This was a led question session with Eric Smiley leading the questions. The grooms involved in the discussion were Alex Van Tuyll who has worked for William Fox-Pitt and now is predominantly freelance, Zanie King who is Laura Collett’s Yard Manager and Travelling Groom and has previously worked for Pippa Funnell, and Imogen Mercer who is Head Groom for Sam Griffiths. All these grooms have huge amounts of experience at international and domestic events.
When we talk about the relationship between grooms and their horses are you ever presented with horses you do not know or horses you have had a chance to build a relationship with?
Luckily I have a wide range of clients and I normally know the horses but if I go somewhere new I try and go the day before so I can speak to the home staff first and find out a bit more about the horse. I like to know about their character and their personality before I go away with them and I have not met them before.
I work full time for one rider, when you work with one rider you know those horses pretty well.
How much do you get involved with the planning of the horses’ training and preparation for an international event?
I personally do not get involved in that unless it’s a regular person who I work for and they ask for a little bit of advice. Where they should aim for and what works for them.
I am lucky that Laura relies on me, as I do her. In the build up to national and international events it’s fundamental that we understand where a horse is in its training and its fitness, its physique. We are integral for that.
Do you chat at the beginning of the season and get involved in the conversations about the plans for each horse?
Each horse is individual, at the beginning of the season it’s not just about planning for the events, you have to fit in all the physio treatments, the veterinary input, the farrier. Everything is logistically precise in the lead up to an event. The rider has to discuss what their aims are with training and competitions. It’s quite a task especially in the lead up to January and February. Some horses are in need of more assistance than others but you are always planning for the big national or international event.
I would not have much input in training. But I would have more input into veterinary and physio. Feeling well in themselves. Training wise that would come down to Sam and he would plan the programme, when they are going to canter, then between the two of us we would liaise about when that was going to happen and everything would be fitted in appropriately such as physio.
It is part of your general role to looking after shoeing, vaccinations and feeding?
This would all come down to me. Vaccinations for instance you need to have them every 6 months for FEI competition which is a minefield and you have to be organised. If you turn up and you have been too late or its too close to the event then they will not let you compete. All of that onus is on you.
When you get to a competition, how much interaction is there between your first port of call which is the Stable Manager and the Vet who checks your horse in?
A huge amount. I am lucky that these two have done the Stable Manager’s role. They know the ins and outs. But the Stable Managers are your main port of call. It’s the hub of all the information. Any questions or queries goes via the Stable Managers. Are they normally helpful?
Having done both its about that welcoming and friendly face. It’s vital that our horses are processed quickly and able to get to their stable. Especially for internationals, we may have been on the road for several hours. They need to get hydrated and we need to relax.
Do most of your riders travel with you or do the riders meet you at the event?
That can vary depending on the person. Show jumpers tend to meet you there, while eventers tend to come with us on overnights and all arrive together as a team. For jumpers I am usually there the day before to trot them up and the rider will meet us there the next day. Eventing they tend to help us get set up for the week.
Did you enjoy learning to drive an HGV? I love it; I am good at driving at night. I know the rules and have done my CBC. I make sure I am insured on their lorry. There have been a couple of gate post challenges. We do a huge amount of driving. Most of the time I do not mind it and I tend to have a good system. Most of the time I am driving to the event and getting the horses on the lorry and then Sam will drive home. On the long journeys it’s always shared. Very rarely I am on my own on a long journey. It takes a lot out of you driving but it’s an important part of the job. For all round performance wise, me driving helps Sam to rest to compete and likewise for me to be able to do the long days at the events to have Sam to help share the driving helps.
I do all the driving. Laura has a cushy number. It’s much nicer driving on the continent than it is in the UK. You have to pay for the motorways which most people don’t do. You hardly see a car or a lorry. Just sit there cruising along. Good service stations. Do you get involved in the paperwork for going through the countries?
I do all of Laura’s admin on top of the grooming. I do all the paperwork on the way up to the international. I will liaise with the logistics company about the ferry, train or plane. In doing that you need to make sure your horse’s papers or export licences, vehicle has correct road tax like Belgium and Germany. I literally organise the whole shebang. Once you are in the driver’s seat you need to make sure everything is legal. If you get pulled over it is not your boss who is at fault, it’s you. You will get the trouble or fine.
When you get to a competition is there any tie up with the FEI stewards?
I deal a lot with FEI stewards and then if questions about rules then I would always go and ask to check if a new bit or piece of equipment is legal. There is not point having a problem after the occasion having spent a fortune to get there. You might as well ask in advance.
You feel that the FEI stewards are on your side?
The stewards are there to regulate the rules and do their job. They might be approachable but they need to regulate. We are all there for the welfare of the horses at the end of the day. We care for the horses and the stewards are there to check it has been put into place.
Do you feel that there could be more done between FEI stewards and grooms? That is really the Stable Manager’s job. The Stable Manager’s job is to implement and communicate anything the FEI judges and stewards have put into place. If you require further information the FEI stewards are helpful but the information should come through the Stable Manager. The Stable Manager has all the relevant information. It’s only if something becomes individual or something changes during the event that you would have more contact with the FEI steward.
Is there anything more that BE or FEI could do better for grooms?
It’s just facilities. Sometimes we go to events and everything is purpose built. This makes it easier for us to work in. If you are in the middle of the field with no lights and you cannot see the tap, it makes it harder. So for us it comes down to facilities. If you are walking down four barns of stables to go and get a bucket of water then it makes your job harder.
When you are training grooms – do you bring trainees with you?
It would vary. If you are only taking one horse then not necessarily for a whole week. But if you are at an event like Badminton then you try and give everyone a day to spectate. You cannot have five people per horse. They need exposure but there are a lot of three day events. If you are taking three horses then you would take someone else along and it’s important. If you do not go, then you don’t know. It has to work out for the home team taking staff away. Taking people away inspires people and they understand it and that their day to day work is fundamental to the competitions.
Whenever you are at home do you train your staff?
That is really important; if I injure myself or I cannot go then you give the person next in line to go. That person at home has to work to a standard that I am happy with because they can be getting horses ready for a quick turnaround when I come back from one competition and ready to go to another. You need to invest time in your staff, allow them treats by coming to events and that is how I learnt my trade. You have got to go and do it to better yourself. If you are stuck at home then you don’t come on. You have to invest the time in training people.
How does it vary for you Alex? Do riders accept what you say or do you have to work with them? It depends on the person. You have to work with the system. In the winter months I do a lot of yard training and showing people how I work. Giving a few suggestions to make their day better. Teaching people to pull manes and generally preparing people for events like with studs. I teach plaiting with thread, and clipping. Helping to prepare for the start of the season.
Is there much interaction with other grooms?
Basically we go from grass field to grass field with a bunch of our friends, week in and week out. We have a great time. When I first started I shared a caravan with an older person at Punchestown and towards the end of the week I started to ask questions. They do become your best friends and it has been an important part of my life and it’s for the younger grooms that they can approach any of us guys as that is how I learnt. That is what is so great about eventing is that we are all approachable and one big family.
What would you most like to change in your role? What would you like to be better for the International groom? We work very long hours and sometimes at the end of the day we want to sit somewhere warm and have a chat and unwind at the end of the day. If you don’t have posh lorries then it’s facilities. The shower could be freezing cold and it makes a massive difference. Warm, clean and dry is important. The facilities at Rio were amazing. The accommodation was good for the local infrastructure. It was a shame for us as grooms as did not have access to the Olympic village so we did not experience anything of the Olympics. The event ran second to none. We were there for six days before the Olympics started, it was quiet and it was a dangerous area. I had a good time but did not experience anything of the Olympics. You could not walk out the back gate and go for a walk. We could not have stayed at the Olympic Park as it was a 25 minute drive from the horses.
This was an informative talk and showed just how much responsibility top competition grooms bear.
Please put next year’s #IEF date in your diary, 5th February 2018. We will update you with news about speakers as soon as we get it. It’s always a great learning experience and not to be missed!