Meet Emma Ford!
Grooms are slowly, but surely, coming out from behind the scenes and being recognized for the hard work that we do. I see this several ways – more and more Groom’s Classes around the nation, more social media photos, stories, acknowledgements of riders and their Grooms, and then you have this Top Groom, Emma, that goes out and writes a BOOK about Grooming. All while working for one of the top eventers in the nation – Phillip Dutton. So I present to you…. Emma Ford.
Here’s Emma teaching a Pony Club clinic.
I’m frequently asked how to break into the horse business as a Groom, so I thought I would pass on the question to Emma. How did you begin your career as a Groom?
“I grew up within a big hunting family in England, I was my Dad’s Groom as soon as I could braid!! My eventing Groom career started in Massachusetts with Adrienne Iorio. I came over for a year to work and ride. The rest is history, it’s been 17 years and I’m still in the states Grooming!”
Another question I hear is about what sort of experience is needed to be a Groom. Did you learn on the job, or did you have previous horse experiences, formal education, etc?
“I have been around horses all my life, I came up thru the Pony Club, passing my B test. I was mainly focused on show jumping, although I did many hunter trials and was a Pony Club member of the dressage, show jumping and eventing team at various times. When I came to the states it was my first experience of learning to manage a barn of 30 plus horses. When I first started, Adrienne only had two event horses, when I finished she had a string of 12, we had gone to Rolex three times and flown to Blenheim CCI***. It was that trip that made me realize I wanted to be a professional Groom. I loved flying with the horses and the international event scene. In 2005 I made the move to Phillip Dutton’s barn. Throughout this whole journey, I have been surrounded by some of the best professionals in the business, vet, farriers, coaches. I have never stopped learning from day one at Adrienne’s . Being involved in such a large operation means there is always something going on with one horse or another, my learning curve is still growing!”
On a side note, this is one characteristic that I notice about all top Grooms and riders – the acknowledgment that you still have loads to learn, and keeping your mind and eyes open to new learning experiences.
Speaking of learning things… I asked Emma about working alongside Phillip and Adrienne. What things have Phillip taught you about Grooming? What have you taught him about Grooming (or riding!!) or anything else?
“Working at Phillip’s has taught me so much I’m not sure I can fit it all in! However the major lesson Phillip has taught me is how to move forward after difficult and/or heartbreaking situations. There have been times when I have been ready to quit but due to his support, hard work and dedication towards the horses and his business I have learnt to become a much stronger person for the rest of the team when things aren’t going to plan.”
“What have I taught Phillip? Should probably ask him that one! I have introduced different therapies into the program. I am a strong believer in using alternative therapies to help the horses feel there best. When I first started working at Phillips no modalities were used on the horses. I now have my own Laser, RevitaVet unit, ArcEquine unit and this year a Vita Floor has been installed in the barn which uses vibrations to help bone density and muscle relaxation.”
This working situation demonstrates something that stands out in my eyes – respect. You are truly a team player, whose opinion, experiences and knowledge are respected when you can overcome challenges through positive leadership AND be a guiding force to help sustain international athletes with knowledge of your own. What a team Emma and Phillip must make!
Getting Jack ready for XC at the Pan Am’s!
Because Emma is such a fixture in the eventing world, I thought she would be a great one to ask about Grooms in general. You see and hear a lot when you travel the world working with horses. So I asked Emma, What do you think are the biggest challenges facing Grooms in the horse industry today?
“Being a professional Groom means making your horses number one in your life. Because of this, finding a balance between working and down time can become very difficult. Some Grooms in the industry rarely see a day off in months and quickly become burnt out. There are employers that expect this kind of commitment so you have to personally decide if your job satisfaction, salary and benefits are worth this kind of commitment.”
Emma continues, “Salary has always been a taboo subject in the Grooming industry! In the eventing world I find that professional riders want top notch Grooms but rarely have the financial resources to pay a good wage. Benefits are rarely offered so ensuring that your employer has a good workmen’s compensation set up is a must. The Professional Riders Organization also offer a catastrophic injury package that is $200 per year. Should you get injured on the job this is a good source of money that can cover you whilst not working. This is one option you could maybe barter with with your employer to see if he or she could pay this for you.”
I’ll add a few thought of my own. You need to be your own advocate and learn the employment laws for your state. This means finding out if you are correctly classified as an employee, in which case your employer is most likely required by law to provide worker’s compensation. The catastrophic injury package is not a replacement for this, but can help you if you own a grooming business and are legally an independent contractor. In employee cases, the catastrophic injury package is an addition. Learn more about these topics here.
The 2015 Pan Am Eventing Team (GOLD MEDAL!!)
So now that I’ve opened that can of worms, Emma elaborates and offers her sage advice about being a Groom. What advice would you give an aspiring Groom? What about a Groom stuck in an unsafe workplace (unsafe conditions, illegal pay, no worker’s comp, etc)?
“To be a Groom you have to understand that the horse comes first 24/7. If your priorities lean more towards ‘what time is cocktail hour’ or ‘when can you get your hair done’… Grooming is not for you!”
“You need to have a conscientious mind that has an eye for detail. Can you notice that slight change in your horses eye that something isn’t quite right? or that heat and swelling that has appeared after a hard workout? You need to have patience and compassion. Without either of these attributes you will never truly make that connection that so many Grooms get with their ‘charges’.”
“In regards to working in an unsafe environment, a Groom’s first responsibility when interviewing for the position is to know what needs to be asked. You can tell pretty quickly when you walk into a barn whether it is a smooth run operation. Take heed of your gut instinct.”
Emma continues with some pretty logical advice – hit the grapevine! “The Grooms world is actually a very small one so I feel it is very easy to connect with other riders and Grooms to ask about what they know of a possible future employer. Do your homework before heading to an interview.”
“If you already in a bad situation…. Get Out! In general, if talking to your employer about your concerns does not improve the situation then it is time to move on. Offer your two weeks resignation and do your best to leave on good terms. If you look online there are hundreds of jobs available,the great thing about Grooming is that you can find work anywhere in the world in a Grooms position. If it’s time, maybe look outside the box and try a different discipline or country!”
What about working abroad? How does the treatment of Grooms in Europe compare to the US?
“I never actually worked as a payed Groom in Europe. However I will say I don’t think I would be living the same life I have now in America if I had gone back to the UK. Grooms wages and benefits are less in Europe but work hours are more. For many, vacations and days off only happen at the end of the season. I’m very thankful for the employers I have /do work for because they have provided me with a work environment that I have been able to grow and develop my own independence. You will often hear me say to a complaining working student ” you wouldn’t stand a chance in England”, cruel I know but I have found so many kids want it all but don’t want to put in the hours it takes to make it happen. I truly believe you get out of life what you put in…. There is nothing wrong to aim for that gold medal but you must be prepared to put in your all if you really want it.”
OK! Enough with the serious stuff – I though we could also get to know Emma a bit, and learn some of her tricks. So my favorite question to ask Grooms is… What is your favorite competition?
“Burghley Horse Trials in the UK is without doubt my favorite. It has an atmosphere that can not be found at any other CCI**** . Obviously I might be a little bias but the location and terrain are beautiful. It’s the one XC course I walk when we are competing because it is so impressive. Grooms, owners and riders are all treated extremely well and of the shopping is to die for!”
Emma and Jack – ready for Dressage!
Of course I also want to know Emma’s best tip…What is your best Grooming tip that is NOT in your book?
“This tip didn’t make the book because I only found the product a couple of months ago! If you have a problem with sweet itch, bug bites or any skin complaint try ‘Tea Tree Salve’ from Equinature. It is effective at clearing up any condition fast.”
What’s your least favorite barn chore? Favorite barn chore?
“At True Prospect we use large bales of hay for the horses. To feed out in the morning we have to put it onto a large trolley and push it down the aisle. It sounds simple however I find the chore time consuming and irritating… Literally as you try to lift, separate or throw the sections of hay onto the trolley and then into the stalls, each morning I do it my arms and legs have rashes all over them from the hay!”
“As you might imagine, TPF is a busy barn. With 35-45 horses at any one time in training the day is non stop. I truly appreciate the quiet days when I get a chance to spend a lot of quality time with each individual horse. Grooming time is always my favorite because this is when i get to connect with each horse.”
What have the horses taught you? The vets, farriers, massage therapists, saddle fitters, etc?
“Compassion is a word you will hear me say a lot these days. I like to feel I have always been a patient and caring person but I feel my compassion for our equine athletes has grown so much over the years. Dealing with so many types of horses finds me taking a step back every day and seeing that horse as an individual and not just one of many in our barn. There are times where I get very stressed and feel the horses are losing out because I am rushing my job without thinking about their specific individual needs. During these times I find one horse will always do something uncharacteristic, for example maybe cow kick whilst grooming, which then makes me take a deep breath and a step back and remind myself of the reason I am grooming him.”
“I think I mentioned this earlier, being involved in such a large eventing barn means I learn something new everyday. It might be about a certain lameness, how to improve hoof quality or what feed supplement I should add for better digestive uptake. Over the years I have gained useful knowledge on equine massage so that I know how to help a horse when I find tight muscles or what stretches will achieve the best results for a better warm up. “
For the backyard owners out there – what are the most critical parts of Grooming? (like temps, daily leg inspections, icing, clean bedding, etc?)
“I always encourage people to “to get to know your horse”. Even if you board your horse and can only ride him on weekends I strongly believe in taking time to find out his lump and bumps, take time when Grooming to find what’s normal. You could keep a small log book of any splints, scars , scraps or dings as is needed. It is always handy to be able to look back on such information when something occurs and maybe related to a previous instance.”
“Hoof pick, a good curry brush and witch hazel. These are the three must haves in your barn. A hoof pick obviously is hopefully self explanatory ! If you lack time to give your horse a full grooming then at least aim for a good curry session. This helps stimulates the skin to produce the natural oils that give your horse the good shine on its coat as well as protection from the natural elements. Currying also helps to massage the muscles as well as lift up that deep down grime left from sweat that can cause irritation, brushing alone is no where near as effective. Witch hazel is a product that has multiple uses in your grooming kit. It is great to use as a leg brace. It is very effective at picking up dust and dirt from coats without drying out their skin. If your horse suffers from scratches or rain rot, I will wipe the area off with witch hazel and then apply my chosen ointment.”
Tell us about your book!
World Class Grooming all came about because of two things. 1. People on a regular basis asking us Grooms at shows why we do some of the stuff we do, what studs should be used or what’s the best cream for situation x, How best to get rid of track lines when clipping, are just a few of the questions we get. 2. A few years back, Cat (co-author) helped to train up working students to become Grooms for a good friend. She wrote a short ‘manual’ for the girls when she left . This manual got past onto the publishers who then asked Cat if she would consider doing a Grooming book.”
“We both hope that the book provides in depth advice to all level of riders and owners. For those that keep their horses at home , there is a lot of advice to help keep your small peace of heaven safe, tidy and happy. For the more advanced, you will find tips that can help improve your stable management as well as how to better take of your horse when competing.”
“I feel there is a very large niche in this country that are eager to learn about how a top barn produces their horses from beginner level to the advanced. Thinking to the future, Cat and myself are planning Grooming clinics around the states that will be educational for all ages and levels. We ran a small one day clinic at True Prospect in May that was well received . We would love to see these grow into horsemanship clinics that involve multiple professional Grooms from all disciplines as well as including lectures from bodywork professional, farriers, vets and barn managers. You can follow us on instagram @worldclassGrooming or on our website www.worldclassGrooming.com. If anyone is interested in having both myself and Cat or one of us come do a clinic at their barn then please contact us via our website – worldclassgrooming.com.”
Thank you Emma!