You won’t find Danny Ingratta passively watching the victory gallop when one of the horses in his care does well. Head groom to Canadian Olympian Amy Millar for the past nine years, Ingratta enjoys taking a “no holds barred” approach to his celebrations.
“It is just the coolest thing to be at a Nations Cup and hear your anthem played,” said Ingratta. “I like to be a little obnoxious and to scream really loudly and cheer. I think it is important—it shows how hard you’ve worked. It’s really cool to see these horses that you have gotten ready and taken care of being successful in the ring and know that you have played a small part in that.”
But Ingratta’s early experiences with horses were nothing like the elite world he inhabits now. The 32-year-old had what he describes as a “backyard background” in horses and horsemanship before joining Millar Brooke.
“My aunt and uncle, Marianne and Wayne Stoddart, had a hobby farm north of the city, and they got me into horses,” said Ingratta. “So that got me started, and then I wanted to keep going, so it was like, let’s go to riding school and have your one-hour-a-week lesson.”
But the formulaic nature of the group lessons at a riding school wasn’t enough. He desperately wanted to get more involved with the sport, but without the financial resources to do so, in frustration he ended up taking several years off instead.
“But I really wanted to get back into it, and so I asked my parents again and again,” said Ingratta. “And finally, they said yes, and I got my own horse, who I kept with my aunt and uncle.
“[Colby] was a bay with black points, and he looked remarkably similar to Heros,” said Ingratta with a laugh, referring to Millar’s 2016 Rio Olympics partner. “He was a good all-around Quarter Horse, and he let me do anything with him.”
After finishing high school, Ingratta’s love for horses led to his enrollment at the University of Guelph (Ontario), where he studied animal biology with the long-term goal of becoming a veterinarian. He continued to ride and was one of the founding members of the Ontario Collegiate Equestrian Association, which is based on the Intercollegiate Horse Shows Association format. But a future career traveling the rated show circuit as a groom wasn’t even on his radar.
“As a kid growing up with horses in a riding lesson program, you think if you want to be in horses you can only be a rider or a vet,” said Ingratta. “You don’t realize there are all these other options of things you can do in the equine industry.”
Ingratta worked at the Ontario Veterinary College during his university years, which gave him exposure to a much broader perspective of the equine industry than he had previously experienced. It also taught him a keen understanding of equine anatomy and basic sports medicine, concepts that would prove helpful during his future work.
While he was at school, Colby, now semi-retired, became entangled in a fence and was severely injured. Ingratta’s work at the vet school helped him to be at peace with the decision to euthanize Colby rather than try to repair his extensive injuries.
“Working at the vet college, I had seen a lot of things, and I might have been tempted to try to fix him,” said Ingratta. “But I knew that the recovery would be long and hard and that he had done enough. He made the decision for me, and in a way, it was a blessing.”
Ingratta completed his degree in December 2011 with no clear plan of what was coming next.
When a friend from school who was working for the Millars during the winter season in Florida phoned, saying they were looking to add to their staff, his path was set. He’s now the longest tenured groom on the staff of eight, which currently supports the training and competitive efforts of father Ian, siblings Jonathon and Amy, and Jonathon’s wife Kelly Soleau-Millar.
“I went from basic riding programs where we did not clean tack, we did not muck stalls, and so on, through university and hanging out at my aunt and uncle’s, to being with the best in the world,” said Ingratta. “It was from the backyard to Olympic level horses. The learning curve was just huge.”
What got him through this transition was the guidance and education offered by the experienced Millar Brooke barn managers, especially former manager Sandy Patterson and current manager Patty Markell.
“I had the benefit of having the veterinary aspect,” said Ingratta. “That was my way in—I knew the anatomy of the horse.”
Ingratta’s enthusiasm for learning and passion for horses allowed him to quickly gain knowledge to make up for the experience he lacked.
“It is amazing to see how small-knit of a group it is at the top and the path each took to get there,” said Ingratta. “Sometimes I still feel like I don’t know what I’m doing—it is about constantly learning and evolving, and always going back to basics. If you start [with the basics] and revolve your program around them you can solve a lot of problems.”
As head groom, Ingratta is responsible for coordinating the overall efforts of the other grooms as well as attending to his main equine charges—Heros (Canadian River—Vivita De Fribois, Clinton I), Truman (Mylord Carthage*HN—Kastana, Kolibri) and Ericson (Padinus—Saloma, Iroko). Having four high-caliber riders sharing one facility means that at any given moment at least one of them is gearing up for an important competition, and staying organized and having a plan helps to keep the entire program on track.
“I am a huge believer in having one groom per rider, and I generally work with Amy,” said Ingratta. “At home it is a lot easier than being on the road, but there are still always things to do on a farm, from cleaning tack to clipping to getting ready for our next show to handling the young horses. If you are in a good spot, it’s not a lot of pressure. But if you are not in a good spot, or you are gearing up for something, the pressure goes up. I have learned that I can take a breath and try to stay calm, which helps everyone else.”
And though Ingratta may be approaching nearly a decade working with the riders at Millar Brooke, he admits that sometimes he still can’t quite believe that he is living this life.
“I have been going to Spruce Meadows [Alberta] for eight years, and still to this day, I get shivers when our horse goes under the clock tower and goes around that huge field,” said Ingratta. “And then there was this moment at the Rio Olympics; Amy had gotten on back at the barn, and I was walking up to the practice ring and saw the Olympic rings there, and it just hit me—this is the moment that most people work for their whole career, and here we were. I am so happy to have played my small part in getting her there.”