When Gemma Jelinska was 4, her father tried to put her up on his friend’s horse. She burst into tears and proceeded to cry her eyes out, refusing to get on. But today, at age 30, nothing delights her more than prepping, tidying and admiring the string of horses she’s tended as head groom for international event rider Liz Halliday-Sharp since 2012.
“When you see them going well at the show, you know you are doing the right thing at home,” says Jelinska.
But now that Halliday-Sharp is returning to the United States permanently, rather than traveling back and forth to Great Britain, she’s had to say goodbye to her British supergroom. Jelinska made sure her charges were settled in Florida before making a bittersweet return to England.
“I have put other people first for so long,” says Jelinska. “Now, I have to prioritize me.”
In 2011, Jelinska was diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome, a chronic condition characterized by abnormal colon contractions causing intense pain and other gastrointestinal symptoms. For many years, she successfully managed the illness with oral medication, but in early 2019, while she was working in Ocala, Florida, her health took a significant downward turn.
“This flare-up just spiraled out of control,” says Jelinska. “I should have gone to the hospital, but I really wanted to go to the Aiken [South Carolina] Showcase with [Fernhill By Night], so I delayed going. By the time I finally went, the doctors made me sicker, and I had to go home to the U.K.”
Jelinska remained in England for the rest of the winter to receive treatment. In her absence, it took two grooms to maintain the workload she handled mostly on her own.
“People tell me that I’m a bit OCD,” says Jelinska with a laugh.
Halliday-Sharp and Deniro Z, owned by Ocala Horse Properties, were named to the U.S. team for the FEI Eventing Nations Cup Aachen CCIO4*-S (Germany), and she and The Monster Partnership’s Cooley Quicksilver were the traveling reserve for the U.S. Pan American Games (Peru) team. Jelinska, with her attention to detail and efficient organization of Halliday-Sharp’s yards in the U.K. and Ocala, is a large part of those accomplishments.
“She’s a huge part of my career,” says Halliday-Sharp. “She’s been a big part of me getting to a better level now because having the right crew is a big part of it. It’s a hard decision for us to make, to move over here full time, and it’s even harder when you know that you can’t take a lot of your best crew. It’s amazing how important it is as a rider to have someone who you trust completely to manage the care of the horses both at the show and at home.”
Jelinska originally came to Halliday-Sharp’s Chailey Stud Equestrian Centre in East Sussex, England, as a rider. After her inauspicious introduction to the neighbor’s pony, Jelinska’s non-horsey father encouraged the young horse lover to give the sport another try, and she started taking lessons when she was 12. She got her first taste of eventing after watching a local one-day event.
“I’m not sure what captured my eye,” Jelinska admits. “I guess when I was younger I used to love jumping and cross-country.”
During high school, Jelinska spent her free time at the Tunstall Forest Livery Yard in Tunstall, England. “There is amazing hacking there, and we had a lot of people who work in London who just came to ride on the weekend,” says Jelinska, who helped condition horses for their owners.
In 2007, Jelinska acquired her first horse, a gelding she called Oli. “I bought him as a project horse to sell, but he was very naughty and used to rear,” says Jelinska. “I got him around a BE 100 [roughly equivalent to training level]. But he was nappy. I still have him, retired in a field, on loan as a companion.”
Jelinska’s transition from rider to groom happened as the result of good timing and a little luck. Competing was an expensive hobby, one she was struggling to afford. At the same time, Halliday-Sharp’s previous head girl left shortly after she arrived at Chailey Stud. Although Jelinska wasn’t looking for a job, she caught the team’s eye due to her experience working with a variety of different horses.
“Plus, I already had an HGV license, so I could drive the lorry, which put me at an advantage,” says Jelinska with a laugh, referring to the British equivalent of a commercial driver’s license. “I became busy fairly quickly, so riding promptly went out the window.”
With an average of 13 horses in work on the farm at any given time, the team at Chailey Stud keeps a rigorous schedule. Jelinksa was supervising a crew of three full-time grooms and living on the farm. Days began early, feeding the horses and getting Halliday-Sharp’s first ride of the day ready by 7:30.
“Our goal is to always have a horse ready for Liz,” says Jelinska.
Jelinska says the team is on the road so frequently, between training, competition and conditioning, that a main part of her job was prepping the lorry.
“I think I am always getting a lorry ready to go somewhere,” says Jelinska. “And there is so much washing, tidying and cobwebbing to be done every day. We really keep the place tidy.”
Her attention to detail has given Jelinska the reputation of being one of the top grooms on the international circuit. In 2016, she received the Shapley’s Best Turned Out Horse award for HHS Cooley at the Rolex Kentucky CCI5*-L.
“I can take a lot of pressure,” adds Jelinska. “I only get stressed out if I feel there is not enough time.”
But this constant pressure came at a cost. Jelinska admits her ability to internalize the stress of a grueling schedule, combined with high personal expectations, took a toll on her health.
“I am learning to put myself first,” says Jelinska. “I should have done that when I first got ill. Maybe then it wouldn’t have gotten so bad.”
The travel required for her job hasn’t made it easy for her to get enough rest, eat well and take care of herself—all things her U.K. doctors insist are necessary for her to stay healthy. She couldn’t go to Lima for the Pan Am Games, as her compromised immune system could not handle the required vaccinations.
When Halliday-Sharp, who is a U.S. citizen, decided to return to the United States year-round, Jelinska knew she couldn’t join her. Jelinska receives an intravenous medication every eight weeks and requires monthly blood draws. In the U.K., the cost of her treatments is covered 100 percent under their National Health Service, but that wouldn’t be the case Stateside.
“I am a bit sad,” says Jelinska. “I wouldn’t have left if she wasn’t relocating. Sometimes I think, ‘Oh, I’ll just go,’ but I know that I really can’t. I’ve just decided that 2019 isn’t my year. I’m pretty good at switching off how I feel.”
Halliday-Sharp also mourned her departure. “By no means did we want her to go,” she says. “She can come back whenever we can get her here. She’s still part of this team, and I think we’ll be on the phone with her a lot anyway. Gemma’s like family to me, so I hope that we can keep her any way we can.”
Initially, Jelinska thought she might work as a freelance groom, but she wanted a more consistent paycheck, and she found a post that she hopes will be the perfect fit.
“I’m going to work for Bubby Upton, a young rider who has been to the [European Championships] on both ponies and horses,” says Jelinska. “She does quite well. She is only 20 and has just five or six horses. It will be quite a bit slower paced.”
In addition, Upton is willing to let Jelinska return to work for Halliday-Sharp at key competitions—which she hopes will include the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.
Jelinska wants to remain in the horse industry, but she knows that, especially given her health, her career as a groom is limited.
“You can’t do it forever,” says Jelinska. “It takes over your life. You see some grooms, they work for a couple of years, then disappear for six months or more before they come back. Grooms burn out, and many of the younger ones can’t cope with the workload and stress.”
But for now, Jelinska is looking forward to her new position.
“They are very excited and clued up on what they are doing,” says Jelinska of her new employers. “I know what I am doing, and I am ready to just get on with it.”