With more that 16 years of experience grooming at top-level show jumping stables such as Stal Tops, Zangersheide and most recently Irish Olympian Shane Sweetnam’s Sweet Oak Farm, Maria Israelsson has amassed a wealth of knowledge.
Israelsson, who’s originally from Stockholm, started riding at age 8. While she never had her own horse, sweat equity earned her saddle time. As a teenager, she helped local eventers and show jumpers in Sweden, which sparked her desire to be involved at the international levels. Upon graduating high school, she moved to Europe and started grooming full time.
She took positions at Stal Tops with Australian Olympic show jumper Edwina Tops-Alexander in Valkenswaard, the Netherlands, and then Stal Zangershiede in Belgium before moving to the United States at age 30. She’s now been working for Sweetnam at his bases in Lexington, Kentucky, and Wellington, Florida, for the past 4.5 years. The Tokyo Olympic Games marked her third championship with the Irishman.
“Working for Shane, you definitely live life in the fast lane, but I enjoy life on the road and the shows,” Israelsson said. “I also have a lot of freedom in the everyday work, which I like.”
She takes care of six to 10 of Sweetnam’s top horses, alongside another groom and a flat rider, and is an integral part of his team.
“Maria has a great way with the horses,” Sweetnam said. “She is very calm and patient with them, and she is always organized and ready to go.”
We caught up with Israelsson to learn more about her experiences.
What’s your favorite part about being a top groom?
I like the variation it gives you: grooming, riding, traveling. Every day is different, and you get to meet a lot of people.
What’s your philosophy when it comes to grooming?
I like to keep it simple and stick to a routine as much as possible. Specifically, the nervous horses seem to be more settled with this. The most important thing is that the horses are happy and that they trust you. Then, most things are easy to do.
What would you like to see change in the industry for grooms?
I think, in general, things have gotten better for grooms since I first started working. There is definitely a lot more recognition on social media, for example. But in the end, it comes down to who you work for. Some stables and riders definitely have better conditions regarding salary, days off, getting help with driving, et cetera. Some riders help out more than others, and all those things add up to grooms enjoying their job and staying in the industry longer.
What advice do you have for someone looking to be an international groom?
Grooming can be tough with long days and hard work, but you also get so much back doing what you love. My advice would be to take a minute every now and then and try to see the job with some perspective. It’s so easy to get caught with the stress of the job— long hours, shows, et cetera—that you forgot why you do it in the first place, for the horses. And if you can’t change your mindset, it might be time to do something else.
Do you have a favorite horse?
I don’t have a favorite, but the ones we already have had for a few years, like Indra [Van De Oude Heihoef] and Alejandro, are always more special.
What are some of your most memorable moments as a groom?
Being fourth at the [FEI World Equestrian Games] in Aachen [Germany] 2006 with Edwina Tops-Alexander was nice. It was my first championship, and Aachen is always special. Also winning the team gold at the Europeans in Gothenburg [Sweden] 2017 with Shane and Chaqui Z.
What do you enjoy doing in your downtime?
I can’t say I have much free time, so when I do, I like to take it easy. Go shopping, go for dinner, go to the beach … things like that.