This year, show jumping enthusiasts watched Karen Polle and With Wings take the sport by storm. The formidable pair had a memorable week in Wellington, Fla., during the Winter Equestrian Festival, claiming the top prize in the $130,000 Ruby et Violette WEF Challenge Cup on March 9 as well as the March 11 Saturday evening five-star grand prix, the $380,000 Douglas Elliman Grand Prix, and continued to add to their resume with successes in Spruce Meadows and Europe as the year continued.
But Polle and Wings aren’t the only ones putting in the effort for every clear round—Polle’s manager and Wings’s groom, Stef Goldenberg, is working hard behind the scenes to give the dynamic duo their best possible shot at success.
A self professed barn rat, Goldenberg grew up in New Jersey, where she began riding at age 7 when a friend invited her on a trail ride. “I was immediately hooked,” she recalls, “and worked at most of the barns I was riding at [while] growing up.”
Goldenberg went on to study legal studies and psychology at Ithaca College (N.Y.), but as her graduation loomed in 2011, she found her heart wasn’t set on a career as a lawyer: “When I was a senior, I decided I didn’t want to learn about the law as much as I did about horses. So instead of applying to law schools, I applied for a job at Anne Kursinski’s Market Street,” she said. There, Goldenberg met Polle, who was then training with Kursinski, and the rest, they say, is history.
Though Goldenberg left Market Street before Polle, the two quickly reunited when Polle began managing her own program. “I had always loved taking care of both her and her horses,” Goldenberg remarks, so “[w]hen she set on her own, it was a no-brainer.” The pair function well as a team, and Goldenberg quickly notes that they’ve always “worked really closely together to create our system.” As the years passed and their shared knowledge grew, Goldenberg’s role has developed from groom to manager, which she acknowledges was a large step up, but one she clearly made with poise.
“It was a big change for me because I had always worked under someone with more experience,” she explained, crediting Polle’s former head groom and manager, Asa Bird, as a critical mentor. The onslaught of new responsibilities was certainly a little daunting, as Goldenberg found herself no longer “responsible only for caring for the horses,” but “responsible for everything and… everything.”
She by no means takes those responsibilities lightly, commenting that “[t]he biggest thing my job has shaped has been my sense of responsibility. As a groom, you can be considered the primary cause of something… you’re able to be blamed or credited for it. It’s really made me value the rewards that our hard work reaps.”
As for what that “hard work” exactly entails, the list is long, including the basics, like everyday care, therapies, and record keeping, to scheduling appointments with the farriers, chiropractors, and vets who work on Polle’s string. Communication with those professionals also informs Goldenberg’s daily work in the barn as she continues to develop her own management style, and she is quick to acknowledge their role in her development as a horsewoman. “The interaction with them over the years has helped shape my general daily routine and care program for our horses,” she said.
In the midst of Goldenberg’s busy days, does she have a favorite part of her job, something she specifically looks forward to? That’s hard to pinpoint, but the focus is most definitely on the horses. “Giving my horses the ‘best’ that I can provide them with makes me seriously, seriously happy,” she said, explaining that doesn’t mean “all the carrots and apples their hearts desire,” but rather a high standard of basic care: “a comfy bed to go into at night, fresh water for their many hours in turn-out, clean blankets to snuggle up in, and yes,” she adds, “the occasional Jimmy Ball!”
As someone who takes great pride in her work, she is particularly happy when “all of the pieces to the puzzle come together,” not necessarily from a competitive standpoint, but from the perspective of how the horses feel and look to the rider and other professionals who participate in their care. In typical Goldenberg style, her immediate focus is not on the results in the ring, but on the well-being of her equine charges. “My job is to take care of these horses, so when the experts are all satisfied, it means I might actually be doing my job somewhat right!” she noted.
Of course, an obvious highlight of Goldenberg’s job is With Wings—and the joy for Goldenberg isn’t just in his recent successes, but in the journey she’s witnessed Wings and Polle make over the past six years from the high amateur-owner ring to five-star competition. “I’ve loved that horse for six years and watching him jump the way he does makes it hard to breathe sometimes. As weird as it sounds, when he’s in ‘Wing-mode,’ it almost hurts to watch,” she explained.
As for the journey that lies ahead, Goldenberg is committed to remaining a part of Polle’s (and Wings’s) support team. “I didn’t pick this job for a particular purpose,” she mused. “I genuinely enjoy doing it and learning and want that to take me as far as it can, or as far as I will let it.” However, she credits her early years at Market Street for helping her pinpoint a niche—helping a young rider develop into the higher levels of international competition with confidence.
One of the highlights of her career thus far is her involvement in Polle’s own trajectory, beginning in her Young Rider days with Kursinski through her recent participation in Japan’s selection trials for the 2016 Rio Olympic Games. Although Polle and Wings did not attend the Games in Rio last summer, Goldenberg notes that it was still “incredibly exciting to be involved with that journey. I just hope I can help her continue to build on that.”
Clearly, Goldenberg has taken a different path than the one most pre-law students find themselves on, but her hours in the barn and at the ring have only augmented her life experience. “Over the years, I’ve found that skills I have learned on the job—ones that I thought were specific to my work—became relevant in my daily life,” she reflected. Her years as a groom and manager have indeed taught her just as much about people as about horses: “Grooming has given me a better understanding of how other people function and how my behavior affects them,” she remarked. “It has made me a more mindful person as I’ve learned how to approach people with respect and awareness.”
Polle and her horses are indeed lucky to have Goldenberg by their side as they continue to climb the ranks in show jumping, and it seems Goldenberg’s enthusiasm for her work is unwavering. When queried about her interests other than horses, she replies tongue in cheek: “I don’t understand the question!”