Why we love our four-footed friends (or not).
I am often moved by the stories I hear of grooms and the relationships they develop with horses in their care over time. I have chatted to grooms who have let loose tears of pride over a particular horses achievements and also those inconsolably distraught at the loss of their beloved “yard favourite”.
It is sobering to hear how many grooms stay in jobs they might otherwise choose to leave, just because they so value their special relationships with “their” horses; some finally having to move on for various reasons, call me in an almost bereaved state to have to leave a favourite behind. I totally get it.
It really isn’t uncommon either for employers and grooms to bond together over their horses, this is lovely for all concerned and it is an unbreakable triangle that can last a lifetime. More common than popular press would have us believe these days!
In this week’s blog, Becky takes a light-hearted trot through just some of her special memories over the years, and am sure we can all relate to at least one if not all of those personalities described. We’d love to hear about those that stick in your mind – which of these do you work with?
Horse characters that make you laugh, cry….and scream!
By Becky Parker
There are many perks to being a groom, the healthy outdoorsy lifestyle, travelling to top events at home and abroad, learning from incredibly talented professional athletes, eating almost as much as the horses knowing you will burn it all off. Yet none of this is what really gets you out of bed on a cold winters morning.
The greatest perk is the horses themselves. When you work with an animal day in day out it’s not just their beauty, their power or the thrill of going for a good gallop that keeps you hooked. It’s discovering their individual unique characters. The way they amuse us with their antics and the satisfaction we get from watching them learn and progress in their careers, as personalities we have a bond with, not just machines. That’s what makes the job so rewarding.
A vital part of a groom’s skill-set is the ability to recognise the different personality types and adapt the way they handle each horse to suit the individual. Of course, some horses make our job easier than others. Here are a few examples of the more ‘quirky’ horses characters you might come across as a groom or employer!
1. THE RAGING BULL
It’s unlikely you can manage to work within a competition yard for longer than 2 minutes without meeting one of these characters. Many fit, highly strung, hot-blooded competition horses have a tendency to like to go everywhere at warp speed. Easily wound up and precious as they are, their turn out time is often limited so when it does come round it is a VERY exciting event. Consequently, getting them to the field can be challenging to say the least.
CASE STUDY – Retro
Retro was a lunatic to turn out, prone to airs above the ground followed by bolting into the distance before we were quite at the gateway. Consequently, we used to lead him to the field with a scoop of horse treats or polos (more desirable than pony nuts apparently) to distract him. You had to unclip him as smoothly as possible while he was distracted and step back quick sharp, NEVER let the clip make a sound!
2. THE SPATIALLY CHALLENGED
Some horses are simply more sensitive (read neurotic) than others. It is unlikely we will ever manage to rationalise their fears. Without knowing their full history and learning to speak ‘horse’ we can never truly always understand why they are scared.
CASE STUDY – Rupert
Dear Rupert had many odd quirks but chief amongst these was his immense fear of doorways. All doors had to be pulled completely back and he had to walk through them with a run-up, aiming exactly for the middle in a straight line. You must NEVER walk through them at the same time as him or have any contact on the rope.
3. THE ESCAPE ARTIST
These crafty characters present themselves in a variety of different ways. There is the stable escape artist, who will undo latches or limbo under stable guards to craftily sneak off for a pick of tasty grass in the night. There is the opportunist, who will take any slack moment of carelessness from you to nudge open a pushed too door or wiggle past a wheelbarrow and gallop off with a spray of sparks, tail over the back causing total havoc. But worst of all is the Jumper.
CASE STUDY – Ted
Ted took his job of field masters top mount very seriously. As a rather talented and bold hedge jumper he spent the summer keeping his eye in by perusing the choice grasses all-round the estate where he was turned out. Come Autumn when his pilot came to collect him he was keen to show off what good form he’d kept with a 3-day display of hedge hopping whenever they came into sight. He was only eventually recaptured with the use of several extra tall cattle gates penning him and a docile friend in a corner.
4. THE ALPHA FEMALE
The Alpha female requires careful handling as she is often one smart cookie and extremely adept at outmanoeuvring her humans. She cannot be bullied, rather she must be persuaded into co-operation. A useful saying to remember is –
Geldings you tell, Mares you ask, Stallions you make a suggestion
CASE STUDY – Jose
Jose lived her life by an large on her own terms. She was at one point a Grade A showjumper until she decided she’d had enough of that and quit entering arenas. She then went on to become a very good Field masters horse covering any country with great panache. Daily management of Jose was also a challenge. All newcomers would be pointedly tested for their alertness as she would very intentionally stamp on their toes should they not be paying attention at any point. Asking her to move when mucking out would be rewarded with intentional foot placement in the nearest dropping. Hacking was a touch and go business as when Jose decided she was done with roadwork you were done. Inventive exercising became the norm as if there were hunt jumps and cantering involved then she was game.
5. THE GRUMPY SOD
For whatever reason, there are many theories, some horses have anger issues. Be it bad early experience, frustration, they may be protective of their own space, sensitive to grooming/rugging or it could just be habit. Curing such horses is usually not possible for the average person and so we must do our best to manage them. The trick, I have found, is to always be aware of where said horse is.
CASE STUDY – WALLY
Old Wally was one of the sharpest teeth happy horses I have ever had the pleasure of caring for. To ride he was, in fact lovely and one of my favourites but to handle he was a savage, he didn’t just nip you, he took a whole chunk, as I soon found out to my own detriment. One morning I was merrily sweeping the yard joking away with a fellow groom dancing to the radio. As I bust a particularly swanky backwards dance move I unwittingly put myself right into Wally’s personal private outside his door space and nudged his chest with the end of my broom. VERY bad move! Wally promptly corrected my unruly behaviour removing a nice chunk of skin from my back and thoroughly bruising my ribs. Lesson learnt – look where you are going and respect grumpy sods space!
6. THE JOKER
If these types were human, they would be the class clown that grows into a comedian. Often a yard favourite they are always up to something and bring daily amusement to the yard with their cheeky nature. Classically pictured sweeping outside their stable nothing is safe from a good chewing. They always want to help often untying themselves, removing their own bandages, other horse’s rugs, burying items of your clothing in their bed and emptying the wheelbarrow for you – outside their stable. There are many such characters that spring to mind but my personal favourite has to be this one.
CASE STUDY – Carlou AKA the dog
Carlou was a particularly loveable big lanky 6yo I looked after on the Sunshine tour in Spain. He was your usual mouthy youngster but he took things to another level when he found his new best friend in my dog Berra. Berra was a young, playful Rottweiler always causing trouble herself, when she ended up tied outside his stable one day the pair hit it off and would literally mouth each other’s necks like 2 dogs would. She would roll around on her back outside his door while he nuzzled and mouthed her. The cutest, most amusing thing I’ve ever seen.
7. THE SIMPLY BIZARRE
Nine times out of ten we can predict or anticipate a horse’s reaction. Particularly when we know them well. A lazy horse will calmly pass most things obliviously. A highly strung, hot horse will spook at anything that moves seeing monsters everywhere and flee. Horses are flight animals, we can understand this. How then to react when a horse goes completely against the norm and does something truly bizarre?
CASE STUDY – Safira
From day one Safira registered herself as an opinionated sort. She stunned us all with her flashy free-floating movement and firmly established herself as a dressage diva demanding special treatment. She showed off her special athletic ability further going through a particularly delightful bucking backwards phase. Eventually coming through this she began her dressage career. However, problems arose when Safira developed a particularly strong disliking for areas where the surface changed, not just in type but puddles, shadows, rays of light, colour. Not so unheard of but rather than spook and flee Safira likes to skid to halt, yank the reigns out of her rider’s hand and not just sniff but bury her nose in said suspicious substance. She could not be moved under any circumstance until she felt good and satisfied the area was safe.
8. TEACHERS PET
An honourable mention must be included here to the yard angel. The perfect gentleman or schoolmistress. A stand out character because they always try so hard to please, doing everything you want almost before you’ve even asked. You yearn to protect them from anything and everyone, you want to take them home at night and it is not unknown for many a Groom to stay in a job a whole lot longer just because they can’t bear to be parted from this one. Everyone has their own version of the superstar, he’s not always the most stunning or the most talented, he’s the one with the biggest heart.
CASE STUDY – Donte
During my time at college, there was a particularly legendary character called Donte. He was no superstar, I hesitate to even put a breed label on him, often he was used as an example of bad conformation. Yet Donte was one of the most loved characters there because he was such a sweetheart. He was the horse you prayed you got for your BHS exams because being able to ride was practically surplus to requirements with Donners. If you had shown him the course map, he probably could have gone round by himself. There was a huge problem with riders having confidence crises at college and Donte was the one that picked them all up. Without him, I don’t think half of these grooms would still be riding now. While he might not have been everyone’s idea of a fun and exciting ride, we all need a Donte at some point in our lives.
According to a recent study shared by the British Grooms Association, 70% of grooms who participated reported having been bullied in the workplace and 86% suffer from mental wellbeing issues. Perhaps it’s all these mighty peculiar characters rubbing off on us? While there is never any excuse for bullying, a job where you are combining half a dozen or more 1000 pound free-spirited animals with a mind of their own, too few staff and not enough daylight hours is going to occasionally become stressful. That’s before you add in a highly strung rider or two and a few of our aforementioned groom stereotypes! There has to be something that keeps on drawing us back, something that makes us wipe out the bad moments, tolerate the occasional idiocy and trudge back on outside into the sideways torrential downpour.
It can only be these quirky equine characters, the ones that make you laugh, cry and quietly scream to yourself in a corner. They are the lovely ones, super talents, the super freaks. On those occasions when the time comes to move on from a yard, some memories fade, for example, the bad boss and the annoying working student – but these ‘special cases’ will win a place in our hearts and minds forever. They are the reason we love horses.