When Octavio Rocha first got the job at a horse farm in Industry Hills, California, he was perfectly content that most of his interaction with horses consisted of cleaning stalls and other light farm duties.
“I stayed pretty far away from them,” said Rocha with a laugh. “It looked interesting, but at the same time I was so scared.”
Then one day, he was asked to collect a horse from its stall. What should have been a quick task took several minutes as he tried to puzzle his way through the proper way to put on a halter.
“I could hear yelling, ‘Octavio, are you there?’ ” he recalled. “And finally I made it out of the stall, and the trainer said, ‘Oh no, Octavio, what happened?’ The halter was on the horse upside down and backward.”
Undeterred by his early missteps, Rocha made up for his lack of skills and experience with an unbeatable work ethic. Within a few years, he was working on the hunter/jumper show circuit, often learning by trial and error.
“When I first started taking out the horses’ braids, it would take me two hours just for one horse,” said Rocha, who immigrated to the United States from Totatiche, Mexico, at 14. “I’d see the other guys going home, and I’m still taking out braids at 10 at night. I remember crying because I really wanted to learn. I wanted to be like those guys who did everything so fast and kept everything clean and nice.”
Rocha didn’t find other grooms to be particularly welcoming or generous with advice. “Sometimes they think you’re going to steal their jobs,” he explained. So he learned everything he could by watching.
By the time he crossed paths with dressage rider Sarah Lockman in 2012, Rocha had become an in-demand show groom, traveling throughout southern California and working for several hunter/jumper riders including international show jumper Richard Spooner.
Lockman immediately appreciated Rocha’s reliability.
“You always know he’s going to show up on time or early,” said Lockman. “He knows the horses inside and out. I can trust that everything’s going to be done, I don’t have to tell him anything or give him a list.”
Rocha’s initial timidity with horses has transformed into a soothing manner, and now he has a reputation for being especially good with young horses and stallions. Lockman counts on him to keep the horses calm during the most excitable situations like the jog and award ceremonies.
But don’t ask him to mount up.
“I stay on the ground,” he said. “I love horses, but you don’t know what’s going to happen when you get on them. I’m happy on the ground.”
As Lockman’s head groom, Rocha is responsible for First Apple, the 10-year-old Dutch Warmblood stallion (Vivalid—Oogapple, T.C.N. Partout) with whom Lockman won individual gold and team silver at the 2019 Pan American Games in Lima, Peru.
It was a big moment for Lockman, but it also cemented Rocha’s place as a top-caliber horseman. Out of all the grooms, Rocha was chosen to fly with the U.S. team horses to Peru. “All of the riders trusted Octavio the most,” explained Lockman.
“For me personally, it’s like a dream come true,” said Rocha of attending the Pan American Games. “That feeling is something emotional. You don’t believe it. Being the groom to represent the United States is, I don’t know—there are so many things in your head. So many people want to do something like [that]. It’s like, wow.”
Now 49 years old, Rocha is married with an 8-year-old son, and he just became a homeowner. But he does have one dream left to realize: “My goal is to go to the Olympics with ‘Apple’ and Sarah. That is my dream. Especially, of course, to represent the United States with Apple and Sarah.”
If Rocha could give some advice to his younger self, what would it be?
Don’t give up.
“It is hard in the beginning,” he said. “I cried so many times. I wanted to learn and get things done. The only thing I can say is, don’t give up. Just work, do the best you can, and be responsible. Always have a dream because you don’t know what will happen. Things can change in the future. In the beginning, it’s hard, but maybe in the future you’re going to be like, ‘Wow, after all those many years finally it happened.’ ”