Horses for Courses
It is undeniable that if you work within an equestrian discipline that actually interests you and suits your personality traits and experience levels, then your working life will be much more fun and you will thrive in that role for longer periods of time and to a good level, everything else being equal! I can spot a square peg in a round hole at 1000 paces and, it has to be said, this forms the basis of many discussions I have with both grooms/riders and indeed, employers. This is one of the benefits of using a recruitment agency like ours, as discussed in our recent article Why Use a Recruitment Agency.
What is true is that grooming within any discipline requires reliability, consistency, hard work, and initiative. But this week, we take a characteristical tongue in cheek, whistle-stop tour through just a handful of popular disciplines. Becky Parker will ponder the various discipline-specific characteristics and it will remind you of why you suit a specific discipline, or it might help you to finally decide which of the horsey disciplines suit you, or even some of the people you know.
See if you can guess which one Becky seems to have a bias towards?!
DISCLAIMER – For the purposes of this article we have made a few sweeping generalisations, and apologise in advance for any unfair stereotyping. We don’t mean to offend and, of course, recognise that no two people/yards are ever the same and there are many yards that absolutely do not adhere to the stereotypes. The blend of personalities at the yard and the ethos and approach of the owner/person in charge will be the greatest deciding factor in your role and the culture within the workplace.
Which Equine Discipline Reflects Your Character?
The age old saying ‘Horses for Courses’ originates from the racing world as an abbreviation to imply that some horses run better at certain racecourses. In the context of this article, meaning some people are better suited to one discipline vs others just because their experience, skill set or personality suits that role better.
It would be beneficial for job seekers to keep this in mind when choosing which discipline to work in next. The actual practical role of a groom can be similar in many roles but what can vary greatly, depending on the sport but also, depending on the “culture,” and lifestyle that surrounds the discipline. Here, as ever, we take a light-hearted look at just some of the key differences you can expect to find for just some of the more common disciplines.
Eventing yards tend to be busy, bustling, hives of activity. The sport demands a great deal of versatility and common sense from both horse and rider and it is these traits you see reflected in all who are drawn to it. The people involved are a bold, cheery, uber-positive, level-headed, practical bunch with a very “kick on and get by” attitude.
In terms of stable management, the horses will usually get a turnout time and have a very varied work schedule. For the groom’s role, this means lots of riding, usually predominantly hacking and some fast work if your riding is up to a good standard. Unless you are a home Groom, expect many days out, mainly UK based, even through the winter off-season when the horses will be taken out to Dressage and Showjumping as training. Competition days are long and the facilities, even at 3 day events, are basic (think a field with portaloos or sports club shower facilities and a marquee). However, there is a great ‘all in this together’ helpful attitude in Eventing. Event riders often adopt a hands-on approach, commonly seen chipping in on the yard and at competitions.
- The Event groom must possess a minimum of 3 sets of hands and a turbo warp speed button. This allows them to achieve the seemingly impossible task of single-handedly preparing four horses, in the right place, at the right time, in the right tack, for 3 different disciplines at a 1-day event!
- Prepare yourself for copious (ridiculous!) amounts of mud! Scraping actual layers off so many horses every day, when all the horses come in at night, will soon have you reassessing your opinion on horses living as naturally as possible! Hand washing cross-country boots is the event grooms particularly favourite delight.
- The Event groom needs to be the human equivalent of a stud application and removal machine. The skinned, swollen knuckles of a bare knuckled boxer that identify the rookie groom are soon replaced by farrier like equine leg handling skills and quads of steel from extensive squatting.
The Dressage yard tends to be a quiet and calm place, usually boasting a beautifully built set of stables and barns, kept immaculately, with fantastic facilities often constructed to allow for high levels of individual equine attention. It is not uncommon to travel to shows, even in the UK and stay away with only one horse. Of course it’s a given that general horse care and wellbeing is paramount, but additionally, a key part of the grooms role in this discipline will be centred around presentation. Exceptional turn out skills (yard/horse/self/rider/riders dogs/yard cat/yard mouse etc) and a fastidious attention to detail are a must for any groom aspiring to work on a serious Dressage yard.
In terms of the riding within a Dressage yard, of course, by definition, there is a much greater emphasis on schooling, although most riders these days seem to be balancing this with some turnout, hacking and even a little jumping etc. Grooms can expect to spend most of their time preparing the horses for the riders and managing them afterwards. In some yards, such as Carl Hester’s, (allegedly) some of the grooms will warm up and cool off the horses in walk after they have been ridden.
- The Dressage groom must possess a strong similarity to a magpie with a powerful attraction to all things that glitter and shine. The desire to burnish such objects until they are almost blinding in their brilliance, be they diamante browbands, stirrup irons or just the bolt on the stable door is considered normal and acceptable behaviour.
- The Dressage groom must understand the overriding importance of the needs of their top charge above all else. He must be treated like Royalty. Unrolling a red carpet to shield his precious hooves from contact with unsanitary items whilst travelling to the arena would be met with approval.
- The Dressage groom may often (but not always) find themselves surrounded by an awful lot of well… to put it bluntly… money. Extortionate price tags balanced by direct access to enjoying the nicer things in life in terms of facilities, equipment and outstandingly well-bred beautiful horses help one not to judge too harshly whilst amongst the other daily chores, the routine day to day gravel sweeping and bolt polishing duties will ensure both feet remain planted firmly on the ground.
Showjumping yards can vary hugely in size from young riders just starting out with a small string and 1 or 2 grooms, to huge jumping yards on the continent that can have 50 + horses in training at one time and a whole team of staff. It is a sport with huge highs when horses jump well and miserable lows when all is lost with one tapped pole. At top level there can be a lot of travelling involved as many showjumpers will pack up all their top horses and head abroad to Europe or even America for months at a time. There are several different ‘Sunshine tours’ in Southern Europe, to which many of the rider’s head off to after Christmas to escape the cold. As with all disciplines you can be the one who heads off with the rider some/all of the time, or the one who stays home some/all of the time.
Similar to dressage, most days are spent preparing horses for the riders and can involve a lot of building/adjusting jumps. Riders will often have 8+ horses to ride and your main aim is to make it as quick as possible for them to jump from one horse to another. Lunging tends to be popular so expect to spend a considerable amount of time spinning in circles and hanging onto fresh horses drunk on freedom! Organisation is most important for all show Grooms. Having an efficient turnaround method at home ensures nothing gets forgotten and saves a lot of stress. There is A LOT of standing around at ringside holding horses so don’t forget to pack layers for yourself (or sunscreen if you’re lucky enough to be abroad) and many pocket sized snacks!
- For the Showjumping groom management of the rider is often the most challenging part of their job. With multiple rides in a day, course walks and the schmoozing of owners required, ensuring they are on the right horse at the right time with all the right gear they need takes some tactful nudging in the right direction.
- For the riders and the horses, fashion is of great importance. Brands must be clearly on show, braided “bonnets” must be donned by horses, riders jackets must be fitted and flattering, manes must be plaited into 1 million tiny perfect balls or cut in a ruler-straight line and numnahs must have the riders name on. For the grooms however, looking a lot like a dishevelled scarecrow is standard.
- The Showjumping groom must possess a liver of steel and a strong understanding of banter. What might appear to be a lonely existence on the road at shows for much of the year is, in fact, a very sociable lifestyle, as the lorry park at any showground after a day of big classes would pay testament too. This lot work hard and party harder. The ability to function with a horrendous hangover is a definite plus.
Hunt staff seem to be an “as tough as old boots” sort of bunch. Seemingly impervious to the cold they will stoically battle on through wind, rain and sleet to keep the cogs of the hunting machine turning. Whilst facilities sometimes can be pretty basic, the hacking is often fantastic and there’s lots of it for everyone. Opportunities to hunt can be a fun perk of the job too. Similar to their grooms, and riders for that matter, the horses are a hardy, level-headed, sensible sort who are easy to do and not fazed by much.
Hunt yards tend to have a fairly set routine with certain days being hunt days and everything else revolving around that. The day before will be a manic whirlwind of exercising, bathing and tack cleaning. Hunt days are busy but with periods of calm for the staff at home. The day after hunting is usually an easy day of recuperating and re-organisation for staff and horses. From roughly April-July most hunters (but not all) are turned out 24/7 for a holiday, so sometimes staff are only employed seasonally or may be expected to chip in with other jobs such as farm work, point-2-pointers, painting or kennel work during this time.
- The Hunt groom must possess an almost Witchdoctor-like ability to turn a horse that returns home from hunting after a big Saturday looking like it has demolished every hunt rail, and ploughed through several hedges back, into a sprightly bold jumping machine again by Wednesday.
- Hunting is possibly the only ‘sport’ where it is considered entirely acceptable for all involved to start consuming alcohol at 11 in the morning. This works remarkably well as Dutch courage when faced with a double of hunt rails straight out the meet on a green as grass youngster you’ve been nominated to test pilot.
Horse racing is known as the sport of kings, whether it is this royal support (UK or otherwise) or the billions spent on betting every year behind it, the financial backing the sport benefits from is clear. The facilities in racing are second to none. The big yards of successful trainers are entirely self-sufficient with their own vets, farriers, therapists, breeding operations, solarium, swimming pools and any other conceivable fancy facility you can think up. The benefits trickle through to the stable staff too as this is the only equestrian sport where grooms have their own union. The National Association of Racing Staff who ensure staff are paid overtime, a nightly allowance for staying away, Sunday racing bonuses, foreign travel bonuses and best of all Pool money!
Racing yards are quite unique in their daily routine. Stable staff can start as early as 5.30am to get the horses fed and mucked out ready for the first lot at 7.15am. Almost everybody rides out up the gallop and occasionally round the roads for strengthening work. Staff take a long lunch break from around 11am until evening stables at around 3.30pm. Racing yards have an excellent system where each stable hand will be allocated 4-5 horses that they are responsible for the care of. He/She may ride out different horses but in all other stable management areas, they are solely responsible for these set charges. In such a big operation this is a great way of ensuring each horse receives individual care.
Here is a nice little video to learn what life in racing is like.
- The racing groom must come equipped with a good sense of humour and a high tolerance for childish pranks. My sources report antics such as – hoof oil in riding hats and on wheelbarrow handles, birthday/last day swimming pool dunking (winter or not) heavy mockery of anyone foolish enough to fall off an easy horse.
- To hop up onto a fit and fresh racehorse, some of them recently (and only vaguely at that) backed you have to be either a good deal braver than most or very foolhardy. I sense it is the thrill of danger that the experience of flying at such eye-watering speeds these finely tuned thoroughbreds reach is what this mad bunch do it for. The questionable control often apparent, merely adds to the excitement. Lucky that most of the fast work is in straight lines with a clear start and finish point!
PRIVATE FAMILY YARDS
The eclectic and often eccentric mix of disciplines and definitions this title covers are probably what best describes the role itself. It is also one of its greatest selling points. Most will feature a range of horses from Dads trusty bombproof hunter to Mums quirky spoilt rotten eventer, a couple of do-it-all pony club ponies and a rebellious laminitic Shetland that is impossible to keep in or catch! The unique nature of each yard is characterised by the family themselves. As the kids grow older their ponies and interests change keeping the job fresh and fun.
This type of yard will usually have no more than 1 or 2 grooms so it is often a yard manager role requiring the groom to be confident in sole charge with the experience to manage and run a yard with little guidance. The days will be fitted around the family and when or whether they would like to ride. Usually, the groom will work with the parents to agree a work plan for the horses and/or simply season aims leaving it down to you to have them fit and schooled for purpose.
- The Family Groom requires the patience of a saint and a fine understanding of the art of bribery in order to manage Mummy’s little darlings (Equine, Canine, Feline and Human). When you are left to supervise the kids riding session, simply rounding them up to tack up Snowy and Beauty is at times an Olympian test in anger management.
- The Family Groom must possess a diverse set of skills and understand that their job title of Groom is only a loose description. They shall also be expected to serve as a babysitter, riding instructor, taxi driver, house sitter, cleaner, gardener, grounds maintenance, mechanic and occasional life counsellor when the kids come in crying or poor overrun Mum looks ready to have a mental breakdown.
As you will hear time and time again whenever a Grooms role is mentioned, the job is a whole lot of hard work. So no matter how good a package sounds in terms of wage, fancy accommodation and job perks, if it’s not in a discipline that interests you, it’s not going to work. Experimenting with different roles is a good idea but only if there is some prior knowledge or at least a desire to learn about that sport or if there is a genuine career enhancing rationale involved, BUT be very careful not to create a “job-hopping” record on your CV!
You are better engaged with the role if you understand what the different levels are, actively follow the top horses and riders, appreciate the relevance of top events and championships and enjoy standing ringside watching. In the right role work can be like a dream come true, travelling to big shows you have watched on TV as a child, mingling with or perhaps even working for riders who have always been your idols. Grooming is the fastest way to get truly behind the scenes of and contribute to the sport you love. Being passionate about horses is vital but working in a like-minded team focused on a discipline you enjoy multiplies an OK job to simply FABULOUS!