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March 6, 2007

Jennifer Wood Takes Pride In Making Sapphire Sparkle


The groom to one of the U.S. team's top horses shares her World Equestrian Games experiences.

When Jennifer Wood decided three years ago that she might like to try working as a groom in the United States, she had no idea that the whim would end up taking her all over the world. But in working for McLain Ward, she's taken care of his Olympic and World Equestrian Games mount, Sapphire, for the past two years.

Wood, 23, is originally from Warwickshire, England. She talks about her experiences at the 2006 World Equestrian Games in Aachen, Germany, where Ward and Sapphire placed seventh individually and helped the U.S. team earn silver.

There, she joined Clark Schipley, who takes care of Authentic for Beezie Madden, Craig Pollard, who cares for Hidden Creek's Quervo Gold for Margie Engle and Katherine Walsh, who groomed Miss Independent for Laura Kraut. Pollard and Schipley are still with their horses, as longtime employees, while Walsh stayed in Europe and now works for Gerco Schr�der.

Molly Sorge: What made you decide to work for McLain Ward?
Jennifer Wood: I worked with horses in England, but I'd never been to America, and I wanted to go and see what it's like. A friend of a friend knew Barney [Ward's father] and set it up, and I just came over. I loved it right away. I came to see if I'd like it, and I've never left. It's totally different to anything I'd ever seen. It's so different from the show circuit in England.

Sorge: What was your horse experience in England?
Wood: Nothing like this. We used to buy horses from Ireland--4-, 5- and 6-year-olds--and bring them along a little bit and then sell them. It was kind of a shock to come here and realize I pretty much didn't know anything. The first year was quite a steep learning curve. I always had ponies growing up, and I grew up on a farm, but it was mostly pleasure riding. As I got older, it was something that I just wanted to carry on doing. And I think I got really lucky that I landed on my feet in the barn that I ended up in. I really had no idea what I was getting myself into.

Sorge: How long did you work for Ward before starting to take care of Sapphire?
Wood: After the first three months, I started taking care of her. It was very intimidating. It was a big responsibility.

Sorge: What's Sapphire like?
Wood: She's actually quite intimidating herself. She knows she's important in the barn. She thinks she owns the barn. She's quite pushy. She's quite big and strong and strong-willed, but now we get along and I absolutely love her. Once you bond with her, she's very loving.

Sorge: What's Sapphire's pet peeve?
Wood: She hates being ridden at dinnertime, or going to the ring at dinnertime. She thinks that's very unnecessary and rude. It really puts her out. As long as she has her dinner on time, she's fine. She's definitely a food hound.

Sorge: Do you ride Sapphire?
Wood: I ride her sometimes. She's like sitting on a giant couch. She's very comfortable and lovely to ride.

Sorge: What have you learned in taking care of Sapphire?
Wood: I've learned how much goes into keeping a horse at that level of fitness and how many people are involved. Before I came to work here, I could never imagine what goes into it behind the scenes to keep them at that level of fitness. It takes so many different peoples' opinions to get it just right--different vets, different feed companies, different massage and chiropractors. You seek out so many different opinions just to try and make the horse the best it can be and get the best chance you can.

Sorge: What's Sapphire's usual routine?
Wood: We try to vary it a lot. She'll go out on the trails, or go on the treadmill, or get turned out. We try not to let her get bored. She gets ridden once or twice a day. We have a treadmill here at the farm, and she goes on that quite a lot. It's good for building muscle and keeping her fit. She might get ridden in the morning, and then spend some time on the treadmill in the afternoon. Or, she'll be ridden and then turned out for a while.

Sorge: What was it like to find out you'd be grooming at the WEG?
Wood: It wasn't until about three weeks before we left that I started to think "Wow, this is really big." Everybody in the barn was thinking about it, trying to get everything exactly right. Everyone was getting a bit tense, and that's when I realized, "This is big. If McLain and the people who have worked around him for 15 years are getting a bit stressed, perhaps I should too!" I was very proud to be a part of it and very excited to go. I'm just glad Sapphire did us proud and was so good.

Sorge: How did you get along with all of the other Americans?
Wood: It was an amazing time. We spent the week before the WEG as a team in Holland, and we had a lovely week and really bonded and went out together and the riders all rode together, and it was really a lot of fun.

Sorge: How much did you have to pack for the WEG?
Wood: I think the rest of the horse show thought the Americans were quite crazy because of all the equipment we brought. We had the horse truck, and then another great big truck with all our equipment. The truck for our equipment was bigger than the one for the horses. It was insane. But we'd come a long way, and it would have been bad if we'd forgotten anything! So, we packed everything we could possibly need.

Sorge: What was your life at the WEG like?
Wood: We stayed in a hotel in the city in Aachen. We all would go out in the evening together. All the grooms got on well with each other--it was a good group. We all helped each other. If someone had a bad day, you helped cheer them up, and if someone had a great day, you celebrated with them.

Sorge: What was your daily routine at the WEG?
Wood: We would try to get there at about 7 a.m. and check the horses. We'd take the horses for a walk and use all the machine--the massage and the ice, things like that. Then, the riders would ride. And they'd be walked probably twice a day. But the best thing is to not change things too much. I think that's one of the problems, is that you get to something like that, and you feel like you have to do so much more, but the horse really just wants its normal routine. So, I did everything I could to just keep Sapphire relaxed and happy. Walking her a few times a day would make her happy, but there were also time when she wanted to be left alone. It was difficult, because you're there and you felt like you should be doing something to help her. She'd been to enough places--she knew exactly what she was doing. I get more worried about flying her than she does.

Sorge: What was it like watching Sapphire jump?
Wood: I'm biting my lips watching her go around, but she was brilliant. I hold my breath as she goes over the jump, but I don't jump with her.

Sorge: What did the grooms do on their off-duty time?
Wood: The groom's party was a bit wild, but I can't really talk about that! It was the night before the day no one jumped. They made it on a night when they knew no one would be worried about the next day. That's why Aachen was great, because they did things like that. They had a barbeque for us, and usually had something in the evening so that all of the grooms can get together. It's really a tough week for everybody, with the stress and tension, and it's nice that we had a chance to have fun and that it's not just about the pressure. We could all get together and share stories and have fun.

Sorge: What's your favorite memory of the WEG?
Wood: Obviously, I was gutted that we didn't make it to the final, but watching Beezie [Madden] in the final was just amazing. I wish we'd been in there, but on the last day, we were all sitting together watching and supporting her. It was the first day I'd actually gotten to watch a whole round, so that was amazing. The crowd was enormous, and it was amazing to watch.

Sorge: What has the opportunity to groom for McLain Ward done for you?
Wood: I never imagined this. Before I came here, I always loved horses and wanted to work with horses, but when I got here it was like everything I'd done before didn't mean anything. Taking care of Sapphire and Goldika, and the shows that I've seen, I feel quite honored. It's made me a lot more confident in my abilities. And I still learn new things every day.

Sorge: Who gives you guidance?
Wood: Lee and Erika [McKeever, who have both been with Ward for more than 15 years]. I don't think there's anybody at the shows who knows more than Lee. He's seen everything and been everywhere. I don't think there's anything that could shock him. And I'd never be afraid to ask him anything. If I was off at a show and got in trouble, he'd be the first person I'd call. The support team that McLain has is amazing. It's a good feeling to know that even if you're at a show by yourself, you're really not on your own because they'll always help.

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