Showjumping groom Kerry Finch has one of the most coveted jobs in showjumping as she has been John Whitaker’s travelling groom for the past five years.
She and John have recently returned from Calgary in Canada, where John was in action at the CSIO Spruce Meadows Masters Tournament, one of the most prestigious events in the showjumping calendar. Kerry was looking after John’s three top horses Equine America Unick Du Francport, Sharid and Green Grass.
“We flew over to Calgary after competing at the Brussels Stephex Masters in Belgium,” explains Kerry. “We stayed with Helena Stormanns in Eschweiler for five days after Stephex, before travelling on to Canada.
“My journey to the airport only took an hour which was great – I arrived there at 3am to check on the horses before they flew. After that, I travelled from Brussels to Paris to catch our flight to Calgary, and we arrived two-and-a-half hours before the horses landed to ensure that everything was OK.”
Kerry describes 15-year-old gelding Equine America Unick du Francport, a son of Zandor and with whom John Whitaker helped Great Britain secure Nations Cup victory at Hickstead this summer (pictured above), as “very special in his own way and very quiet”.
“You cannot be sharp around him, you have to remain quiet as he is quite a sensitive horse in that respect,” reveals Kerry. “At the same time, he knows what he wants, and does what he wants. If you are hand-grazing him and he sees a spot of grass that he wants, he will head there and will not go where you want him to until he gets his way. Otherwise he is a really easy horse to look after.”
“A gold medallist when it comes to sleeping”: says John Whitaker’s groom Kerry Finch
Frank’s travelling companion Sharid is “another lovely horse”, who is “a gold medallist when it comes to sleeping”.
“They know each other really well and have a habit of whinnying after each other, but they do not stress out if one has left the stable,” says Kerry. “You know that something is not right when Sharid does not go back to bed after breakfast to sleep!”
Kerry’s trick to settling the “sharp” Sharid when John gets on board is to have lots of treats at the ready.
“He has become so used to this routine that now he just stands there looking at me whilst expecting a treat,” says Kerry. “Horses learn very quickly.”
Meanwhile Lynne Barker’s Luidam son, Green Grass, who is usually ridden by Paul Barker but is often “borrowed” by John for the big shows, loves food and rolling.
“All the horses are lovely. They all have different personalities,” says Kerry. “They are spoilt really!”
Kerry previously worked for John’s brother Michael Whitaker for 13 years and Billy Twomey for six years. She originally joined John Whitaker’s team as a freelance groom for one month, but “never left”.
“It is really easy working for John; everything is really old school and simple,” she explains. “If you find a bridle that works for a horse, you do not change it. My horse has had the same bridle for the past three-and-a-half years – that is how it works. Things are simple, and if there is a problem we just deal with it. We are not into having horses treated every six weeks, but if they need treatment, they will receive it.”
“John Whitaker never stops – but he’ll always find time for an autograph”
Kerry says that 68-year-old John Whitaker never stops – even when he is back at home.
“He is up in the morning tacking up his own horses and riding them,” says Kerry. “Afterwards, he looks after the cows and the hay on the farm, or anything that needs mending or fixing on the farm. He is really humble; nothing goes to his head. If anyone approaches him for an autograph, he will always stop and talk to them for five minutes. It is never too much for him.”
She puts John’s longevity in the sport down to “not giving up – he just keeps going”.
“There is no determination to outprove anyone or anything – it is just the way he is,” says Kerry. “He is someone that gets on with it, and who continually keeps going. I think the day he stops will be the day that the world does not have a John Whitaker. Age does not define him!
“Five years ago, John bought Equine America Unick Du Francport who was quite the character,” she adds. “He was difficult and would stop and spin when things upset him. John did not have a grand prix horse at that time, Argento was at the end of his career, so we were not entering the big competitions.
“It was two years of grafting, doing all the tours and the county shows in order for Equine America Unick Du Francport to settle down. John was determined and kept going until the penny dropped. If you look at them now, they are unstoppable. In the past few years, they have formed quite the partnership.”
According to Kerry, the grooms and horses enjoy excellent facilities at major shows such as Spruce Meadows, which has spacious stables and paddocks that they can turn the horses out in, while everything is “incredibly clean and tidy”.
“There is no other show that can compare to the CSIO Spruce Meadows Masters Tournament in the world,” she says. “CHIO Aachen is an incredible show that is brilliant to attend, but Spruce Meadows enters a whole new level.
“They also provide shuttle services for the grooms which makes life easier. The organisers have provided areas where we can hand-walk the horses and we are not restricted to certain areas. The facilities are just top-class. There is no other show in the world that will go above and beyond what they do,” says Kerry, who also cites CHI Geneva as a “beautiful indoor show”.
Life as a groom: “a supportive community”
The Spruce Meadows Masters Tournament is always run in September, meaning visitors and organisers need to be prepared for all weathers.
“I have attended the show in the past when it has snowed and straight away they began shovelling the show by hand,” remembers Kerry. “In 2005 it rained for two weeks straight – I have never seen anything like it. They were proactive by pumping water off the main rings.
“The ground held up so well, so we were able to still jump on it. When you have a problem they sort it – it is truly one of my favourite shows! All of the Rolex Grand Slam of Show Jumping Majors go above and beyond. They set up areas where the grooms can get coffee and other similar things as well, and if there is a problem they do everything they can to help solve it.”
According to Kerry, overall the grooms are a “supportive community” and in Spruce Meadows the grooms arranged together what time to get the shuttle to do the night checks.
“Some people only have one horse and they are always happy to help out those who have a few!” reveals Kerry, who has been working as a groom for 30 years.
“It is the simple things that are important. For example, I asked someone to help me during the Nations Cup parade. Everyone is really helpful, and this is very important in the grooming industry.
“A lot of people come into it for the money, but it is important to be passionate for the job and not look at the hours involved,” stresses Kerry. “It is as difficult as it sounds – you are there for the horses. It is a way of life and not just a job.”
Kerry emphasises that grooms need to put their heart and soul into the job “for it to be done properly”.
“It is not easy!” she says. “You cannot think that you are better than anybody else. The mantra should be that if you do not know, you should ask for help. A lot of younger grooms that come in today, do not want to take advice from the older grooms – but they should be like a sponge learning from everyone around them. I learnt from doing exactly this. The first time I flew to Spruce Meadows, I had never flown with horses before. I was only 20 and I learnt from all of the other grooms around me.”
Kerry is also quick to stress the importance of the whole team involved with John Whitaker.
“There is definitely a strong team aspect, as without everybody pulling together and doing their job, we would not be successful,” she explains. “It is vital for every team member to constantly coordinate with one another to ensure that everyone is kept in the loop. Everyone plays a crucial role in ensuring the health and wellbeing of these horses; it is not just the people who attend the shows, it’s also everyone that remains at home.”
With thanks to Rolex Grand Slam.
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