At the end of 2018, Tyler Held got together with her friend, four-star rider Emily Hamel, to talk about their goals for the next year.
They came up with 19 goals for 2019, one of which was supposed to be “easy to check off.” For Held, that meant trying a new physical activity, so she chose Brazilian jiu-jitsu at a nearby gym that offered free classes. Another goal was to read more, so she finished 52 books. Her intention for 2020? To earn her doctorate in sports psychology.
That might sound like a stretch goal for anyone, let alone a full-time eventing groom, but Held, 25, thrives on self-improvement and is a self-proclaimed overachiever. She’s worked for five-star eventer Jennie Brannigan for just over a year, with her ultimate grooming goal to work at the Olympics and eventually have her own sports psychology clients.
“Coming off my working student positions and being a groom, I was so used to long hours and hard work,” Held said. “I just got really interested in sports psychology. I really think that’s going to be a part of what I want to do in my life moving forward, knowing that grooming is a tough job just between the hours, and it’s tough on your body. That’s kind of my early retirement plan—trying to get the education while I’m still in it, because I love the sport and love grooming.”
Held grew up in Columbia, Maryland, and started riding at summer camp. She got into eventing when she was 17 and took a position as a working student at Waredaca Farm with Stephanie Butts.
She completed a training three-day event but didn’t really get along with the horse, so Held focused more on grooming. She graduated high school in three years and attended the University of Findlay (Ohio), where she double majored in equine business management and animal sciences, graduating in three years with highest honors.
“Cat Hill came to the barn I was working at, and it was right when [her grooming book] “World-Class Grooming” was launching,” Held said. “She put on a clinic, and it opened my eyes. At this point I had already graduated and had [two degrees], but I actually didn’t know the care and attention to horses could get this interesting. Her talking about traveling overseas really piqued my interest. I started to get interested in the recovery techniques and the science behind everything as far as grooming is concerned. It was a lot more than mucking stalls and picking feet in the morning.”
Held also worked for upper-level rider and judge Valerie Vizcarrondo-Pride in Maryland for three years, and she groomed for young riders and adult amateurs.
Held’s dream of grooming at the Olympics pushed her to keep educating herself, so she worked as a vet tech for upper-level amateur rider and veterinarian Kevin Keane at his Sports Medicine Associates of Chester County in Pennsylvania.
“I knew my veterinary side of things was not as strong as it could be,” Held said. “I had a couple of offers from professional riders for grooming positions, but I didn’t quite feel ready to go to an elite program. I wanted to learn as much as I could and make sure I was up to snuff, so I thought the vet tech job would be really good.”
Held also helped Keane with his top horse Sportsfield Candy, and when he fell and broke his leg she helped groom the gelding for Phillip Dutton, who catch rode him on the Nations Cup team at the Brook Ledge Great Meadow International (Virginia) in 2018. Dutton was short a groom that summer, so Held worked with his top groom Emma Ford, who co-authored “World-Class Grooming” with Cat Hill, and she also helped freelance groom and worked with current U.S. Eventing Association President Max Corcoran at shows too.
During her 1 1/2 years working full time for Keane, Held earned her master’s degree in sports psychology online through Capella University. Her focus was on mindful sports performance enhancement.
“The whole foundation of mindful sports performance enhancement is educating athletes on mindfulness, which is moment to moment non-judgmental awareness—the whole idea in sports and in life that being fully absorbed in the present moment is where optimal experiences come from,” Held explained. “Being in the horse world and being in the heat of it, I’ve noticed when I make mistakes, it’s when I’m thinking about the 16 other things that I have to do with my day instead of actually focusing. Like, I’m bringing a horse in from the field, and I’m thinking about the next horse I have to tack up and not the horse that’s next to me—that’s when I’m going to miss a cut or not notice something’s wrong with the horse.”
Held’s found that taking the time to focus on the present moment has made her more effective as a manager. She’s done some consultations and worked with adult amateurs and coached a jockey on mental toughness, but she doesn’t have regular clients right now.
“Once you’ve had a bad experience on a horse, if you’re going out riding and thinking about your bad experience, that takes away from the present moment,” Held said. “This mindfulness training is done outside of the saddle so when those moments come in the saddle, and you have to focus on what’s happening in front of you, you can connect with your breath and not be thinking about a bad experience that you might have had.”
Through Keane, Held connected with Brannigan, and she started working for her in March of 2019.
Held doesn’t ride much, but she enjoys working alongside two other grooms caring for approximately 18 horses. Held is particularly interested in bodywork, so the horses get regular sessions with a Magnawave and a massage machine dubbed, “The Thumper.”
“I’ve been focusing a lot more on keeping things preventative and being proactive with the horses, so I really appreciate that and the nutritional aspect of it,” said Brannigan. “Every little detail matters, and it’s great to have someone who thinks like that working for me.”
Held has a special relationship with Brannigan’s top four-star horse Stella Artois, who won the 2019 Rebecca Farm CCI4*-L (Montana) and competed on the Nations Cup team at Boekelo (the Netherlands) in the fall.
“I got to go to the Netherlands with her this past year, and she’s just big, and she’s sassy, but she’s also very sweet, and she definitely has her person,” Held said. “When I first started working for Jennie it took a little while for us to bond, but once we did, I know that I’m her person. She loves donuts, so I love feeding her donuts. She’s just a gorgeous horse, and I’m so lucky to take care of her.”
“ ‘Toddy’ was coming back right when Tyler started working for me, and it was awesome to go to Rebecca Farm and come out and win,” said Brannigan. “Toddy’s a handful on the ground; she’s a huge horse, and she has always been quite strong-minded. She’s not really a horse you tell what to do; you ask what to do in a bit of a partnership. If she knows she can run over top of you, she will. But she’s a gorgeous horse, and she’s so talented she’s worth every bit of it. I know Tyler really loves her. She’s a mare, and I really like to bond with them, and it’s great that she’s so bonded with her.”
While living in shared housing on Dutton’s property, Held met Hamel, who was working for Dutton, in 2017. They connected over their interest in wellness, health and fitness.
Hamel needed someone to groom her four-star horse Corvett for her wedding photos, and Held volunteered.
“I randomly ended up being very involved in Emily’s wedding,” she said. “I planned her husband’s bachelor party, and I attended it. We basically became really good friends from there. I had been reading about sports psychology for a long time, and we had gotten to talking about that, and I shared a couple of books with her.”
They started a podcast called “The Whole Equestrian,” have spoken at the USEA Convention and given a clinic on riding and mental coaching.
Held has continued her jiu-jitsu and also does Crossfit.
“My No. 1 motivation for fitness has been to be a healthy and fit groom,” she said. “The days can get long; there’s lots of heavy moving that happens, and I think it’s really important to keep yourself in shape to do that job properly. [Jiu-jitsu is] a good activity for me because it helps me with my body awareness and alignment, which I think is my biggest weakness in working with horses.”
Held isn’t sure how big The Whole Equestrian will get as she works on her other pursuits, but she and Hamel are having fun.
“We’re really passionate about it and just want to grow and educate and get as many people aware of mindset, fitness, nutrition and community,” she said. “The practical side of me hopes to monetize it a little bit, but the No. 1 motivation is to really educate and grow the mission in the community—to create more mindful equestrians.”
Held is planning to start an online doctoral program in July in hopes of earning certification in sports psychology.
“I’m an overachiever, and there’s the voice in the back of my head saying maybe I’m biting off more than I can chew, but I’m really hoping that it works out because I do think that my job as a groom and getting to experience what it really feels like to be in a high pressure, competitive setting will really help me along the way,” Held said. “I always feel like if I have something like that, I take everything I learn in school and apply it back to the horses, and I take everything I learn from the horses, and I want to read into the research on that.”
Brannigan has recently changed the way she approaches her business, focusing on her own riding and aiming for quality over quantity. She’s appreciative of the energy and enthusiasm Held brings to her job and to others around her.
“Tyler is into self-improvement, so that’s been a huge thing in my barn,” Brannigan said. “She’s really positive, and she hustles, which of course I love. It’s been really fun. It’s nice to have that different personality that’s into fitness and nutrition as well because with horses it’s hard to do everything and do it well. She kind of eggs everyone on to be better.”