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October 3, 2013

A Good Groom Is A Horse’s Home Base

Lauren Keeton groomed Calecto for the 2012 London Olympic Games. Shannon Brinkman photo.

Panic, pride and partnership—they’re all part of a caretaker’s commitment to a top horse.

They’re the backbone of the equine world, the devoted care­takers of the horse. Grooms work long hours on tired feet, and the rewards often come in the form of a horse putting in a stellar perfor­mance or nickering at them walking down the aisle.

“There are people who think that grooming is just brushing them and tacking them up, but it’s so much more than that. The groom gets to be the horse’s ‘person,’ their home base. And that’s special,” said Lauren Keeton.

And every groom has good stories to tell.

LAUREN KEETON

After seeing a help-wanted ad from Tina Konyot, Lauren Keeton left behind her master’s degree studies at William Woods University (Mo.) to groom for Konyot during her Olympic bid in 2012. Since December, she’s been working for Jan Ebeling at his The Acres in Moorpark, Calif.

Who’s your favorite horse?

That’s like asking a mother who her favorite is of 16 children! Calecto is definitely up there, because I literally lived with him. I hadn’t seen him since after the Olympic Games last year, but I saw him in Aachen [Germany], and he immediately recognized me.

That was a tear-jerking moment for me. Rafalca is pretty special too. It took me a while to earn my way into her heart. When I come in the barn and say her name, and she nickers at me, that’s when I know we have that relationship.

What’s been your favorite moment so far?

Before I even thought about grooming, I rode in a clinic with Pierre St. Jacques, who was wearing his Team USA jacket. From the moment I saw him in that jacket, I thought, “I’m not quitting until I have one of those.”

Working for Tina through all of the shows and the selection procedure, I really jumped in head first and had an incredible learning curve; I was scrambling to catch up with everything I needed to know. We were at [the U.S. Equestrian Team headquarters in Gladstone, N.J.] after the last test, and it was finally calm in the barns. We found out Tina was on the team, and Jenny Van Wieren-Page said, “It’s time to get your jacket,” and I just broke down. Some people say, “You’re not a rider; why do you have one?” but at that point, you’ve put in the work, and you’re a team member. That made the whole year’s struggle all worth it.

What’s been your biggest moment of panic?

The [World Dressage] Masters was just three weeks after I started working for Tina, and it was my first CDI and my first big show. I was the naïve new groom, and I was totally flipping out over the turnout of Calecto. I had as many butterflies as I could cram into my stomach.

Before the jog, Tina decided to let Calecto roll in the ring, which is normal for her. I was in the barn, getting all my stuff together and thinking of what I’d need to do to get him ready to go to the jog. It was getting late, so I went to find them, and there was Tina, holding Calecto’s leadshank. Literally, from his nostril to his tail, he is coated in mud. They’d just watered the ring, and she let him roll. I look at my watch, and it’s 45 minutes until the jog. Everybody looked at me like “Good luck!”

That was a proud moment for me when 45 minutes later that horse was spic-and-span. He might have only had six braids in, but he was braided!

What’s been your strangest task?

I used to handwalk Calecto in the after­noons for 45 minutes. At some point, I decided to start training for a half-marathon. Tina found out and decided I needed to combine my training with hand-walking Calecto.

So, in the afternoons, Calecto’s 45-minute handwalk turned into cross-training with Lauren. I was liter­ally jogging, leading this horse, for 45 minutes a day. Sometimes he hated me when I pulled him out of the stall in the afternoons.

Then when we moved up north to Canada, it wasn’t on a nice, flat circle around the pond like it was in Florida. It was hills. So we added hill and interval work to our hand-running routine. At the Olympics, I’d be out hand-jogging him up and down the hills. That pretty much takes the cake.

I didn’t end up doing the half-mara­thon. But I could definitely do half an hour of brisk-trot-paced jogging. That said, I am doing a half-marathon this year. Finally.

What’s the best part of your job?

There are those moments when the horses are totally relaxed and know their job 100 percent, when you know what they want and need and can provide it for them. They light up when you walk in the barn. Those moments define it.

SHANNON KINSLEY

Shannon Kinsley worked for eventers Mike and Emma Winter from the time she was 16 to when she was 25. She’s also worked for Boyd Martin and Buck Davidson but now helps Will Coleman at his Charlottesville, Va., farm.

Who’s been your favorite horse?

My favorite horse when I was working for Mike was Balista. I was a kid, and he was like my teenage love, and it was ridiculous.

My favorite horse of Will’s is OBOS O’Reilly. He’s a really tough horse; he never quits. He tries every day for you in everything he does, and I appreciate that in a horse. I’ve known him for three years, and he’s always been a little bit feral, but he’s really grown up in the last year. Will’s done a great job of bringing him along.

[Kinsley also took over the care of Mike’s four-star horse Twister when he retired. She owned him for 14 years and just put him down this year at age 30. She evented him herself at the beginner novice and novice levels a few times.] He was the first upper-level horse I took care of; I started taking care of him when I was 15, and I’m 31 now.

What’s been your biggest moment of panic?

I can’t tell you that!

If you’re a good groom, you just fix it, and no one knows. You might panic, but you have to be the only one. Like if you, hypothetically speaking of course, forget a stud kit when you pack for an event, you just borrow one, and the rider never needs to know. People think you’re good, but you just know how to borrow really well.

What’s the hardest part of your job?

That I like to sleep. I’m a big sleeper, and that doesn’t go along with early morn­ings. So I’m also a big coffee drinker.

What’s been your favorite moment so far?

My first Olympics [in 2004 in Athens] was pretty awesome—God knows if I’ll get to go to another one. I was a kid, like 22. I had the best time—I don’t think I slept at all.

I really enjoyed when OBOS O’Reilly won the Bromont CCI*** (Quebec) last year. Will’s a great guy, and he works so hard. It’s easy to work hard for people who work hard themselves.

Burghley is my favorite event. But you can’t not love going to [Rolex] Kentucky either.

BROOKE SULE

Brooke Sule has been part of the team at hunter trainers Hunt and Mandy Tosh’s farm in Milton, Ga., since she was a teenager. Sule, 24, rode with the Toshes as a junior, then transitioned to working student and now groom.

Who’s been your favorite horse?

I consider them all my kids, to be honest. We get a lot of young ones in, and it’s fun to watch them develop and learn. They all have a special place in my heart. Some are the class clowns, and others are more bashful. They hear my truck pull up, and they all poke their heads out of the stall; it makes me happy.

What’s the hardest part of your job?

The hours! But it’s not that bad because whenever I get over-tired, I just start laughing. They all think I’m crazy, but I get the giggles. I can’t even look anyone in the eye without laughing. I guess it’s better than getting grumpy!

What’s your least favorite barn task?

Tack cleaning. We have a working student, and I think she’s the best because she’s always cleaning tack for me. I’ll bed stalls all day long no problem, but I get blisters from riding, and I just hate putting my hands in the soapy water. It’s the worst!

What’s your favorite time of the day?

I love the end of the day, after we’re done showing. As serious as Hunt always seems and as serious as we are about the horses, at the end of the day, back at the barn, cleaning tack and wrapping the horses, we’re all making jokes and laughing.

I think that’s something that would surprise a lot of people. I think a lot of people think that the Toshes come across as very serious, because we all work really hard. But we’re always telling jokes and funny stories. You’d have to ask Hunt for those, because I usually star in them. I tend to do the things that make the stories, and then they laugh at me!

What’s your bad habit?

I always get made fun of because I talk baby-talk to the horses and get them rowdy. Whenever I come into the barn, I baby-talk to them; I love it when they notice and get excited to see me. It’s one of my favorite things about my job.

DAWN WHITE-O’CONNOR

She’s originally from Colorado, but Dawn White-Connor, 24, has worked at Steffen and Shannon Peters’ Arroyo Del Mar in San Diego, since 2007. She started as a working student, then groomed for Steffen and Ravel in 2011 and 2012 and now concentrates on the home operations.

Who’s been your favorite horse?

I think I would have to say Ravel. He’s incredibly smart and has a business-like personality, but at the same time he can be your best friend.

What’s been your favorite moment so far?

There are so many! I wasn’t taking care of Ravel at the time, but a bunch of us went to the FEI World Cup Final in 2009, when he won. Being in England for training camp and the London Olympics Games was a blast. Being part of some­thing like that is pretty unforgettable.

What’s been your biggest moment of panic?

I forgot Steffen’s top hat once. He wore his helmet to warm up and about halfway through the warm-up I realized I forgot the top hat, and it was a hike back to the barn. Someone ran back to get it and it all worked out.

What’s the best part of your job?

[The Peterses are] great to work for, and we have a great group of people working there. They treat us very well. Shannon makes us muffins or some­thing for breakfast every morning and has everyone over for Thanksgiving. Steffen will take us out on his boat on the weekends. It’s a great place to work, and I think I’m lucky to be here!

What’s been the biggest lesson you’ve learned?

I have learned so much being here; I really don’t know where to start. I think one of the most important things I have learned is to balance everything, to work hard when you’re working and when you’re done working it’s OK to leave.

We are all lucky because there are enough people working that we can alternate night feeding and working weekends, so I think everyone works harder when they’re at work, because when we’re done, we can really focus on other things. It makes the long days easier.

I know a lot of people who have done this and gotten burned out after a number of years. I think being able to step away sometimes makes you better at your job and makes you want to keep coming back.

If you enjoyed this article and would like to read more like it, consider subscribing. "A Good Groom Is A Horse’s Home Base" ran in the Sept. 9, 2013 issue.

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