Groomed for stardom

Behind every great horse, there’s a great groom, writes CAROLYN HENDERSON. Top riders know and appreciate that – it’s why Valegro’s groom, Alan Davies, has become a celebrity in his own right.

It’s also one reason why Valegro’s rider, Charlotte Dujardin, has become patron of the British Grooms Association. After all, she started her working life as a groom on a dressage yard, aged 16, and look where it led.

Carl Hester, Charlotte Dujardin and groom Alan Davies with Valegro. Image: Kit Houghton

Many youngsters dream of working with horses. Many parents don’t want them to, fearing that they’ll spend all day shovelling you-know-what and being paid the financial equivalent.

There’s another side to the story, though. I spent a day last week on a top yard, where the horses are happy and beautifully cared for and where two of the stable staff clock up more than 40 years between them as members of a close team.

So why does the owner of that yard – and several of its counterparts, across the disciplines – say how difficult it is to get good staff?

One show producer says that every time she interviews potential staff, many applicants expect to be allowed to compete her horses in the ring as soon as they start. That’s like applying for a job as a shop assistant and turning up on your first day expecting to be the manager.

In defence of that owner, staff who show aptitude do get the chance to compete, once they’ve proved themselves. Unfortunately, many applicants don’t want to work at weekends, which sort of rules out the opportunity…

Another yard owner, this time in the eventing world, blames colleges for building what he calls “ridiculous expectations”. He says students leave college expecting to find jobs as yard managers rather than being prepared to work their way up.

He, like most riders at the top of their game, has his own ways of doing things. For instance, he likes his horses to be fed hay from the floor so they mimic grazing posture. He didn’t like the bright young thing who told him he should use haynets because his way was wasteful.

It’s easy and unfair to have a go at colleges, many of whom do a great job. If students have ambition, colleges should encourage them, albeit in a realistic way.

There must also be many cases of grooms being undervalued, underpaid and overworked. Working with horses is never going to be a nine to five job and plum posts are hard to find, but there’s no justification for grooms being exploited.

By all means dream of becoming talent-spotted to become the next Charlotte Dujardin, but unless you’ve got that talent, plus a lot of luck, be prepared to settle for another role. Being a groom doesn’t have mean being second-best.