If you want to catch up with Denise Moriarty while she’s at work, you’d better be able to walk and talk—the busy life and work of a groom for the No. 1 U.S. rider, Kent Farrington, stops for nobody.
When I pulled up to Farrington’s Wellington, Fla., farm at 3:30 on a Tuesday afternoon, I found her sweeping stray pieces of hay back into their designated shed, pushing a wheelbarrow loaded with a bale of the hearty green stuff to the nearby wash rack.
“Do you mind if I throw hay before we talk?” Moriarty asked, already hosing the bale and letting it soak while she pulled up another wheelbarrow. Of course I didn’t mind, and I followed along as she wheeled the hay down to the aisle where her charges were stalled, throwing each a few flakes of hay.
Some horse is already screaming (“That would be Blue Angel,” she said.) before we round the corner where, lined up in five stalls with a view of a large arena, Uceko, Willow, Voyeur, Blue Angel, and Gazelle (minus Uceko, he’s out for a ride) nicker and paw expectantly—these are the five horses Moriarty cares for, arguably Farrington’s top horses.
No sooner does she finish throwing hay than Uceko comes walking down the aisle, clip-clopping to the cross-ties in front of his stall before his rider, Claudio Baroni, hops off. Moriarty begins pulling off boots and wraps, undoing the girth while the rider does the same on the other side of the horse. After untacking, bathing and drying Uceko, and cleaning his tack, Moriarty had no more than a moment before it was time to get Voyeur ready for his second ride of the day (he gets frisky without two).
Want to know more about Uceko? Check out our look Behind The Stall Door with him.
I was starting to catch on that if I ever wanted to interview this woman about how she came to be a groom, and not just a groom but the person Kent Farrington trusted with the care of his best horses, I was going to have to do it while she worked.
“Well my family didn’t have anything to do with horses, so I don’t know, I guess my mother just got fed up with me or what, and she sent me off for riding lessons when I was 9,” Moriarty said jokingly. “And after that, that was it.”
Moriarty grew up in western Ireland, where the riding school she first fell in love with horses, Turlough Equestrian Center, is still in operation. “I worked there, I took care of the school ponies, and then I started to do young horses there,” Moriarty said. “And then I got my start to take trail rides.” Don’t mistake “trail rides” for leisurely walks around farm property—Moriarty was traversing the Irish countryside for hours at a time.
“You go through the mountains and the bogs of Ireland,” Moriarty said. “I did that and then I did all my hunting, but we don’t actually go after fox, it’s a made path and you go out for hours. We would bring the young horses, like the 4-year-olds out there, because it’s really good for building their confidence, because then they just learned to go forward and jump whatever,” Moriarty continued. “They’re just following the other horses, and it’s great fun.”
At 14, Moriarty got her very own first pony when she purchased a squat little creature by the name of Bob for 100 pounds. “He was going to slaughter when I got him, he was so fat we couldn’t find a saddle to fit him,” Moriarty said.
An upgrade to Prince Owen, a 14.2-hand Connemara pony, owned by the riding school, after Bob was outgrown is when Moriarty started really jumping. “I did all the 14.2 stuff with him, and then when I moved out of ponies we measured him up into horses and I did the Young Riders stuff with him.”
When Moriarty wasn’t schooling green horses across the Irish countryside and jumping massive tracks on a Connemara pony, she was helping the school back young horses. “We’d back them and then show them as 4-year-olds, just kick them around really,” Moriarty said with a laugh. “Just jump the fences, nowhere near the training that goes on here,” she said, motioning to Farrington’s operation, before turning back to tacking up Voyeur.
Horses moved to the back burner when Moriarty went off to school in Athlone, Ireland, where she studied veterinary nursing and got her masters in agricultural science. Moriarty finds the knowledge of veterinary terms and lingo very helpful when speaking with vets as a groom, and considers the degree a useful tool to have should she ever retire from grooming. “Maybe when I’m too old to do this, I can always go hold a dog while it gets its nails done or something,” Moriarty joked. “There’s always something.”
Voyeur is now fully booted, saddled and bridled and ready to go for a hack with Baroni. Baroni tells Moriarty that “Froggy” was good yesterday, before Moriarty gives him an inquisitive look and he corrects himself. “That was this morning, not yesterday,” and they both laugh and shake their heads. The long hours filled with horse after horse, ride after ride, are blending the days together.
Taking Uceko for a hand-graze.
After college, Moriarty got a job grooming for Marilyn Little and Raylyn Farms in Frederick, Md. “I came to America because I wanted to travel, but I couldn’t afford to just travel and not make money, so this was the best way to do it,” Moriarty said. “I got to travel all over Europe and all over America and got paid to do it.” Moriarty groomed for both Little’s eventers and her show jumpers and said a typical month entailed three weeks at show jumping competitions and one week at an event.
While Moriarty enjoyed caring for all her charges, show jumping was her true passion. Farrington was showing a horse for Little at the time, and when Moriarty began the search for a full-time show jumping groom position, Farrington and his barn manager, Alex Warriner, offered her a spot on their team. This will be Moriarty’s fourth time at the Winter Equestrian Festival with Farrington, but she’s quick to point out that, while she is in charge of five of Farrington’s horses, she is not able to care for them all on her own.
“Obviously its not just me who does, it it’s a whole team of people,” Moriarty said. “When I go to a show I take two or three horses with me, and someone has to take care of the ones I leave behind, and they take just as much work when I’m gone as when I’m there, so it does take all our home grooms and work riders, everybody, our blacksmith, secretaries, they keep us on the road.”
If her job sounds like a lot of work even with the support team, it is. Like all grooms, one day off is the industry norm, and there is no punching out at 5:00 p.m.—you work until the work is done.
It’s not a career for everybody, and Moriarty spoke about what has kept her in the game for the past seven years. “As long as you have the right rider who is determined, then it’s easy to do the work. If they work as hard as you do and they appreciate what you do, then it’s worth it,” Moriarty said.
“You have to have a rider who says thank you and appreciates when you stay late to clip or whatever. When they notice it, and appreciate it, then that makes a huge difference in the longevity of your career in this job. You have to get the feedback. It’s hard work and long hours, so if you’re doing it for nothing then you’re not going to last,” Moriarty continued. “It doesn’t matter how much your horses love you or how much you pay attention to them, if you don’t feel appreciated it’s not worth it. It’s a job you have to want to come in every day and want to do well.”
Standing at the in-gate watching your equine children win some of the biggest classes in the world isn’t half bad, either. “For sure, seeing them go in the ring and do well is great,” Moriarty said.
Anyone with an internet connection or tickets to the event can watch Farrington soar around a course with Uceko, with Voyeur, Blue Angel, Gazelle or Willow. There are only a few select people who, win or lose, day in and day out, will be there to swing a saddle over their backs for a morning ride, hose them down and let them hand graze when they’re finished, and tuck them in at night—hardworking grooms like Moriarty.
This is an article in Groom Spotlight, a new series of groom profiles to be featured on www.coth.com. Make sure to follow www.coth.com and like the Chronicle’s Facebook page to see them posted. If you know a fantastic groom you’d like to see appear in this series, email firstname.lastname@example.org.