Not for the slacker, a job grooming top dressage horses is demanding but rewarding. Here, some behind-the-scenes heroes share their secrets to success.
By Colleen Scott
Reprinted from the November/December 2020 issue of USDF Connection magazine.
Wanted: Groom. Must be available 24/7; an equine mind-reader; able to maneuver a large rig through narrow barn driveways and truck-stop parking lots; skilled at braiding and otherwise making a dressage horse look letter-perfect; and a master at packing and unpacking gear for journeys ranging from down the road to around the world. Mondays off…maybe.
Ah, the “glamorous” lifestyle of grooms to top dressage horses! These equine athletes are top performers, and they must look every inch the part—pristine, polished, fit, happy, and ready to canter down center line.
Caring for a high-performance dressage horse takes an extraordinary amount of work and horsemanship know-how. We wondered how top grooms do it, and what tips they could share with other grooms and horse owners. For this article, a handful of top grooms allowed us to peek behind the curtain, to see how they help horses and riders to achieve success.
Let Curiosity Be the Guide
“When I first started as a groom, I asked a lot of questions,” says Ellie Pfannebecker, who grooms for Palmyra, Nebraska,-based instructor/trainer Jami Kment. Kment is on the 2020 Kundrun USEF Dressage Development Program list with Gatino Van Hof Olympia, a nine-year-old KWPN gelding (Apache x Silvano N) that she co-owns with Elaine Vandeventer.
In addition to asking questions, groom Meghan Laffin spends time watching other grooms, particularly when her boss, US 2016 Olympic and 2018 World Equestrian Games medalist Kasey Perry-Glass, relocates her operation from Orangevale, California, to Wellington, Florida, for the winter season.
Grooms “really have a great camaraderie,” says Laffin. “Our jobs are a constant learning process. We are all getting better and growing. It’s important to be open to learning. If you’re humble enough to learn from someone or offer them a hand, they’ll do the same for you.”
Armed with questions and ready to learn, we took these grooms’ advice and asked about their strategies for keeping the horses in their care at the top of their game.
It’s All in the Details
Our grooms agree on the importance of paying attention to minute details. Every aspect of a horse’s care and management—from grooming to tack, behavior to nutrition—must be scrutinized.
“We have a lot of responsibility,” says Laffin, who adds that a groom is “very much a part of a team. We are around these horses all the time, and we have the responsibility to be observant. You always hear people say they wish horses could talk; well, if we pay close attention enough, they do talk to us in their own certain way.”
Top grooms spend hours every day with the horses in their care. That consistent time leads to a great bond between groom and horse—and a great understanding on the groom’s part about the horse’s health and well-being.
Good grooms know whether a horse tends to take a few stiff steps out of his stall in the morning (and how many), or whether that stiffness warrants further investigation. They know whether that windpuff on a hind leg is always there or whether it’s new since yesterday. They know whether the horse is a good eater or a picky one, a good drinker or one that has to be coaxed to ingest “strange” water at a show. They know whether the horse regularly naps after lunch or whether lying down means something’s not right. They know the horse’s usual normal temperature range.
“I know them pretty well,” groom José Alaniz says of his equine charges. “I especially know when there is something wrong with them because they are a little nervous and I know what they normally act like.”
Since 2007, Alaniz has worked for San Diego-based trainer and competitor Nick Wagman, who is on the 2020 USEF Dressage Pre-Elite list with Don John, a Dutch Warmblood gelding (Johnson x Goodtimes) owned by Beverly Gepfer.
“José is truly an essential part of our team,” says Wagman. “His role goes far beyond just grooming the horses. From flying with them across the globe to taking them out for an afternoon graze and everything in between, José is their security blanket, advocate, and friend. The horses trust him, and I trust him. That trust is invaluable at this level of the sport.”
The demands of caring for top performance horses often mean that their grooms have relatively small numbers of horses to look after. Of the five grooms and one former groom we talked to, the number of mounts in their care ranged from three to seven.
Among the rider/trainers who opt for the boutique approach is 2015 US Pan American Games team gold medalist Sabine Schut-Kery, of Napa, California.
“Sabine talks a lot about keeping the number of horses in training small,” says Schut-Kery’s groom, Jade Vohland. “Having time to build relationships with them really helps me get to know these horses, and I think they really enjoy that. Getting to know them as individuals, what they like and don’t like, is really helpful in providing the right care.”
Better to Prevent than Treat
With grooms so attuned to their horses, they notice potential problems before they become larger issues.
“Since we know these horses so well, we catch things when they are small,” says Vohland. “Small things, when taken care of right away, stay small. If you don’t catch things early enough, something small can become an issue.”
An open communication line with the veterinarian—another key member of a top horse’s care team—is important, Pfannebecker says.
“We have a great relationship with Chris Newton, DVM, of [Lexington, Kentucky,-based] Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital,” says Pfannebecker. “He’s in Wellington while we are there, and throughout the year comes to the farm [in Nebraska] as well. If there is something going on, we call him, and because he knows our horses so well, he is able to help us.”
High-performance athletes get physiotherapy to help them feel and perform their best, and horses are no exception. The grooms we interviewed use an array of modalities as part of horses’ daily care: ice boots, TheraPlate treatment, cold-hosing, poultices, magnetic blankets, and ice packs. They use them not just to alleviate soreness and stiffness, but to help prevent it.
“I try to look ahead to things that could go wrong,” says Carl Chandler, of Wellington, Florida, who grooms for his wife, 2010 US World Equestrian Games dressage-team member Katherine Bateson-Chandler (who’s currently on the USEF Dressage Elite list with Jane Forbes Clark’s 15-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding Alcazar, Contango x Ferro). “If a horse works particularly hard one day, maybe I’ll use ice boots so they aren’t sore the next day.”
Pfannebecker is a believer in using “carrot stretches” to increase horses’ core strength and flexibility. “We encourage our horses to stretch and bend by using carrots. While they are in the cross-ties, we’ll have them do carrot stretches to help them with flexibility.”
Attention to detail includes adjusting a horse’s routine to suit the weather or other conditions.
COVID-19 travel restrictions quashed Bateson-Chandler’s usual summertime training trip to Europe, and so the couple is coping with the worst of Florida’s heat and humidity.
“We turn the horses out for a few hours in the morning and then bring them in because it is just too hot,” Chandler says. “And when they come in, they get a cold bath and I make sure they are drinking well.”
Wildfires were raging in Laffin’s part of California when we spoke, and as a result “we aren’t exercising them much right now, just trying to keep them happy and healthy because the air quality is so poor,” she reports.
MacGyver, move over. You’ve got nothing on these clever grooms.
The hay-soaking, sleep-saving hack. Tasked with soaking hay for morning feeding, Laffin came up with a hack that allowed everyone to stay in bed an extra hour.
“When we were soaking the hay, we had to get to the barn an hour earlier, so we were trying to figure out a way to get the hay soaked before we got there.”
Enter a garden hose, timer, tub, and full bucket.
“Now, we put the hay in a tub; put a full, sealed bucket on top of the hay; attach it to a garden hose with a timer; and by the time we get to the barn, the hay is soaked and ready to go.”
It took Laffin a few tries to arrive at the magic formula (without weight on top of the hay, it separated and became a mess), but the results were worth the effort.
Tips for fabulous tails. Our grooms agree: Stop brushing tails! Less is more when it comes to tail care.
“I don’t brush the tails every day,” says Alaniz, “maybe just a couple of times a week.”
Instead of using brushes or combs, apply a detangling product (Cowboy Magic and ShowSheen are two our grooms mentioned) to a clean tail and finger-comb it through the strands.
Healthy skin and coat. For cleaning light-colored hooves and white legs, Vohland is a fan of the original Ivory bar soap. “It’s very gentle, which I really appreciate,” she says.
To keep horses’ legs and faces healthy and to minimize the development of fungus, Pfannebecker is a stickler for keeping them dry and clean. For extra crud-fighting power, she washes and towel-dries, then uses her hands to carefully apply first rubbing alcohol, then a small amount of baby oil to act as a barrier to help prevent moisture from getting back up under the hair.
Chandler avoids clipping horses when not showing so as to minimize damage to skin and coat.
On-deck grooming tips. Just before a horse goes in the ring, Laffin uses a towel to apply a shine spray. She likes EquiFUSE Shine Perfect, which she says brings out shine all over the body (but don’t use it in the saddle area!). At home, she’ll also use EquiFUSE Gleam moisturizing shine serum to keep tails lustrous and tangle-free (plus, she says, it “smells amazing”).
Take the time to do a final pre-ride check, grooms advise. Alaniz checks saddle pads, girths, and bridles to make sure everything is secured, tucked in, and in good shape.
“Taking the time to do a once-over before they enter the ring, having a towel handy, making sure everything is exactly as you want it—taking that extra five minutes really makes a difference,” Vohland says.
In Laffin’s ringside grooming kit, along with the requisite towel, shine spray, and fly spray, is a bottle of Tums chewable antacid tablets. She feeds horses a few tablets before they enter the show ring in lieu of sugar cubes, saying, “I think it helps soothe their stomachs and definitely helps them salivate.” At home, she’ll also use Tums to help mask the taste of a medicine a horse doesn’t want to eat.
Time and Schedule Management
When is the farrier coming? Who’s due for vaccine boosters? How long is Dobbin supposed to get antibiotics? Keeping track of all the details of a horse’s care can be daunting—but don’t worry, there’s an app for that.
Laffin and the rest of Perry-Glass’ team rely on TimeTree. Billed as helping to “manage busy lives when sharing the calendar, tasks, notes, and more,” the app helps a group of users stay in sync.
“There is not a linear system to our days or for each horse,” Laffin says. “We all put notes in the app—whether we switched supplements, started one on a certain medication, or the veterinarian treated it for something. That way, if someone asks a question or someone is wondering about a horse’s behavior, we all have access to the information.”
If you don’t want to rely on technology—maybe your barn is in a cellular “dead zone” or lacks wifi—there’s always the trusty analog method. The traditional white board remains a staple at many facilities, highlighting work schedules, feed schedules, farrier visits, veterinary treatments, lessons, and more. Displayed in a central location, a white board keeps all of the pertinent details of the day visible to all.
Not Just a Job
Working as a groom or serving as a working student are time-tested ways of learning horsemanship, riding skills, or both. Some professional grooms are happy “on the ground” and have little to no interest in saddle time, while others use the position as an apprenticeship, laying the ground work for an eventual move to a riding or training career.
The British-born Bateson-Chandler, like many horse-crazy kids, as a teenager worked at barns in exchange for lessons. Her big break came when she landed a job as a groom for Olympian Robert Dover, who at the time was based in New Jersey.
“I remember getting handed the keys to the truck and trailer, and I had barely been driving a car at this point,” she recalls. “But I figured it out.”
The other thing that Bateson-Chandler soon learned was that being a groom isn’t just a job; it’s an all-encompassing lifestyle.
“You have to be willing to give one hundred percent,” she says. “You have to be completely dedicated. You have to want things to be perfect, and be willing to learn from other people that are better than you.”
After working for Dover for 17 years, Bateson-Chandler finally went out on her own. Needing a groom of her own for her KBC Dressage business, she decided to “hire from within”: her husband. After all, Carl Chandler had a proven track record: Having come to the US from New Zealand in 2000 to groom at a polo barn, Chandler went to work for Dover in 2002, where he met his future wife. When the two married in 2005, they groomed side by side, caring for sponsor Jane Forbes Clark’s horses. (Bateson-Chandler would get the ride on Clark’s dressage mounts after Dover hung up his spurs.)
“Carl is one of the few people I could let this role go to,” his wife says. “I don’t have the time to do the kind of grooming I want to. He’s one of the few people I trust one hundred percent. He’ll do as good of a job as I did or even better.”
As the person who may spend more time with a horse than anyone else—even the rider and the owner—a groom, as any top rider will attest, is in some ways the keystone of a horse’s care and management team. If anything in the horse’s life is amiss, the groom may well be the one who spots it first.
“Our horses are such good horses and work so hard for us,” says Pfannebecker, “that if they seem ‘off,’ we start thinking of things that could be wrong as opposed to thinking they are behaving badly.”
The intensity and focus required mean that grooming at the top level is not for everyone, and some find the commitment unsustainable for the long haul. But the education is priceless, and if “your” horse and rider make a team or achieve another lofty goal, the groom feels every bit as proud as the person who was in the saddle.
“It takes a certain kind of person to be a groom,” says Bateson-Chandler. “This is all-consuming. It takes a lot of dedication. We never take holidays. This is our entire life.”
Colleen Scott lives in Kansas City, Missouri. She is fortunate to be the human for Kiss a Girl LOA, a half-Arabian, half-Saddlebred mare.