Wednesday, Feb. 8, started out much like any show morning for Adrienne Lyle’s groom Monica Stanke. She arrived at the barn before dawn to care for the U.S. Equestrian Federation’s 2022 International Horse of the Year, Salvino, ahead of the Adequan Global Dressage Festival CDI-W (Florida).
But Stanke, 25, soon realized something wasn’t right with the horse.
“He was acting a little funny in his stall,” she said. “He’s usually ready to go out of the stall in the morning, and he was like, ‘No, I don’t really want to.’ ”
Because Salvino, Betsy Juliano’s 16-year-old Hanoverian stallion (Sandro Hit—Dynastie, Donnerhall), is always game and ready to work, Stanke sounded the alarm. After consulting with a veterinarian, Lyle announced her decision to withdraw Salvino from the competition on social media, citing a colic episode.
On the heels of their 2021 Tokyo Olympics and 2022 ECCO FEI World Championships (Denmark) appearances, Salvino and Lyle have been working to quality for this year’s FEI Dressage World Cup Final, to be held April 3-8 in Omaha, Nebraska. The pair already had notched two qualifying wins and their team had hoped to clinch their spot with another win at AGDF that week. Instead, Lyle’s team now is looking to the last North American League World Cup qualifier, March 1-5, to snag a third victory and guarantee a World Cup start.
The colic scare provides a glimpse of the heavy responsibility that rests on Stanke and other grooms caring for equine athletes at the highest level of sport, as well as the qualities that have helped her succeed over five years working for Lyle.
It all comes down to sweating every tiny detail, Stanke said, while maintaining a regular, predictable routine despite a top horse’s busy schedule of training, travel and competition.
“Monica’s dedication to the horses, and her work ethic are out of this world,” Lyle said. “She lives and breathes for these animals, and I am so appreciative to her for that. I never have to worry when I am gone because I know she takes the absolute best care of them possible.
“Having somebody like that is invaluable and gives me such peace of mind that I am able to focus on the things I need to,” she added. “She will come early and stay late and never complain about putting in the extra hours. To me, that is true dedication—to go above and beyond what is asked of you for the job because you want to do it even better.”
Does the pressure ever get to her? “It can,” she said, “but I have a lot of good friends and peers who help me get through it, and Adrienne’s a really good boss. She’s always right there in the middle of all of it.”
For his part, Salvino came through the episode none the worse for wear, Stanke said. In the hours and days following the colic incident, she kept an extra-close eye on every aspect of his care.
“You’re My Person”
As much as she enjoys and relies on her human team members, Stanke finds the greatest rewards in the horses. “I couldn’t see myself being happy doing anything else,” she said.
“There’s quite a lot of [horses] that I’ve gotten close connections with, and people say I’m their emotional support human,” she said.
“Especially when we go to shows and there’s more pressure, I’m like, ‘OK, let’s do some scratches. You’re fine. You’re smart. You’re talented,’ ” Stanke said. “We take a lot of walks and grazes. I sit in their stalls a lot if I can and just let them know that they’re not alone.”
On her first trip to Europe as a groom, Stanke accompanied Lyle’s student Christian Simonson as part of the U.S. young rider dressage team last summer. At that point, Simonson had only been partnered with 12-year-old Danish Warmblood gelding Son Of A Lady for four months.
With only one horse to care for over the month-long stay, Stanke was able to bring her considerable relationship-building skills to the table.
“We taught him how to smile,” she recalled. “We spent a lot of quality time and grew attached. When we got to all the places, he was like, ‘You’re my person and you’re here, too.’”
Joining The Jet Set
Stanke said she loved every part of the trip, which included competitions at Aachen (Germany) and Hagen (Germany). Flying with horses had been a bucket list item, and the experience more than lived up to her expectations.
During takeoff and landing, Stanke explained, the grooms weren’t allowed to be in the cargo area with their charges.
“Once we got to a certain height, the pilot would say, ‘OK, you can go down and check on them.’ We checked on them six times in the process of flying over,” she said. All the horses on her flights, including Son Of A Lady, proved themselves excellent travelers.
In Europe, Stanke enjoyed observing the differences in horse show culture. Even though the competitions were far larger than she is used to seeing in the U.S., the vibe was more relaxed. She especially appreciated the snacks, meal vouchers and spaces to chill provided for grooms near the stabling areas at the two venues she visited.
Although those kinds of perks aren’t the norm in this country, she noted that AGDF in Wellington is experimenting with a lounge area for grooms this season, though the location of the new space is a few minutes’ walk from the horse’s stalls.
Away from the showgrounds in Europe, the U.S. young rider dressage team stayed at two farms whose facilities reminded her of Wellington, Stanke said. She noticed that the Europeans trim their horses’ manes to about 7 inches, longer than what’s typically seen in this country. Stanke and her team have followed the trend, making for a row of about 15 plump braids, which she believes is more comfortable for the horses than a larger number of tiny braids.
As much as she loves going on the road for shows, Stanke pointed out that it’s different from other types of travel. “I love to travel, and I grew up traveling before I did the horses,” she said. “I still get that with the horses, but once you go with the horses, you don’t get to go adventure out to places.”
Lyle splits the year between properties owned by Kylee Lourie’s TyL Dressage in Wellington and Greenwood Village, Colorado.
A normal day starts around 6:45 a.m., when Stanke and three other grooms begin feeding grain and getting the horses ready. Some go on the walker; some get hand-walked, and others are groomed and saddled for Lyle and assistant trainer Quinn Iverson.
Throughout the day, the team keeps up a steady pace of therapies, paddock turnout, hand-walking, grooming, tack-cleaning, laundry and other duties to keep 16 performance horses happy and fit.
“It keeps us busy,” Stanke said with a laugh. “We have a great team.”
On show days, the routine is adapted to accommodate the start times of each horse-and-rider combination.
“I get them out, usually, a few times before they show,” Stanke said. “Whatever they want to do, whether it’s grazing, walking or people watching, we do.”
After her charges compete, it’s time for pampering. Whether that means administering some kind of therapeutic treatment or just being quiet “varies between what they need and how they feel,” Stanke said. “They have their chill moment after and a rest. They all want to have their nap and their alone time.”
In addition, Stanke cares for her own horse, Cooper, a 17-year-old Morgan who’s boarded nearby. Although the two previously competed up to third level, their rides are now much more low-key.
Getting The Gig
Stanke, who doesn’t come from a horse family, first rode through College for Kids, an eclectic summer program in Traverse City, Michigan, that also included activities like sewing and music. After taking riding lessons at a local ranch for a couple of years, she discovered dressage around the age of 13.
The homeschooled teen fell in love with the harmony she saw in the sport and sought out Laurie Moore of Ada, Michigan, for lessons. Her dedication eventually led to working student positions with Moore and Betsy Van Dyke, both of whom spend time in Wellington during the winter season.
When she heard through Facebook of a groom position with Lyle, Stanke was interested but didn’t think she was ready.
“I thought, I will just reach out to see what I will eventually need to do the job, because I thought there were a lot more qualifications you needed to work with someone at this level,” Stanke said. A week, a Facebook message and a phone call later, she had a job offer.
After a three-week scramble to find retirement board for her older horse and training board for Cooper, Stanke joined the team at Lyle’s previous summer location in Idaho.
“At that point, there was a head groom here, and she taught me a lot,” Stanke said. The biggest adjustment she faced at the international level? Each horse’s routine and maintenance are tailored to its specific needs and preferences.
“We do a lot more keeping them moving and watching their fitness levels, even when they may be having a break from riding,” Stanke said. Each equine athlete’s customized regimen may include Aquatread sessions, hand-walking, time on the walker and pasture turnout, as well as schooling and competition.
One Step Ahead
Along with keeping each horse on track, Stanke stays one step ahead of her riders by observing what’s important to them and making sure those things get done. For example, Lyle likes her horses to do plenty of carrot stretches and to have their tails washed at least weekly.
“All of that is getting done, and she doesn’t have to think about it,” Stanke said.
And when Lyle asks for something that’s not part of the usual routine, “I try to never say no,” Stanke said.
As some team members have moved on, Lyle has asked Stanke to step up to a higher level of responsibility.
“Over the years she has grown to pretty much taking over a lot of the organization and packing for shows and travel for me,” Lyle said. “I always know we will have everything exactly where we need it and it will be organized and efficient.”
Making lots of lists has helped, and Lyle is always ready to be a sounding board to help Stanke find a solution for sticky situations.
Going With The Flow
Stanke said her parents have always been supportive of her work with horses.
“I go see my parents and my family when I’m in Colorado, because we have a little bit lighter of a schedule there,” she said. “I just had a new nephew born last summer, so I try to go out there as much as possible.”
College plans are on hold for now, and Stanke said she doesn’t have a long-term roadmap for her career. “I just go with the flow,” she said. “See what happens!”
For those looking to break into the field, Stanke offered a few pointers. “Be willing to go the extra mile,” she advised. “Also, try to always be looking for something to do. Don’t stand around.”
She stressed that it’s important to be in this field for the right reasons: the love and the care of horses. “I like all the horses to have the best life that they can ever dream of,” she said. “They work hard, so I work hard to make their lives the best.”
And for those who just want to be the best groom they can for their own horse?
“I feel that it all comes back to a good curry,” Stanke said. “That makes their coat shine, and they all enjoy it, and it’s like a body massage for them.”
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