Alan Davies‘ guest edit: An invaluable cog – grooming through the decades *H&H Plus*

  • The role and techniques of a groom have changed over the decades, but it’s still the case that the more you put in, the greater the rewards, finds Georgia Guerin

    When Piggy March (née French) won her first Badminton last year, she was quick to credit her team. “It isn’t just about me,” she said. “It’s about the people around me who work so hard every day.”

    Piggy nominated her groom, Amy Phillips, for the Horse & Hound NAF Five Star Groom of the Year award last year, too – which she won – saying: “Without her my dreams wouldn’t have come true.”

    Behind every great rider is a hard-working and devoted team of grooms, and there are some who have become well-known for the dedication they’ve shown to the job. From taking charge on the yard to ensuring everything runs smoothly at competitions, grooms are an invaluable cog that help to turn the wheel of success.

    The role of a groom has changed over time, and those who’ve been in the profession for many years have had to adapt – holding on to traditional methods while embracing new techniques and innovations. Jackie Potts, who has groomed for five-star event rider William Fox-Pitt since 1993, believes the role has really “stepped up” in many ways.

    “Years ago, a groom would muck out, wash horses off and do the late-night checks, but now they are so much more involved with the welfare and care,” she explains. “Some grooms run the yard while the rider does all the riding, but this differs between riders and how big their set-up is.

    “At William’s, I run the yard, but I go with him to competitions, too. We don’t have a specific travelling groom – who goes depends on how many horses we have and what level they’re at.

    “It’s nice for the staff who are looking after the horses at home to go to the competitions with them,” Jackie notes. “It makes it more inclusive and boosts team spirit. The more you can include staff, the more likely they are to feel encouraged to view grooming as a career.

    “Nowadays, it’s very difficult to find someone who’s planning on staying longer than a couple of years,” she adds. “In my experience, at least 90% of grooms enter the profession viewing it as a stepping stone to becoming a rider. I think many are disillusioned by it – realistically, unless they are very talented or have the financial backing, the majority won’t make it. There are very few who come with the intention of being a groom – it’s something the industry needs to recognise.”

    Jo Jack, who was head groom to top showing producer Katie Jerram-Hunnable for 15 years, echoes Jackie’s thoughts.

    “People enter the job for a variety of reasons and when I was at Katie’s there was a very solid crew that worked for the top producers. But now I see fewer recognisable faces and there doesn’t seem to be as much longevity.”

    Jo found a reason to stay in the job year after year, much longer than she’d planned, calling it a “lifestyle choice”.

    “You work weekends and bank holidays, and no one in the showing world is opposed to a 1am alarm on the morning of a show,” she adds.

    Good at travelling

    Jackie highlights transporting horses as one aspect of the job that has really increased. “To be a good groom these days you need to be good at travelling,” she says.

    The effort to help Japanese eventer Kazuma Tomoto – who is based at William’s – to qualify for the Olympics entailed a huge amount of travel.

    No one knows about the amount of time in transit better than a showjumping groom. Reigning Olympic champion Nick Skelton’s long-time groom Mark Beaver often travels with Nick’s partner, US Olympian Laura Kraut, and agrees, noting that horses fly a lot more than ever before.

    “Travelling on the road hasn’t changed much, but you could definitely live in some of the living areas in these modern horseboxes,” he muses.

    Mark, 60, has worked with Nick for the past 35 years. “When I first started, it was just Nick and he was riding about eight horses,” says Mark. “Now there are around 50 horses in total and a lot of clients, so things work very differently – more like a factory, for want of a better word. I think this is the case in many yards nowadays.

    “It was a lot easier back then in many respects; I’d go back if I could without hesitation – it was a lot less serious.”

    Jackie, who is a previous recipient of the FEI’s best groom award, has a similar story to tell.

    “When I started working for William we both rode because there were only two of us and 13 horses. If I were still riding, there would be plenty for me here. There are quite a lot of opportunities for grooms to ride – if that’s what they want – if they look for the right jobs.”

    Therapeutic equipment

    Recalling the order of the day when she first started, Jackie points out that this was before horse walkers existed.

    “We’d walk horses on the road in-hand each morning before they were ridden, and then we’d turn them out in the afternoon,” she remembers. “Nowadays we have a lot more therapeutic equipment, such as magnetic blankets, massage pads and ice boots. We also use a spa and as grooms we are very involved with that.”

    Jo, who won the Showing Council’s groom of the year award in 2014, has also noticed a real change in the products she’s used over the years.

    “When I started grooming, make-up was really frowned upon, but now it’s available in every shade you could imagine,” she explains. “We used to plait with water, but now you can get all sorts of waxes and gels that make it a lot easier. We also used a lot of baby oil, but now you wouldn’t think of doing that – you’d choose a product with an SPF rating.

    “We all know a lot more now, particularly about the science of feeding,” Jo adds, “which makes you view everything differently.”

    Like Jo, who was still strapping when she left Katie’s, Mark prefers traditional methods.

    “These days many grooms don’t know how to groom a horse properly – they just don’t have the time to do it, so often showjumpers just get bathed instead,” he says. “There is also a lot more clipping, which makes keeping them clean easier, but I’m old fashioned and like to see a summer coat.”

    Day-to-day developments

    While judges’ preferences may have been the driving force for many changes in showing, some of the day-to-day developments that affect all grooms have come with societal advances.

    “Times were different and there are more rules now,” explains Mark, who is now freelance, like Jackie. “Hours and pay are much better now – a lot of people don’t understand that often you also get living accommodation, which means no bills or council tax.”

    The change of competition format has had an effect for eventing grooms, says Jackie.

    “The end of long-format competition has changed everything quite dramatically, from how you get the horses fit to the types of people who are around,” she says. “Some things are better now, but some aren’t. We try to look after the horses better, but I do wonder if we put too much pressure on them at competitions?

    It’s ruled by prize money and medals, whereas years ago I wonder if that was as important.”

    So what does it take to be a top groom in the present day? Among the expected attributes – “dedicated, loyal and hardworking” – the top answer was having a sense of humour.

    “When you’re happier the horses are happier,” says Jackie, “I always say, ‘Happy groom, happy horse, happy rider’ – it’s so true and each one affects the other.”

    Mark adds: “You’ve also got to be quite placid – you can’t let things get on top of you – and you need to have respect for who you’re working for.”

    Jackie sums it up perfectly: “You have to put in 110% at all times, but what you put in you certainly get out.”

    Alan says…

    “I’ve ended up looking after the most famous dressage horse in the world, Valegro, but I started in hunt service with the Puckeridge and Thurlow. I was 16 and working for a ferocious head girl who promised my parents she’d put me off working with horses. Luckily I had a thirst for knowledge and couldn’t be put off.

    “I went to America for four years in my 20s as a travelling groom, working with showjumper Michael Matz, who had a horse called The General who went on to win gold at Pan Am Games. I’ve also worked for event riders, and in showing for Tania Alexander, who won the ladies hunter at HOYS in 1996 on Trump Card.

    “Still at my age I will go and ask the eventing grooms how they are cooling horses now, or ask showjumpers what the latest trend is for applications for legs. It’s amazing how different disciplines have different ways of doing things but all to the same end.

    “Grooms now are much more involved in the whole horse care and management system. Before I went to the US I didn’t know anything about whirlpool boots for horses, and there’s more science behind the aftercare of horses now for legs and muscles. There’s simply more kit now, things like magnetic blankets, plus all the different sorts of therapy available. It’s a huge undertaking caring for top horses now, it’s not just a case of grooming, plaiting and getting them into the ring.”

    Ref Horse & Hound; 30 April 2020