She’s reached new heights as Phillip Dutton’s groom.
Like many riders, Emma Ford had a vision of herself at the Olympics, the World Equestrian Games and other top international equestrian competitions. But, realistically, she knew her riding wasn’t going to take her there. So Ford decided to focus her love of horses in another direction: grooming.
And as Phillip Dutton’s head groom, she’s been able to achieve some of her goals—participating on a team at the WEG in Aachen (Germany) and at the Pan American Games in Rio de Janeiro (Brazil)—and she’s well on her way to adding the Olympics and others to the list.
“I’ve always loved the horses, and it’s always been horses for me,” said Ford. “I did compete, but I’ve always been better on the ground and turning them out to the best standard. I wanted to be at a top level with the horses, and that was how I could do it without riding.”
Ford, 31, earned the U.S. Eventing Association’s Professional Groom of the Year accolades in 2007 for her excellent work keeping Dutton’s extensive string of horses looking their best at competitions.
“Not only can she make the horses look spotless, but she also makes sure the horses are mentally and physically as comfortable as possible,” wrote the anonymous person who nominated her.
Ford arrived in the United States from England in 1998. “I originally came over for a year,” she recalled. “I got my [bachelor’s degree] in England, and I wanted to do horses for a year before I entered the ‘real world.’”
She applied to be a groom through the CA Education Programs, an organization that assists young adults in finding placements around the world in wineries, farms, ranches, plant nurseries and other agricultural businesses.
She connected with eventer Adrienne Iorio through the agency. “I landed on my feet,” said Ford. “[Iorio] was absolutely awesome. After the first year she asked me if I wanted to extend, and I said ‘Yes!’ ”
“She’s really good with the horses and was great with all my clients,” said Iorio. “She has a sweet personality. She loves the animals and was really open to learning more.”
Ford also proved she could stand up under adversity right away. Two weeks after Ford started working for Iorio, they headed off to an event with a large horse van and Iorio’s Toyota Celica in tow.
“We got lost going to the Middletown Pony Club [Del.] event,” said Iorio. “I tried to turn around. I had the big horsebox, and I got it stuck in the mud. I rocked it back and forth, and I knew I had done something terrible to my car.”
When they arrived at the show, Iorio made Ford go examine the car. “She had no idea I’d run it over,” said Iorio. “I didn’t want to go back and look first. I’d just run over the hood of the car with my horsebox! She didn’t know what to say. She was surprised that I just laughed. We even drove it around all weekend. That was her introduction to traveling with me.
“As two girls on the road with a big truck, we found lots of chaos,” continued Iorio. “I really valued our time together. I enjoyed having Emma around. She’s a good friend as well as a good groom. I’m happy that she’s gone on and is able to travel with Phillip and do more and see more.”
Ford spent seven years with Iorio, but when the opportunity arose to work for Dutton, she felt it was time for a change. “I wanted to work with teams and get to travel with horses that way,” she explained.
Barn manager Sara Richardson had been doing the job, but she was on the lookout for the right replacement.
“I’d known Emma for about five or six years. I’ve worked for Phillip for 11 years, so I’d seen her around at events,” said Richardson. “[Ford] approached me at an event. We went to a couple of events together when Phillip hired her, and I showed her how Phillip likes things. After the first event, I knew she was the right person. It was an easy transition.”
Learning To Delegate
For Ford, the most overwhelming part of the transition to Dutton’s True Prospect Farm was dealing with so many horses. At any given time Dutton may have 55 horses at the farm in West Grove, Pa., and he often rides seven or eight at an event.
“It was tough getting it around my head how to make sure you’ve got every horse tacked up with what it should wear when it should be,” admitted Ford. “Having three at a three-day was very challenging, to get everything done and organized. I’ve had to learn to delegate.”
She admitted that in general she’d prefer to do things herself. “I feel that if I do it myself, then it’s my fault if it goes wrong, but if I give it to someone else, and it goes wrong, then I should have done it.”
One particular instance occurred when Ford couldn’t groom at the Southern Pines Horse Trials (N.C.) because of a broken leg.
“I saw a photo of Phillip online, and whoever was helping him had put a brown jump bridle on with a black dressage saddle,” said Ford. “It’s stupid stuff, it won’t change the way they go, but don’t put brown and black together!”
Ford doesn’t believe she has any extraordinary grooming skills. “It’s nothing that every other groom doesn’t do,” she said modestly.
“Because we have a lot of horses, she does an incredible job of getting to know each horse and their needs very well,” said Dutton. “That’s not easy to do. As the horses get to be with us longer and longer, she gets to know their likes, dislikes, what their legs look like. If there’s something not quite right, she’ll bring it to my attention.”
Richardson agreed, “She really cares about the welfare of the horses. She loves them all. She treats the advanced horses the same as the novice horses. She wants them all to look good and go well.”
Although Ford is known for being meticulous, tidy and organized, her laid-back attitude makes her a barn favorite.
“She’s very easy. She’s very relaxed,” said Richardson. “You walk into the barn, and she’s not tense or stressed. She takes everything in stride. We’re very busy, and she handles it well. She’s good about keeping things organized and directing what needs to be important.”
That relaxed and professional attitude doesn’t change when they’re on the road.
“At a show, no matter how busy or flat-out we are, they all get washed really properly, and nothing is put away half-done,” said Richardson. “No matter how busy, she makes time to take care of every horse the exact same, or she makes sure that someone else does.”
Dutton agreed, “At the end of the day, it’s love and care of the horses. She’s very responsible and very knowledgeable and everything that goes with that. She really cares for the horses. Everything she does with the horses shows.”
And Richardson said that Ford does have one skill most grooms would envy. “She’s really good at clipping. There’s not a single line when she’s done.”
She’s Hit The Big Time
Ford moved to Dutton’s operation with the hope of grooming at an international team competition, and she got her first opportunity in 2006 at the WEG in Aachen, Germany. Dutton was still riding for Australia at that point, so she joined the Australian team in Germany and spent two weeks with them leading up to the Games.
“It was a great experience. It was very team oriented,” recalled Ford. “It was all professional during the day, and at the end of the day we got together and had a bonfire. All of the grooms got on really well and helped each other out. I didn’t know what to expect. I hadn’t done that level. I was expecting it to be full-on stress. Three of the six had never groomed at that level. Andrew Hoy’s groom Karen got us through it all.”
Ford was fortunate to have international experience under her belt before the next team Games, because the trip to Rio for the Pan Ams was far more difficult.
Ford flew over with Shannon Stimson and Ann Jones’ Truluck, a last-minute substitution for Connaught, Dutton’s WEG mount.
“The flight was fine, but when we landed the horses couldn’t get out of the crate for three hours,” said Ford. “As a groom, it was infuriating. You just want your hoses to be comfortable and in their stalls.”
Ford met the other U.S. grooms when they landed, and then the truck broke down on the way to the venue.
“Our driver was off his head!” she said. “Thank god the six of us were there. We all held each other together.”
The living conditions for the grooms were also tough. “We’d been up 48 hours, and there were no hot showers,” said Ford. “As a groom, you don’t expect a five-star hotel, but no hot showers?”
Dutton recalled, “She never complained. She was only there for a short time, and the goal was to get ‘Milo’ to do his absolute best. We did have a long night with him on Saturday night, because he did have an overreach. There was no way we would have been able to get that horse through without her care and the way she looked after him.”
Of course it was all worth it at the end when Dutton earned individual silver and helped capture gold for Team USA.
“She’s been a really good part of the team since she arrived,” said Jones. “She’s so beautifully organized that it never seems that she’s doing so much. There’s never any hassle. It all gets done, and in a positive, cheerful way. It takes a lot of the stress off everyone else.”
Ford doesn’t believe she’ll always work as a groom for Dutton. “I don’t see myself wanting to take care of that many horses forever,” she admitted. “I’m really interested in alternative therapies with horses. I’m hoping to learn more about that and work with those people.”
But she doesn’t plan on quitting any time soon. “I haven’t done the Olympics, and other major goals are grooming at Badminton [CCI**** (England)] or Burghley [CCI**** (England)],” she said.
And no matter what she does, it will always involve horses.
“I love the competing, seeing those horses go out and do their job, seeing them improve,” said Ford. “It’s so fun to see a horse come up. When it’s doing prelim with Phillip, and then it goes on to do Rolex [Kentucky CCI****], that’s a real thrill.”