Behind every rider’s success is a groom’s trials and tribulations. Sarah Jenkins finds out what comical goings-on have contributed to riders’ glory over the years
“I remember a funny incident taking horses on a plane to Las Vegas for the World Cup in 2000,” says Jenny Ellis, former elite groom for John Whitaker, Geoff Billington and Richard Davison, as well as supporting Britain’s para dressage team at Beijing 2008. “It was the oldest plane you’ve ever seen. They built a ramp to get the horses in that I can only describe as something you’d walk up into a chicken coop.
“Once we were on and had worked out how to build the crates around the horses, I asked where the emergency chutes were and was told there weren’t any. I saw the pilot had his golf clubs with him so I thought he must be optimistic we were going to get there at least.
“I was travelling with Tez Harrison, who worked for John Whitaker for 18 years. Some people were standing or sitting on the floor but there were a few seats, and Tez and I sat together. As we took off we realised the seats hadn’t been strapped in, and we shot to the back of the plane.”
Jenny checked on the horses, who were fine, and was able to walk around and chat to the flight engineer, pilot and navigator up front. “The pilot had to stand up and shuffle round so we could get to the loo,” she recalls.
They stopped in Newfoundland to refuel. “There was no water on the plane so we had to go across the runway and get it in buckets,” says Jenny. “The flight engineer came down and we were chatting away. I asked what was coming out the engines, and he got animated saying it was aviation fuel. Someone had a cigarette on, so we got that out quick, and the fire engines came. All the foam they were spraying went into the horses’ area – we went back into the plane looking like abominable snowmen trying to get the foam off them.”
The route home was a little less eventful, though no less disconcerting.
“I saw the crew in a bar in Vegas and said, ‘We’ll be loading at midday, is there any chance of air-con to cool it down before we load the horses?’ The engineer said, ‘That’s a great idea.’ So they did it. But then we were all on board and waiting for ages – I was joking they’d forgotten to fill it up with diesel. There we were, sat out on a runway in the desert, with the horses sweating while the plane refuelled.
“As we got near Ostend, Belgium, I went up and asked how long until we land and the pilot said, ‘We’re just looking for the airport.’
“We often say the grooms today work so hard and the horses are on the plane a lot, but they aren’t on planes like that now – on one flight Tez had to plug up the holes in the walls.”
The end of long-format eventing
Talking of improvements, Tina Cook’s groom Rachel Tolley was glad to see the back of long-format eventing.
“That used to be horrific,” she recalls, remembering one occasion where Tina was riding Captain Christy at Pau. “The steeplechase was a country mile away, they’d gone off on the chase, my shuttle hadn’t appeared, and you always had to weigh up if it was quicker to run or wait for the next shuttle.
“You had to take so much spare stuff with you it was like carrying another horse. I ran the whole way, but by the time I got back I’d missed the whole of the 10-minute box preparations, Tina was coming into the finish, and I thought I was going to pass out.
“The kids who do it today wouldn’t know what hit them. At the time we complained about them changing the format, but I don’t know how we did it.”
Talking to a number of elite grooms about the challenges they have faced around major events, the logistics of travel feature heavily. Rachel remembers a trip to Boekelo in 2007.
“Miners Frolic [Henry] had been second at Blenheim, but selectors weren’t interested in him for the Beijing Olympics in 2008 unless he gained more experience,” she says. “He was fit and well, so we took him to Boekelo. We thought we’d be clever and take him by himself, then an hour into the journey we got stuck in a road block. The police car chase had passed us by.
“Our lorry then broke down, and we had Tina’s young daughter with us, so there we were stuck on the side of the shut road with a two-year-old child and a horse who didn’t like being on his own. The breakdown service came but we were seven hours late for the boat.
“However, Henry went on to finish third, and then selectors wanted him as an Olympic horse, where he won double bronze.”
Sean Lynch, travelling groom for Belgian-based German showjumper Daniel Deusser, recalls a similarly fraught lorry journey when he forgot the passports for the Madrid leg of the Global Champions Tour.
“It was 2016 and I’d just come back from the La Baule Nations Cup show. I’d arrived home early Monday morning, unpacked, repacked and left that night for Madrid,” he says. “I was three-and-a-half hours down the road and there was a song on the radio by Drake in which he sings the word ‘passport’, and it struck me I had forgotten to pack ours. I was at the French border having a meltdown on the side of road, digging out all the trunks. I had to do a U-turn and added six hours to what is already a crazy-long journey.”
Sean’s life is a whirlwind of travelling different horses to all corners of the globe, it’s a wonder he ever knows where he’s supposed to be.
“When Daniel went to Gothenburg a few weeks before the lockdown, I went to Doha, and I’d forgotten to pack his ring bag for Gothenburg,” he admits.
Happily the camaraderie is such between grooms that kit is happily lent. “If you forget something, someone has it,” says Sean.
We’ve established the flying element of competition has the potential to be testing, but then of course there are the times horses will simply show you up. Sean recalls making a big fuss about loading a mare who is quirky – “you have to reverse her into the ring, she won’t go in forwards” – for her first flight.
“Of course, she then walked straight into the container and was calmer in there than she is on the lorry, so everyone wondered what I was on about,” he says.
Sean can laugh at these times now, but other challenges elite grooms face are far less light-hearted – and all add tremendous pressure to what is already a huge responsibility in caring for top-level horses.
He will never forget being on the runway in Doha for six hours without food or water as an aircraft was mended, nor sitting on top of a crate on a plane holding a bag of fluids for the horse in the container who had got a leg stuck over the partition.
Whether it’s organising trips with military precision, dealing with the unexpected, or nursing horses back to health, all elite grooms could write a book about the stories and sheer effort that went in to the glorious achievements we watch and report. Hats off to them all.
“Flying back from Sydney in 2000 we had an engine failure – one out of six failed and we had to land in Singapore as scheduled for refuelling; the other engines were enough to get us there. We had 52 horses on the plane and we needed a plan – we could either wait for the engine to be mended, which could take days and stabling and transport were limited, or we could load them on to an empty incoming plane that was on its way to Sydney to pick up horses.
“It was a logistical nightmare getting those horses off the plane in 30°C and on to the next plane as quickly as possible – it took about an hour and a half. They went on in the order they came off the first plane, so the flight plan turned into a mirror image. Stallions that had all been sensibly positioned down the middle ended up on the edges, nipping anyone who came by.
“That was pretty high pressure, but there are much funnier things that go on behind the scenes at championships that nobody knows about. At the World Games in Stockholm in 1990 the lorries were parked way out of town and grooms had accommodation in town, so we had bikes to get from the showground to the hotels. We were all assigned keys at random for bikes with locking systems, and I walked out to find I’d been allotted the brightest pink bike you’ve ever seen. I was the laughing stock, but I loved cycling round Stockholm on my luminous pink bike.
“Then when we were in Rio in 2016, a bunch of grooms tried to get to the beach to have lunch one day and I stayed back, which was lucky because they got stuck in traffic and they were gone for about four hours. I ended up feeding several nations’ horses that day – the grooms were completely freaking out stuck out in fog.”
Ref Horse & Hound; 30 April 2020