At 59, Nicole Orna says she’s the happiest she’s ever been, thanks in large part to a road trip in 2014 that led to her current position: grooming some of the top carriage horses in the country for Mary and Harvey Waller.
Before hiring on at the Wallers’ Orleton Farm in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, Orna had spent nearly 25 years away from the horse industry, which she’d been a part of since she fell in love with a pony named Apple Juice at 4 years old. She grew up taking lessons in Phoenix and riding with the British Pony Club in Surry, England, where her mother split her time working for airlines.
“When I eventually said I wanted a pony, my mom said, ‘Fine, but you have to work for it,’ ” Orna remembered. “So I mowed lawns until I could buy a pony. Of course, once you have a pony, then you really have to pay for the pony, so you become a barn rat.”
By then, the family had settled permanently in New Vernon, New Jersey, where Orna worked off her board in a series of field hunter barns. She got her first paid job at Clarence Nagro’s Hilltop Stables, where she worked in the mornings before school. In the afternoons, she did chores at Sheepfields Quarter Horse Farm just down the road.
In 1978, she signed on as a groom for Karen Healy at Tewksbury Farms, where she instantly took to the A circuit.
“What I found was that if you knew how to take care of horses and get them to the ring on time, that’s what they were looking for,” Orna said. “Little things that are their particulars, that’s easy—I never had a problem with that. I’m their groom; it’s my job to do it that way. I don’t have a problem with following an instruction, and I never argued about particulars.
“I just wanted to be somewhere taking care of nice horses,” Orna added.
Orna went on to work for some of the top equestrians of the ’80s and ’90s, including Jack Benson, Vivien Malloy and Jimmy Kohn. But her favorite place bar none was Pinon Farm in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she groomed for Robert Ridland from 1983 until 1987.
“That was my first chance to really work exclusively with top-notch grand prix horses,” Orna said. “It was a sale horse barn; Robert was the rider, and Pierre Jolicoeur was the trainer. Pierre was just brilliant, and I got to see him coach some of the best horses and riders in the world. And Robert, I just loved Robert to death. I was crying at the ceremony where he was inducted into the Show Jumping Hall of Fame [in 2018].
“That’s the only place I regret leaving,” Orna added. “I was younger then, though, and if someone offers you something different or a little more money, you tend to do that.”
Orna freelanced after Pinon, but by 1989, she felt ready for a change.
“Twelve years on the road—that’s a long time,” Orna said. “I was almost 30, and I had never had a job outside of horses. I needed to see how the other half lived.”
Orna left the equestrian world for what seemed like its polar opposite: commercial fashion.
“I took a job as a sales manager at Macy’s, and, honestly, you’d be amazed at how similar the requirements are!” Orna said. “The attention to detail, the time management, the work ethic—it all carries over. You’re on your feet all the time, and you put in the same amount of hours, believe it or not. Customer service is customer service. When you’re a groom, you’re the service industry of the barn.”
Orna quickly climbed the ranks from sales manager to associate buyer. Her break from muck boots lasted 22 years, but she never could kick her barn habit entirely.
“The only difference between Macy’s and working in barns was that I could do more on a personal level, but what I found was every vacation I took, I was volunteering at horse or pet rescues,” Orna said. “I helped animals after Hurricane Andrew; I volunteered for a disabled riding clinic. Anything I could do to be near a horse, I did.”
In 2014, Orna took a week to travel with three friends from her grooming days, Dana Goedewaagen, Andrea Mewhinney and Tracy Emanuel, to volunteer at Best Friends Animal Society’s sanctuary in Kanab, Utah. During the trip, Orna confessed she’d been toying with the idea of getting back into the grooming business.
“They were incredibly encouraging,” Orna said. “Dana, who’s 10 years older than me, said, ‘Hey, I’m still doing it! Go for it! If you love it, go back!’ If they hadn’t been so encouraging, I wouldn’t have done it. No way. And getting back in was the best decision I’ve ever made.”
Goedewaagen connected her friend with Mary Stokes Waller, whom Orna remembered from her early grooming days but had never worked with personally.
There was just one hitch.
“I said, ‘Mary, I don’t even know how to harness a horse!’ ” Orna remembered with a laugh. “But she said, ‘Don’t worry about that. You have the knowledge. Just come on.’ ”
Orna’s concerns about the harness proved valid. At shows, Mary rents an extra stall where two people clean harnesses all day, every day. Orna studied the different configurations in a book Mary provided that was published in the 1800s. Each setup requires a different harness, and each harness a different configuration. Even six years after starting, Orna jokes that some days she’d give anything for “a simple saddle and bridle.”
Besides the loathsome harness, Orna says working with coach horses has been the greatest joy of her career.
“These horses are just majestic,” Orna said. “The first day I was there, I took two out to the paddock, which is how you walk them out—two at a time. I turned them around, took the lead shanks off, and these two 18-hand horses, they trotted out in perfect sync, like they were in harness! They were just beautiful, and I was just in absolute awe.”
Orna feels like she knows a little better how to strike a balance between her work and her personal life now. She and her partner, John Richard, live together with two rescue dogs and spend their free time going to concerts at Tanglewood, a venue two miles from the Wallers’ farm in Lenox, Massachusetts. Orna sits on the board of directors for The Grooms Award, along with the same trio of friends who brought her back into the fold six years ago. She even manages to log hours volunteering for animal rescues.
It’s a busy, messy life, and Orna recognizes that at her age, people might think she’s crazy for still pursuing it. But after living on both sides of the industry fence, there’s nowhere she’d rather be.
“The people that work here, stay here,” Orna said of the Wallers. “That’s true of all the people who stay at the top in horses. McLain Ward couldn’t be any nicer, and people work for him for 30 years. Beezie Madden and Nick Skelton are the same way. When you see someone who has that amount of tenure working in their barn, they’re people who realize that it’s a big pie, and everybody is a slice of that pie. If you lose a slice, something crumbles.
“I love every minute of what I do, and getting back into it was the best decision I ever made,” Orna concluded. “I might not be quite as fast as I used to be, but I can do it. I have never been happier, never been more thankful.”