If you’ve got a question regarding horse care or are looking for someone to bounce ideas off of regarding a problem horse, there’s one person you can be sure will take a few minutes to give you a thoughtful response. In the California hunter/jumper circles, many professionals turn to David Vega when they are stuck.
Vega has worked as a groom for Carleton and Traci Brooks for nearly 30 years, though Carleton says “groom” hardly seems like an adequate way to summarize Vega’s importance to Balmoral Farm or the circuit.
“Judges, other horse trainers all over the country, they call, and they go, ‘How’s David?’ ” said Carleton. “Not, ‘How’re you?’ ‘How’s David? Ask David what he does for this problem.’ ”
It’s not uncommon to spot Vega helping a fellow groom pull off polo wraps at the back gate or consulting on a behavior question. He sees no point in being stingy with assistance when everyone is united by the common goal of caring for their horses.
“I think we have to share what we know,” he said. “I started, like everybody else, not knowing things. I had a lot of good people next to me that shared stuff with me that they probably never shared to anybody else. There have been more than a few times I’ve learned from young guys, who haven’t been in the business as long as me, and why not? People like me, sometimes they don’t want to ask for help. Everybody needs help.”
Vega came to the show horse world from an equine background in his native Mexico. Growing up, Vega and his siblings had a small menagerie of farm animals, from horses to donkeys to goats to chickens. Vega said his youth wasn’t easy—he left school early to begin working to support his large family, and when he came to the United States he hadn’t had much formal English instruction.
He initially found work picking fruit, where the language barrier wasn’t as much of a challenge. After a few years, Vega’s uncle, who had been working on the horse show circuit, suggested Vega put his horsemanship to use. At first, Vega was hesitant, but eventually he went to groom for Linda Hough. Vega made a point to expand his vocabulary. He kept notes to help him learn the English word for the barn supplies or key phrases he’d need to debrief his employers on what was going on with a horse.
“It’s hard,” he said. “When there’s somebody else there to help you out, it’s fine, but when you’re by yourself, it’s not easy. As you know, in English it’s ‘the white house,’ but in Spanish it’s ‘the house white.’
“I think it’s just, ‘How badly do you really want to learn?’ ” he continued.
The language of horses was always easy for Vega. Despite overseeing as many as 40 or 50 horses and several other grooms at a show, he knows each animal thoroughly and can quickly pick up on their likes, dislikes and changes in mood. Their needs keep him up at night and wake him before the sun each morning. Carleton can recall several times when Vega called or texted from the showgrounds, having scouted out the footing after a heavy rain, and provided a report about where the safest spots were.
“We could not have achieved our success to the level we are at without him,” Carleton said. “He’s an integral part of our operation. I actually get tears in my eyes [talking about it]. He’s family.”
When asked what stood out about Vega when he joined the Balmoral team three decades ago, Carleton’s answer was, “What didn’t?”
When Carleton learned Vega would be honored by the USHJA World Championship Hunter Rider program with the David Peterson Perpetual Trophy at Capital Challenge (Ohio) this year for his lifelong dedication to horses, he wasn’t surprised. But Vega was—and he felt honored to receive an award he considers the pinnacle of recognition for his profession.
“I’m so lucky,” said Vega, 48. “I was really surprised. It’s really nice to know that they think I should get it. There are a lot of other people I think should get it too, but I’m the lucky one this year.”
In Carleton’s eyes, Vega’s thirst for knowledge is his greatest asset.
“He’s a great horseman,” said Carleton. “He has the respect of all the vets, all the blacksmiths; all the grooms come to him for advice. If they have something with a horse, they bring it over to him. He taught himself to shoe; he taught himself English; he taught himself how to drive all the trucks. He can think like a horse.”
Two of Vega’s favorite charges over the years—Trinity and Penn Square—were very different types. Vega remembers Trinity as a mature, been-there-done-that type who allowed him the space to learn, while Penn Square brought him new challenges.
“I like the challenge. I like to learn with them,” he said. “I like to get the horses to do what I need them to do their way. I end up teaching them something, but their way. Everybody has something difficult on them. There isn’t one out there who’s perfect. You have to learn how to deal with all that sort of thing on their own terms, not push them to do stuff. You just try to learn from them, and they’ll let you do what you need to do. You never fight with their character. You let them be what they want to be, and they’ll end up doing what you ask, trust me.”
The most important thing to Vega is heart. He loves seeing a horse that will try its hardest and take care of a young rider. He sees himself a little in that sense of caring for others. Family is the other major influence in Vega’s life. His wife, Claudia Vega, worked alongside him at the barn before they had their children, Jocelyn and Ariel, and four of David’s five brothers also work the show horse circuit, as do numerous cousins, in-laws and nephews.
Even when David is off the clock, his mind rarely strays from horses. If Carleton consults him about an issue, David will think it over and call back with potential solutions.
“I think I’m like him. I like a challenge,” said David. “I like to be in a place where I can always learn something else. It pretty much has always been that way those 26 years. It hasn’t been easy. The horse business is hard; there’s a lot of traveling, a lot of hours and a lot of responsibility. I guess every job has responsibility, but working with animals is different. You start seeing them like part of you. This is not a job.”