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November 13, 2006

Behind The Scenes At The World Equestrian Games

What would you do if you had to prepare a horse for an awards ceremony? You had to braid both the mane and tail, tack up, wrap the legs with white wraps, and help the rider get dressed. And you only had 10 minutes.

I had the pleasure of being part of the bronze-medal Australian Eventing Team at the 2006 World Equestrian Games in Aachen, Germany, in August. I filled the vital role as groom for Megan Jones and Kirby Park Irish Jester. There is no bigger event than the WEG or the Olympics, and being behind the scenes and in on the action is an amazing experience. From the time I got off the plane in Germany until we left the horses in Newmarket, England, for quarantine, I never stopped being amazed at my surroundings and the luck that got me there.

Preparing For WEG

The week and a half we had at camp in Germany before moving to the venue had three prevalent moods: fun, tension and boredom.

While it was obviously a great deal of work, being at camp with the riders, horses, and especially the other grooms, was also amazingly fun. While the riders are forming a team in the name of Australia, so are the grooms. As each new groom came, the dynamic of the group changed, but always for the better. Because of our responsibility to go check on the horses in the evening, we generally ate separately from the riders and officials, so stories, jokes and memorable lines flowed freely, with no need to be politically correct.

And there are certain memories I never will forget. Like driving into Cologne, with no one who spoke German, and getting completely lost on our way home. Or when we fit all nine grooms into a five-seater car in order to go to a local cafe for lunch (one driving, two in the front seat, four in the back seat and two in the trunk)--or the looks on the other people's faces when we piled out of it like a clown car. And there was also the whole team sitting around the fire on the evenings of the BBQs, making up rhymes about everyone else. I don't think I'll ever forget these memories. Nor will I ever forget the friendships I made and the other grooms who, in the end, taught me so much.

But at the same time you are enjoying the company of all the other grooms, there is an element of sadness. At the back of our minds we know only six of us will be traveling to the venue. You know that the others will be there to support you, to celebrate with you if the team is victorious and commiserate with you if they are not. At the same time you are happy that your horse and rider have made the team, you are sad because others have not. But that is the nature of choosing a team.

The tension is self-explanatory. The WEG is an important competition, and it is imperative that the horses and riders are at their peak when they enter the dressage ring. The groom's job during camp is to ensure that the horse stays healthy and happy. The healthy part takes the form of taking the horse's temperature every few hours the first days to ensure that horses don't develop travel sickness. They were in transit for 42 hours, traveled halfway across the world, and were still expected to be at the best of their abilities.

The grooms were up and at the barn at 6:30 every morning for jog-ups at 7:30. The team officials watched the horses jog every morning, from the morning after they got off the plane right up until the morning of the first horse inspection. The first day of dressage was the first day in the two weeks we had been there that we didn't jog the horses for the officials.

Keeping the horses happy was another obstacle. As each horse at camp had their own groom, and while we were all experienced grooms, accustomed to looking after several horses at each event, there was only so much we could do to the horses in a day. Mine would often be ridden in the morning and be turned out in allotted paddocks in the afternoon.

After I had cleaned and polished the tack and cleaned the stall yet again, there were still hours stretching before me with nothing for me to do. We could return to the hotel (which was a short walk) for a nap or afternoon swim in the indoor pool. Or more likely you could catch an afternoon soccer game or several of the grooms and riders sitting around the table playing Sudoku. It was in these long afternoon hours in which we believed that camp would just extend on forever, with the goal of moving to the venue in Aachen a mirage on the horizon that would never get closer.

But the move did come, and in looking back it came quite quickly. In fact, it was all over too quickly.

Finally In Aachen

Once we arrived in Aachen, the pressure grew. And my role as groom became even more defined. In fact, all of the roles became more defined. The officials did their jobs, the riders did theirs, and we did ours. We often became offended if anyone tried to interfere with us. Whether it was hand grazing, hand walking, setting fences for jump schools, or icing horses before the final horse inspection on Sunday morning, it was done without question or hesitation. There was a clear goal in our mind—to have the horses perform to the best of their abilities and have them jog sound on Wednesday and Sunday.

But the fun didn't entirely stop. We still tried to eat together and had fun talking over meals. The grooms' quarters were exciting as well. They are best described as cubicles. They put down temporary carpet (purple) in a sports stadium. They erected around 150 temporary cubicles that each contained: doors that locked, a set of bunk beds (with mattresses), two chairs, two lockers, one light, and one electrical outlet. The tops were covered with netting, which we assumed was to keep people from climbing over or throwing things over. They were so tiny that when we moved the mattresses to the floor there was no floor space left.

But while the beds were saggy and the rooms tiny, the worst part was the fact that they never really dimmed the lights in the complex, and there were often loud people who came in late and woke everyone up. But the time we did spend there, we were asleep.

On the morning of the first horse inspection there was a sudden realization among us, after the daily monotony of camp, that the competition started today and we had to do things like bathe and braid the horses to prepare them.

The work was hard and the breaks were few. The grooms whose horses didn't make the team were there on cross-country day to help us. They were also there on Sunday to help us and celebrate our medal.

There is an amazing satisfaction in knowing that, as your horse and rider enter the dressage ring, those braids are yours. Or that you successfully cooled him down after cross-country and the team vets are happy with how he recovered. Or that he jogged sound on Sunday morning and all the icing you'd been doing since they finished their run was worth it. Or when the horse comes out of show jumping, after a clean round, and you're there to take him. Then later you give him a kiss on the nose and tell him that he is such a good boy. You even ignore the nasty looks he gives you because he is tired of being fussed over. All of these moments add up to the experience of grooming.

So how do you prepare a horse for an awards ceremony in 10 minutes? With a team of grooms. There were seven of us preparing the team horse that had retired the day before. Since we were in fourth with less than a rail between us and the bronze medal, we thought it would be tempting fate to prepare the horse before all our riders had jumped. But since our top-placed rider was in fourth, that left us only 10 minutes to prepare the horse and rider for the medal ceremony--15 if you count the time traveling to and from the ring.

My favorite memory from WEG? It would have to be taking Jester out for hand grazes. The path from the stables to the grazing area took us through what I can only call a traffic circle in the middle of the trade fair. And as soon as a horse came out of the stabling, stewards stopped the people from crossing the path and allowed the horse to pass. I could feel the people watching me as we walked past, and I wondered how I was lucky enough to be in this position, attached to such an elite horse, and having stewards stop crowds as we walked past.

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