From the time she started Pony Club at age 7, you could find Jenni Giannini on Saturday evenings with soap and sponge in hand, diligently going over her tack, looking for any wayward dirt.
“One of my first memories of Pony Club was that we had an instructor who wouldn’t allow you to ride if you weren’t organized and properly dressed with clean and safe tack, so on Saturday nights I’d be cleaning tack so I could ride in my Sunday lesson,” she said.
That diligence has served her well throughout her life, and especially now in her job as barn manager and top groom for show jumper Karl Cook. If you spot Cook’s top mount Caillou 24 anywhere, whether at home, a show or even on a plane, chances are you’ll find Giannini nearby, keeping a close eye on the sensitive gelding.
Cook’s team refers to Giannini as Caillou’s “emotional support person,” and for her part, Giannini considers the 13-year-old gray Holsteiner (Casall—Carefree, San Partignano Corrado) to be family.
“I don’t think you can be a top groom without emotional connections to the horses,” said Giannini, 37. “That’s the fun of it, finding the language that works with each individual horse and treating them like the individuals they are. It’s all about finding ways to make them comfortable, confident and happy, which are all traits horses need to be successful with their riders as well.”
Consistency keeps Caillou at his most confident, so they try to have one person handle the vast majority of his needs: that role falls to Giannini.
“Caillou and I have found a language we speak, and it’s so enjoyable and interesting,” said Giannini. “In the horse world you never stop learning, both from other people as well as the horses themselves. It’s nonverbal from the horses, but it’s a language, and you’re always learning more of it. I learned that from a young age with young horses, and it’s driven my desire to work with horses.”
Giannini grew up in Half Moon Bay, California, with parents who were not involved with horses. But as a young child, she was drawn to them.
“On the main highway near our house there was one of those rental string places, and I would ask my parents if I could ride them every time we passed by,” said Giannini. At age 5, her parents enrolled her in riding lessons, and they bought her first horse when she was 7. That’s when she started Pony Club and stayed in it until 21, when she graduated as an H-A.
“That’s a huge portion of where I learned horse management,” Giannini said. “I owe a lot of my education, particularly on the dismounted side of it, to Pony Club. It gave me a huge network for educational opportunities and the development of all types of horsemanship.”
During her freshman year of high school, Giannini became a working student at the hunter/jumper barn where she kept her horse, paying off her own lessons by doing chores and teaching younger students. She showed in the equitation, junior hunters and junior jumpers, all on the same horse, a Selle Français-Dutch Warmblood gelding named Harvey. Keeping an agreement she made with her parents, she graduated from San Francisco State University with a degree in history.
“I stayed close to home so I could continue working with horses during the day, and I went to school mostly at night,” said Giannini. “I never really considered anything besides horses as a career.”
During college Giannini also produced several young horses and competed her own Hemingway up to the 1.45-meter level. After graduating she started her own hunter/jumper training business. At the same time, she freelanced at other farms, assisting with horse training and care in any way she could. It was during this time she met Signe Ostby, a businesswoman, equestrian and Cook’s mother, who had just started a breeding and training operation in northern California called Pomponio Ranch.
“I started working at Pomponio Ranch a few days a week, halter breaking and handling brand new babies,” said Giannini. “Signe Ostby was fantastic in giving me great opportunities to grow and develop along with the horses. As the babies grew, they needed someone to start them and ride them, and once it was time for them to show, I did that too. I was involved literally from the ground up.”
As her role at Pomponio Ranch expanded, many of the students in her own training program grew up and moved on, so it was a natural transition for Giannini to take a full-time job there. A few years later, she was spending an increasing amount of time at the farm’s Rancho Santa Fe location, where Cook and French world champion Eric Navet keep their competition horses.
“About three years ago I came down here with a couple young horses to show and ride with Karl, and have Karl start working with them as well, and it morphed into me staying here,” she said.
Now, Giannini oversees the care and management of all of the horses in Rancho Santa Fe, California. The herd currently consists of 14 horses, three mini horses, and one mini donkey. In addition to her job caring for Caillou 24, Giannini is the main groom for a young mare in Cook’s string.
While Giannini enjoys riding and showing, being in the saddle isn’t her greatest passion. “I’m sure when I was a little girl I said I wanted to ride in the Olympics, but really, I’d rather be there as a top groom,” she said. “I think maybe it fits my personality better. I like the behind the scenes training and handling, and especially caring for the horses. That’s what drives me.
“Because of Signe Ostby and Karl, I’m really getting to live my dream,” she continued. “I absolutely love what I get to do here for Pomponio Ranch. I’m grateful for all the opportunities and experiences they have provided, including working with Olympian Eric Navet and renowned veterinarian Dr. Philippe Benoit.”
As far as the future, Giannini is exactly where she wants to be. “I want to always be learning more and just to continue to try to be the best show groom and horse manager that I can be, and to be part of the success of top international show jumping horses like Caillou,” she said. ”I’m extremely happy and feel very much like I’m reaching those goals.”