In the second of H&H’s two-part instalment, we catch five minutes with Paralympic GB groom Liz Walsh on her career, advice for aspiring grooms and what it’s like in the stables at the Tokyo Paralympics...
“It feels like I’ve been doing it five minutes, but the reality is it’s 20 years,” said Liz Walsh, one of the two grooms caring for the British horses at the Tokyo Paralympic Games.
Liz is one of the sport’s most experienced grooms. She spent 12 years with Fiona Bigwood and Anders Dahl, is highly involved as groom and stable manager for Britain’s youth teams, has worked at 17 championships and her career has taken her all over the world.
“I absolutely adore my horses,” says Liz. “Even after all these years of doing this, just watching them perform, watching how hard that athletes have worked – their dedication to everything – and then just it all coming together in the arena, hopefully [that’s the best part].
“It’s an emotional roller coaster. Even if you don’t know the horse so well, you get so involved with them over the week or two or three that you’re at a show that they always hold a special place in your heart. To see them in the arena competing and giving their all… there’s nothing that can beat that for me.”
Liz explained how her career started.
“Both my parents are horsey, my mum and dad were both in racing. So it’s their fault entirely,” she laughs.
“They kind of pushed me away from racing, even though we had lots around when I was growing up. I was taught be Patsy Bartram, who is dressage based, and so she converted me.
“I was managing a private National Hunt stud for Paul Murphy, whose daughter is now a very good racing trainer down in Newmarket [Amy Murphy]. I was in the pub one Sunday afternoon and I got a phone call to ask whether I wanted to go for a job in Germany.
“I flew out there for an interview and when I came back, they offered me the job. My boss at the time he was in Ireland. When he returned and I told him I was leaving, he said: ‘Good! You need to go away and do something. I want you to be gone at least a year’.
“He was very instrumental, he was always wanted me to better myself and go and see the world. He sent me off, and Patsy sent me with a horse. Paul said, ‘I don’t want to see you again for a year, make sure you stay out in Germany and get all the experience you can’.
“The family I went to work for was Fiona Bigwood and Anders Dahl and I ended up working for them for nearly 12 years. That was amazing. I went to so many shows with them and they were incredible with me so I was like part of the family there.”
Liz then met her husband and moved home to start a family, starting a new chapter in her life and in her career.
“When you’re a groom, it’s in your blood, and you love it and you miss it,” she adds. “I didn’t think it would work being freelance, because I like to be heavily involved with the horses but it worked out really well. I’ve had lots of opportunities to become part of the junior and young riders and pony teams, and then to get involved with the para dressage as well for the last five years. I never made plans, but it’s all just worked out really nicely so I’m very, very lucky.
“I remember my careers advisor at school telling me, working with horses was going to be a waste of time and it’s not something that I should go into. I’ve travelled the world for free, made amazing friends, I’ve been lucky to go to America a few times, to Rio to Hong Kong and all over Europe. [Fiona and Anders] did lots of shows in Scandinavia and Austria and so I have been super lucky and I’m very grateful for the opportunities people have given me to do that and to take care of their horses.
“It sounds cheesy, but for them to choose me to take care of them really means a lot. I’m super lucky that everyone I’ve worked for has treated me like one of the family.”
Liz, who is mainly looking after Sir Lee Pearson and Natasha Baker’s respective rides, Breezer and Keystone Dawn Chorus, was full of praise for the organisation and facilities in the Equestrian Park in Tokyo.
“It’s been one of the nicest shows I’ve ever been to organisationally, they’ve been super efficient,” she said, adding everyone from the British contingent is also pulling together to help each other out and ParalympicsGB has “thought of everything”.
“[The organisers have] done a very good job and we all appreciate it as grooms. Little things like not having to go too far to washing machines or wash bays. Everything’s really convenient and easy and they’ve got huge water containers with really cold water inside, which really helps after exercise. As a groom, our priority is always the horses’ welfare, and they have thought of everything.”
With the stables a “two minute walk” from the grooms’ accommodation, they have also been able to see some of the wildlife in the area while hand grazing in the morning, from parakeets to huge dragonflies in an array of colours.
“It’s the first time I’ve really worked together with Jade [Lockwood, Britain’s other groom in Tokyo] and she has some brilliant one liners, she says. “She’s doing absolutely fantastically, she’s a real team player and very hard worker.”
So what advice would Liz give to young people thinking about grooming as a career?
“[Working with] horses isn’t easy,” she says. “You have to work hard, you have to take pride in what you do and take any opportunity that’s given to you, but don’t take that opportunity for granted. You can’t have someone who’s standing around watching everyone else.
“Work hard, take pride in what you do, respect people around you, respect your horses, love your horses and cherish every moment. Yes, it’s very tough, and you have to be able to live off very little sleep sometimes. We all know it’s not a nine to five working with animals, but then also you need to keep a balance as well in life and make sure you’re treated right by your boss too. Just work hard, enjoy it and make memories along the way.”
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