Name: Kay Neatham
Hometown: Norfolk, United Kingdom
Current Residence: near München, Germany
This year, Kay Neatham enjoyed the Tokyo Olympics the way most of us did—as a spectator from afar. For more than two decades, Neatham groomed for some of the world’s best riders—including Beat Mändli (Switzerland), Bernardo Cardoso De Resende Alves (Brazil) and Marcus Ehning (Germany)—but 2½ years ago, she left the career that had consumed her heart, soul and most waking moments. These days, you will find her working as a hospital administrator, coordinating patient care, managing insurance issues and ensuring policy compliance with Germany’s complex legal system.
How did your early years with horses set you on the path to becoming a professional groom?
I was about 12 years old. I was on holiday with my parents. My parents wanted to entertain us, so they booked us on a pony ride. We went hacking for an hour, and my sister [Eve] and I really enjoyed it. My parents probably realized riding was something good to do—to be outside, be with animals and just something different.
We started going once a week to our local riding school for a lesson. I eventually started helping out at the school to get free lessons and spent more and more time there.
I only rode livery horses—I never had my own. I once worked out exactly how much it would cost my parents [to get a pony]. I’d gone to the farrier at the local riding school and asked him how much he would charge, and I came with this list. I sat in between them on the sofa one evening when they were watching TV and said, ‘Look, I’ve worked it all out!’ Very luckily, they said no. It would have been way too much financial pressure.
I worked more and more and started spending full days mucking out, grooming, cleaning tack, pulling weeds out. In England, muck heaps are always made square. That’s something you do by hand, and it’s the first thing people see. The only way to know back then if a stable was well kept was by how well the muck heap was kept. It is quite a life experience—it took hours, and you were proud when you walked away and it was perfectly square with steps in it so you can just turn the wheelbarrows over. I even took pictures of my muck heap!
When did you begin to realize that grooming could be a future for you?
I was very lucky in the Pony Club I joined. We went for a stable management afternoon with a lady called Charlotte “Tiggy” Heal [now Lenherr]. She rode dressage for the British Young Riders Team at the time. At the end, I asked if she would show me how to fit a double bridle, because the horse I was riding at home needed something more than a snaffle. She showed me how to fit a double bridle, and it was just the two of us, and she said, “If you’re ever interested in helping me out on school holidays, give me a call.”
I went for my six-week summer holiday to her place and stayed with her family. She was extremely good, riding-wise, and her mother was an absolute stickler for stable management, for neat and tidiness, for grooming horses. They taught me an awful lot of discipline, and Tiggy taught me how to feel horses. You’d be riding, and she’s like, “Are you sitting on the left side, or are you sitting on the right seat bone?” Or, “Lift up your ribs and drop your shoulder.” I’m constantly thankful to how she put the groundwork in, always asking these questions about the small things. I was very lucky there.
From there, I went for a work experience at school to Ruth McMullen, who trained Pippa Nolan [now Funnell], a famous event rider over here. I spent quite a lot of time with them, and I realized that, though as a child you dream of riding yourself, when you don’t have any money and don’t have your own horses, you end up riding horses no one else wants to ride. As a groom, I got to ride always, the most amazing horses in the world. I saw that was my way to achieve going to the Olympics, doing everything in that role.
I actually preferred [grooming to riding] because being in the limelight—what riders sometimes have to go through to put themselves out there—is really nerve-wracking. Once in the start gate, you’re on your own.
When you moved to Germany, did you already have a grooming gig lined up?
Tiggy was in Germany riding at the auction in Hessen that year, and she called and asked me if I wanted to come groom for her, and also to ride and see Germany. My mother left me at the airport—I don’t even know if I was 17—and I think she already knew I wasn’t coming back. I obviously thought I was!
The guy who ran the auction had a big, massive stable, over 100 horses, and he asked if I wanted to spend a winter there breaking young horses. It was an awful job, and I admire anyone who can do it. I was just downright scared, and didn’t have the balls to get on and off them until they were steerable, because I understood just exactly what these young horses were capable of. I very quickly moved on to riding his better horses and eventually just rode his best horses, kept them all happy and fit.
My first job with a top-10 rider was Beat Mändli. The first year I worked there, [he was] almost a definite for the Swiss team for [the Sydney Olympic Games] on Pozitano. Sydney was just incredible because we were there for six weeks beforehand in quarantine. We all shared “containers” with each other, which we sort of turned into our own little houses. We walked down to this pub you would never have found that made the most amazing fish and chips. Everyone wore their uniforms, and everyone was there for their country.
I still think [the Olympics] is the biggest thing you can achieve in sport. At that level, as a groom, you have to make so many decisions by yourself and are so much dependent on yourself. Of course, you have to be very ambitious or else there is no way you could put in the hours, the time, the sweat and grime. You put those four people together in a small area with all those egos—there are ups and downs, but in the end you always hug.
Are there other significant moments that also stand out?
I worked for Bernardo Alves, a Brazilian rider [for 5 ½ years], including when [Brazil] won the Pan Am Games in Rio in 2007. We were a great team. That was the first time I’d won a team gold medal.
When you are in the country that your rider is riding for, it’s always special because it affects so many people. Everyone is celebrating and coming and congratulating you—you are on a high for quite a while! I was trying to get [Alves’ mount] Chupa Chup 2 to pee for the doping test afterwards, but everybody just kept coming by and saying “well done!” and shouting in Portuguese. I could see the steward was like, well, this is going to take a while.
Then when Canturo won the [Grand Prix Europa] in Aachen [Germany] in 2005—it is the first big one of the week in Aachen—that was the first time I’d groomed a horse that had won. It was an unbelievable moment, when he jumped the last fence, and we looked at the clock and you go, “Wow, we won in Aachen.” Canturo was such an amazing horse. So careful, so strong, so determined. He had a massive heart on him. That was a really special day.
You’re walking back from a win like that—and in Aachen, the Brazilians were stabled toward the back—and you can’t stop patting the horse. It’s kind of a long walk, and everyone’s like, “Hey, well done,” or, “Kay, great ride.” The horse must be like, I’m going to have a bruise on my neck will you just stop—but you think, “Oh, he was amazing”—pat, pat, pat.
But with any great high there also are significant lows. What are some of the hard parts about grooming that people might not understand?
I think one of the hardest things is to stay motivated. It’s a really hard job. It’s mentally hard as well as physically hard. You literally push yourself to limits you didn’t know existed.
When I was in Stockholm, I was blogging for World of Show Jumping, and I wrote that my body got out of bed, but my head stayed there. You’re functioning, but you’re just not there anymore. You do your job. But if somebody asks, what day of the week is it, or what time is it, the answer is, “I don’t know, what country are we in?”
I think when you are at that point, it is sometimes the reason why there are a lot of breakdowns in communication. Everyone has come across a grumpy groom but most of it is you are literally physically so tired.
You get to a point where you think things can’t happen without you—that you are invincible, like nobody else could possibly look after that horse, or, “I have to be at that show because he can’t ride without me.” You put so much strain on yourself to perform.
You never want to say, “I can’t,” so you push through it. I remember standing in an indoor with one of our vets and watching our horses trot, and I couldn’t stand up straight anymore—my back was hurting so much. They were like, “Kay, will you please go to bed?” You literally need someone to tell you that.
For sure, I was many times at the burnout stage. Looking at it today, I’m sure I was the most awful person to be around at those times. I was never ever snappy with a horse, ever, so probably I was double so snappy with the people around me.”
Neatham’s final professional post was grooming for Marcus Ehning, whom she describes as “the most amazing rider” and someone who was “a privilege to work for and learn from.” She traveled with Ehning and his horses around the world, experiencing success at two Olympic Games, a World Equestrian Games, World Cup Final and the Global Champions tour. But after almost a decade with Ehning, Neatham found herself at a crossroads.
I always said I would finish the sport when I knew it was time. A lot of people push through those barriers because they don’t know what else to do. I remember taking my bag down for the millionth time and thinking, “I can’t pack this anymore.” But it was nearly a year after that first day until I actually didn’t go to shows anymore.
When I stopped going to the shows, I stayed home for Marcus. We got a wonderful new girl to go to shows with him. I never realized giving up [something] is difficult. I couldn’t sleep. All the things you push down over the years kept trying to come up. Luckily, in Germany we’re supported by psychiatrists through the Olympic federation.
I called the lady and said, “Do you have time for a groom?” We sat and talked for a few hours, several times, and she said everybody who is an athlete who stops with their sport—it doesn’t matter what—struggles. You are so used to having a schedule, to thinking, “I have to be there next weekend.” All of a sudden, that’s gone.
I didn’t leave because I had to leave or because I had a falling out that sometimes happens to people. I left because it really was time.
Before Neatham left grooming for good, she took a leave of absence to participate in the Clipper Round the World Race. In this sailing adventure, amateurs from all walks of life get four weeks of training before matching with one of 11 yachts under the direction of a professional captain and first mate. These yachts, crewed by amateurs, race in segments around the world. Neatham joined the tour for three months, completing two legs of the race.
When I was a kid, my second hobby was sailing. I wanted to race sailing yachts, but as a girl when I was 17, everybody just laughed at you. They didn’t want girls on teams. The horses took off, and I went for that.
[When my grandmother died, she] left all of us grandchildren some money. But she wanted us to do with it something we would otherwise never be able to do. I had always followed the Clipper Round the World Race, and I thought, I want to do it—I have to do it.
In January 2018, I joined the yacht Qingdao in Australia. We raced from there to the bottom of China, then we raced across the North Pacific to Seattle. It was the most amazing experience—28 days in the middle of the ocean, with waves you can’t imagine, speeds, the night skies. Whenever I have a difficult day, I try to imagine myself in the middle of the North Pacific, and then I feel good.
How did your time in the Clipper Race help you transition into your new career?
What it gave me is the courage to do something else. I knew I wanted to do something else, but I didn’t know quite what. Here in Germany, when you don’t have a job, you go to the job center and you can speak with somebody there and get advice. I got an appointment and I said, “I’m 40 years old. I’m going to have to re-educate myself. What can I do?” The lady there straightaway said working in the health sector is one of the most stable jobs you can do. There are many laws governing the German health system and not many people specifically trained in that area.
I moved south, eight hours away from Marcus’ place. Partly because I met a guy [Bernd Weigell] while I was sailing who lived down here.
Now I work in the assistance of the management of a hospital. We decide where everybody’s bed is going to be in the hospital. It’s perfect—I organized stables, planes full of horses—it’s the same. You don’t put the stallions with the mares, keep the same age groups together, the same sicknesses together. I had a head start there!
Are you still connected with horses?
There is a lovely family not far from the clinic where I work, and their 12-year-old daughter Ava has two lovely ponies. It’s a pleasure to ride them for her three times per week Ava was county champion on her pony last weekend. It’s great to keep in contact with the sport at that level.