By Alexa Clegg
Working tirelessly to keep horses looking and feeling their best, grooms are an important part of an equine team. Emma Ford, a groom for one of the top eventers in the nation, shares about this profession, and some of her best advice from her life and work experiences in England and the US. Young rider Alexa Clegg recently sat down with Emma for an interview, covering topics from getting started in the horse world, stable management, general horse care, and advice for the next generation of people working in the horse industry.
So first, tell me a little bit about yourself and your work. How would you explain your profession, your values, etc. to someone who is maybe just getting into the horse world?
I’ve been with Philip Dutton since 2005, and I started out as a groom on the ground but then moved up to a management position-my job now involves everything from feeding, mucking out, vet care, organizing farrier, and logistics of being on the road and at shows. I feel that anyone who is involved with horses needs to be friends with their horse and know their horse inside out and what makes them tick. It is important to know how they’re feeling in a certain situation, whether they feel anxious. At this level of the job, you do it for the horses, not for the money-for me, the horses are my children. When you have been in this business long enough, you will be part of many ups and downs, you must be grateful when things go your way and learn from the ‘down’ times.
I also grew up through Pony Club and I think it has made a huge impact on how I approach stable management. How did Pony Club influence your early years? Do you have any favorite memories?
I probably wouldn’t be in the career now if it wasn’t for Pony Club. I went up through my B test in England. I’ve always been around horses-my dad used to be a master foxhound and my whole family used to ride. I can actually remember going to my very first Pony Club rally on my shetland pony, Georgie-my friend who lived down the road would lead me to the rally off of her horse. I remember the friendships for sure, and I was so fortunate that my parents always made it clear that I had to share in the responsibility of caring for my ponies. The stable management and learning how to take care of the horse really cemented my love of horses. When I got to the age of 13 or 14, I started exercising the hunt horses for my dad, and he would get annoyed, I am sure, when I would say “Well Pony Club says we have to do it this way!” We actually used to hold the summer camps on our farm so I have some amazing memories from that. I was very fortunate in that I rode on the area dressage, show jumping, and eventing teams. The local trainer for our dressage team actually loaned me her Prix St. Georges horse one year because we didn’t have enough good dressage horses within our club; I can remember just how unbelievable it was to learn from that horse that year. My very last horse, Trooper, God rest his soul, probably did about four years of the team showjumping with me, and so he was just amazing. I think everyone should go through Pony Club because it really sets the mark of how much is involved with horses. I think too that that is what is missing a little bit in today’s world-that everyone wants to do the riding but not the groundwork-even some of the people that come to us as working students are very keen to ride but not so much to muck stalls, pick paddocks, or scrub water troughs-which is obviously all part of it. Pony Club really teaches from the ground up, it’s not just the riding or the turn out but most importantly what, when, and how things need to happen. Taking pride in how you take care of your horse is what matters and the Pony Club emphasizes this.
When you decided to work professionally in the horse industry, did you ever experience any difficulties that made you rethink your choice of career? How did you move past any doubts?
Ironically enough, I only came over to the US for a year and the idea was that I would just have fun with the horses and then return home to England to have a “real world job.” I started out in Massachusetts and actually worked for the Iorio family for seven years because I just fell in love with it. I was still riding then but ended up turning to the professional groom career when we flew horses over to Blenheim for the three star event (now four star)-I did the flight with the horses, and then when we got there, we were stabled next to Karen O’Connor which was just, “Wow!” We actually stayed prior to the event at David Green’s farm at the time-we went in the house and Mark Todd and Rodney Powell were sitting at the table which was unreal. At this stage, I kind of knew that I wanted to go to the Olympics, and the only way I could do that was as a groom. It was a very natural progression for me to go that route, and that next big step for me was moving on to Phillip’s as I went from taking care of twelve horses to a barn of fifty horses. I think that change in workload itself was a bit daunting, but my parents had always drilled into me that if you want something, you have to keep working for it, so that’s what I did. As for moving past big problems, I think the biggest setbacks have been losing horses. Woodburn, for example, with whom I had a very close bond-but it really was the eventing community who got me to push through those moments and keep going. The barn fire in 2011 was another of those occasions; Phillip and Evie were the ones who kept me moving through that sad time. Their support helped the whole team persevere through that tragic event. You have to trust the people around you to help you through the bad times. If you ever get up in the morning hating doing this job, that’s when you need to move on. If you notice that you are getting mad at the horses when you usually don’t, then you really need to take a step back and evaluate if this life is for you.
How did you get started working with Phillip Dutton and what has been the most influential thing you’ve learned from managing his barn?
After that trip with Adrienne to Blenheim, I knew that this is what I wanted to do. I heard of a job opening up at Phillip’s barn a couple of years after that first international event, and it was sort of a no-brainer. He wanted a groom to be on the ground all of the time, and I knew I would be happy to do that so it really made sense to make that move. I’ve been so fortunate to accomplish going to four Olympics and world championships with him and being part of his and Mighty Nice’s individual Bronze Medal at Rio Olympics in 2016. For the second part of that question, on a personal level, the most influential thing I’ve learned from his barn would be being comfortable with delegating. Initially there were only two of us at Adrienne’s, so we sort of did everything; even growing up I could do it all myself, but at Phillip’s the sheer number of horses prevented that. In the beginning, I would run out of time during the day and then stay at the barn very late at night clipping horses or whatever I had to do which is a fast way to burn out. You can’t do it all yourself so delegation is a must-as manager, it’s my responsibility that everything runs as smoothly as it can. I wish I could improve still on some of those weaknesses that I have. I think knowing where your weaknesses are, delegating, and being open to new ideas are all very needed in managing a barn.
What is one part of the general horse care routine you believe is often looked over?
I can say through my grooming clinics I’ve done that at the amateur level in particular is just really knowing your horse. That comes from observation-before you even pick up a brush, are you running your hands all over your horse, do you know your horse’s legs so well that you can pick up immediately if there is heat or swelling-and I don’t mean does the leg look like a tree trunk today, but are you able to catch the splint before it’s just starting? The attention to that sort of detail and that headspace are so important. Knowing your horse’s TPR [temperature, pulse, respiration], too, and the difference between how your horse is before and after work, and especially why you need to know that also.
What advice would you give to a young professional starting their first grooming job or working student position? Or what advice would you have given yourself at age 19?
Honestly, my number one thing, especially in today’s world, is getting off that phone. When you go into that working student or grooming position, make notes of the people around you-who has been there the longest and how do they do things? No question is a dumb question, but at the same time, if the manager is doing her stalls a certain way, that’s probably how you should be doing the stalls too. It sounds simple, but it’s very frustrating for a new young person to not catch on to how I’ve been doing the stalls or really doing anything not the way that I would like them done. Watch, listen, put the phones down-they’re there for safety when you’re in the barn or if you quickly need to get a hold of someone. Start observing how all the horses move and their reactions throughout the day, and really take note of the people too and how they interact with horses, owners, and other members of the team.
Since I’ve been in Florida with Lendon’s WIT program for a little while now, I’ve learned that keeping a horse down here in the winter is just a little bit different than back home. Do you have any tips for keeping horses healthy in Florida specifically?
It’s continual work! Even this year, I’ve had a horse -he’s been in my barn since he was three and is now eleven – and I’ve finally figured out how to deal with him breaking out in hives down here. This year, I’ve been testing different clippings, the shortness of hair, length of blade, timing of clips. I basically didn’t clip him until two weeks before I came to Florida and the T-84’s really seem to work for him. Use the sun too, let them sleep outside on the cross ties after work or bathing because they must be completely dry before you put them away. There is also the argument of whether to clip legs or not. Because I do clip legs, my team is really careful to make sure that the legs are perfectly dry before they can be put away, as well as not over-scrubbing them. It’s the small microabrasions that attract the fungi and bacteria which leads to a lot of the problems. Don’t be afraid to change your routine. My go-to products down here are MTG, witch hazel, and apple cider vinegar-if one product doesn’t work for two to three days, then I’ll switch it up and try a different one. A big thing too is not over-shampooing your horse as it can destroy their natural ability to fight everything. I only shampoo my horses before clipping or showing so they really only get hosed off everyday.
How can young people such as myself be on the lookout for future grooming clinics and masterclasses? How has COVID-19 impacted these?
This year is definitely the internet’s year-all of the major websites should have that calendar, but I believe StriderPro.com will definitely have all the clinics and classes on it. As for how COVID has affected us, obviously for World Class Grooming, we didn’t do clinics for a long time; however, we were approached to do webinars and videos online. I actually just did one a few weeks ago for Noelle Floyd on braiding. I’ve also done educational videos for the clipping company Andis, for horses, dogs, and even people this year! I’m not great on all the computer stuff and need to improve (which I will one day), but I can definitely see things shifting towards more webinars and things online. If you ever want help on anything, Cat and I are always happy to answer questions via email as well.