When she was a young girl living in her native Sweden, the highlight of Pauline Holmer’s week was watching the World Cup show jumping competitions televised every Sunday afternoon. She recorded the rounds and watched them religiously every day until the next installment was available. Like any dedicated sports fan, Holmer could name each rider and horse and cite their results—and she knew that someday, she would be part of that world.
“I was obsessed,” Holmer says with a laugh. “I started riding when I was 2. My mom rides too, and she took me to the barn. When I was 9, my parents finally realized there was no chance I would stop begging for a pony, so they bought me one—24/7, horses were on my brain.”
Today Holmer, 31, is a professional groom and has worked for top riders including Lauren Hough, Nayel Nassar and Carly Anthony. Based primarily in Florida, she takes great pride in playing an integral role in the success of each of her equine charges.
“I have worked in many barns all over the world,” she says. “I have worked in both big and small operations, and have found myself to love the small ones. You can keep details so much neater and go into the ‘cell level’ that every horse needs.”
But Holmer didn’t originally intend to become a professional groom; she wanted to be a rider. A dedicated student of horsemanship, she trained first with Pia Levin and later with Emma Rosenqvist in Sweden. When Holmer was 12, she convinced her parents to buy a 17-hand Swedish Warmblood named Keanu Reeves. At the time, the horse had only shown to 1.10 meters and Holmer to .90 meters. With Levin and Rosenqvist’s help, two years later, the pair completed a 1.40-meter championship class.
“He was the perfect match; he was everything,” Holmer says. “We did it together. When Pia first found him, my mom said, ‘Absolutely not; you cannot buy that horse,’ because he was wild. He was just bucking and bucking and bucking. But when I want something, I get it—and I was certain I wanted that horse.”
Showing Keanu Reeves as a teen gave Holmer her first taste of top-level sport, and as she neared the end of high school, she considered her next steps.
“I knew I wanted to leave Sweden,” says Holmer. “Sweden is way too cold for me; I really need the sun. It is just so much easier to wake up in the morning and not worry about how many jackets I have to put on.”
Two things happened in 2012 that altered the course of Holmer’s career. First, the horse Holmer was riding required several months off to recover from a minor bone chip removal surgery, putting her competition goals on hold. At almost the same time, Holmer was offered the opportunity to groom and ride for U.S. Olympic show jumper Lauren Hough during the Florida season.
“I decided to go, and I loved it from the first day,” says Holmer, who was 20 at the time and not intimidated by moving abroad. “I was always very independent.”
Though the post was Holmer’s first as a professional, she found that her years of show experience and education made her well-prepared for the demands of a busy, elite-level show barn.
“The thing was, I was kind of already on that level,” says Holmer. “My trainer, Emma, was a World Cup rider before, and I was with her in her barn all day long, watching her grooms, learning what they were doing, and sorting out [how] they do this like this, and this other thing is done like that.”
For the next few years, Holmer freelanced for riders in Europe and the United States. By 2014, she realized that she needed to choose between her own high-performance career and pursuing a future as an elite-level groom and exercise rider. Ultimately, her decision came down to location.
“In Europe, you can just go to a young horse stable and get hired to jump the horses. Here, that is harder,” says Holmer. “In Europe, it is easier to be a show rider, but I really wanted to be [in the United States]. I like the life here, and I love the ocean and the warmth of Florida.
“I miss competing—I would love to be able to show and all of that,” Holmer continues. “But I ride every day, and I have been doing more training. I still do all the exercises I learned from Pia and Emma, especially Emma. She always emphasized, ‘Work the horse from behind,’ and ‘Don’t care about the mouth until the horse is in front of you.’ ”
As a groom, Holmer enjoys learning the ins and outs of each individual horse in her care, and believes that her insights offer their riders a different—and critical—perspective.
“There is nothing more important than to get to know your horse, learn their routines, what they like and,” Holmer emphasizes, “even more importantly, what they don’t like.
“To me, riders miss a lot of stuff because they have so much to focus on themselves. I see it as, I work for the horses. They speak through me,” she added. “It’s up to me to tell the riders, veterinarian or trainer what the horses need and how they feel.”
While working for Nassar, Holmer first recognized the importance of her personal knowledge of each animal’s quirks and feelings.
“If I said, ‘This one is not in the mood for riding,’ he would not ride him,” says Holmer. “With Lucifer, he told me he wanted to go out in the paddock before he was ridden, and Nayel listened 1000% to what I said. [Working] there was the first time I felt I could really speak up, and I just kept doing that.”
Because Holmer values getting to know her equine charges intimately, she prefers working with a handful of specific horses, both at home and at shows. It is only by spending time with each individual, studying how they react to and interact with their world, that she feels able to unravel their most essential needs.
“The most important question I ask myself daily is, ‘Why?’ ” says Holmer. “It’s actually not so hard—you have to ask yourself, ‘Why does my horse do this?’ There is always a reason. Most horses like their routines, the same thing every day. We try to work for that. Especially at the competitions, it’s extra important.
“If you do the same thing, the horses will feel safe, know what is going on, and confidently perform in the ring,” Holmer continues. “You have to learn how your horse wants it, and success will follow. Many times, I see people try to fix a problem without even knowing why it is a problem.”
More than anything, Holmer’s favorite part of grooming is watching the development of the animals under her care.
“When you get a new horse, and you really see, three months later, the change—in a good way—it is rewarding,” says Holmer. “And I will get to figure out everything [about that horse]. Sometimes it is the weirdest stuff, but that is normally the most important thing, the last piece for us to figure out, to keep that horse happy.
“Keep it simple, and the easiest roads are normally the best ones,” says Holmer. “That’s how I am doing it, and with the results my horses get, it’s working!”
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