wouldn’t have been happy doing this job five or 10 years ago. Your circumstances change: I’m engaged now and my priorities have shifted. I wanted a smaller yard with less travelling and to have some weekends free, as well as flexibility for days off. My job allows for this because Sarah’s happy to take over when I’m not there.”

    Above all, finding an employer you like and respect results in the best working conditions. And, despite long hours, lack of social life and humble pay, there are still some perks.

    “The best thing is that you’re being paid for doing your hobby,” says Jackie Potts, who has found her dream job as joint-head girl to William Fox-Pitt. She loves her job so much that she has stayed at the Fox-Pitt yard for 13 years.

    “First, I look for job satisfaction. I’ve also ridden some amazing horses, such as Tamarillo and Cosmopolitan,” she says.

    Caroline Dawson agrees: “You don’t have to be best friends with your employer but there must be some friendliness.”

    Sara Shears and her employer, however, have become friends. “We get on like a house on fire. We work as a team. She isn’t one of those people who rides the horse, then isn’t seen for the rest of the day.

    “I love the atmosphere at shows and the network of friends you make in this business. I have time to appreciate the horses in a smaller yard and I’ve finally reached the stage where I want to keep doing what I am doing.”

    Join Horse & Hound’s NAGS

    Membership of the National Association of Grooms and Students (NAGS) is free to all bona fide grooms and students. NAGS is sponsored by training provider KEITS, which offers Modern Apprenticeships, for those aged 16-25, as well as work-based training in equine, animal care and agricultural businesses.

    Benefits of being a NAGS member include: Horse & Hound subscription at £1 per copy, £3 discount voucher on a sack of Blue Chip Dynamic, 10% discount on Splash Equestrian equipment and clothing, no P&P charges from Equestrian Vision mail order and eligibility for NAGS-only competitions and offers.

    If you are interested in becoming a member, write to: NAGS, Room 2018, Kings Reach Tower, Stamford Street, London SE1 9LS (tel: 020 7261 6993), e-mail: nags@ipcmedia.com or click here to download an application form in PDF format.

    And remember, the club is open to all students, not just those studying for an equine qualification.

  • This careers feature was first published in Horse & Hound
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