Andrea Mewhinney remembers one groom picking up her gift bag from The Grooms Award at the Pennsylvania National Horse Show. “She looked in the bag, and we said to her, ‘That’s for you,’ ” Mewhinney recalled. “We told her, ‘It’s not for your rider; it’s not for the trainer; it’s for you.’ She burst into tears, and she said, ‘Who are you guys?’ It’s so much fun, and we’ve had so many episodes like that.”
“You guys” are the veteran grooms behind The Grooms Award, Ltd., the 501(c)3 organization that not only presents the Caffarey-Hennessy Grooms Award at the Pennsylvania National, but also hands out gift bags brimming with goodies to grand prix and hunter derby grooms at horse shows across the country like Devon (Pennsylvania), Lake Placid (New York), the American Gold Cup (Michigan), and a few West Coast shows.
The Grooms Award, Ltd., is the brainchild of Mewhinney and her friend Noel Glavin, who created the Pennsylvania National grooms award in 1998 to honor a dear friend and fellow former groom, Moira Caffarey, who had died the year before.
“We were talking about how much Moira had helped us. She was such an amazing person and a great groom,” Mewhinney said. “How do you honor someone like that?”
They knew the best way to mark Caffarey’s legacy would be to recognize the backbone of the horse show industry, the grooms.
The first 15 years of the award at the Pennsylvania National carried just Caffarey’s name, but when noted horse transporter George Hennessy died in 2013, they added his name to the award as well. The award started in 1998 with just a t-shirt and trophy to the groom of the winning grand prix horse, but over the years sponsors have flocked to help, and now the groom has to wheel their loot away in the brand new wheelbarrow that’s part of the prize.
In addition, five years ago they started giving a gift bag filled with products donated by sponsors to every groom with a charge in the grand prix (and the hunter derby at some shows). Not only are there horse care products, but the Grooms Award organizers also make sure to include lots of food and a gift card to Starbucks or Dunkin Donuts. Along the way, the #groomsrock hashtag was adopted, and now it’s a call to recognize the work of grooms on social media.
Mewhinney has a lot of helpers for stuffing gift bags, managing donations and distributing the bags, most of which are fellow former grooms from the 1970s and ‘80s. It’s been a fun way for them to not only keep in touch, but also to make life brighter for people doing the job they all once did. “It’s a real labor of love,” Mewhinney said. “Part of the reason we expanded on this and we work so hard is because we see how happy it makes people. Nobody pats grooms on the back.”
Mewhinney spent years grooming at the top level of the sport for riders such as Melanie Smith Taylor, Norman Dello Joio, Judy Richter and Ellen Raidt.
“I loved every minute of it,” she said. And she has stayed friends with many people she knew from those days. “The camaraderie we have after 40 years is amazing.”
Life On The Road
Growing up, Mewhinney rode saddle seat, and then she received a Lipizzaner when she graduated from high school, so she learned a bit of dressage. While in college, she took six months to attend Porlock Vale Riding School in England, earning her British Horse Society certification.
“That place was awesome,” she said. “I couldn’t even believe I was there. My time there really taught me to appreciate how to take care of a horse.”
After college, Mewhinney went west to Colorado, where she worked on a packhorse string in the mountains for a year. “That taught me a lot about letting a horse be a horse,” she said. “All the cowboys that I hung out with taught me that chances are horses are a lot healthier if they’re outside rather than locked in the barn with bandages and blankets.”
After that, she worked as a truck driver for a bit. Once Mewhinney found her way back to the East Coast, she got her first grooming job at a barn in New York. “I really fell in love with it, hanging out with horses. It’s very therapeutic,” she said. “Then I learned who to hang out with and where to go to get a better job.”
She ended up working for Richter at Coker Farm in Bedford, New York, where she upped her grooming game.
“I worked with the great Kathy Scholl,” Mewhinney said. “Boy did she teach me how to turn a horse out. It was like night and day. I could get a horse to the ring, sure, but it was really nice to learn polish from her.”
Mewhinney spent a few years grooming for Dello Joio. There, she cared for the great grand prix horse Johnny’s Pocket, but her heart went to a mare named Plain Jane, a grand prix horse ridden by Debby Malloy.
“Jane was just crazy,” Mewhinney said. “I remember taking Jane to the ring, and other girls would say to me, ‘How can you deal with that?’ One of Jane’s favorite things was bobbing for apples in water buckets. My fellow grooms would fill the whirlpool up with water and then throw apples and carrots in. Then they’d watch as Jane would submerge her head, blowing bubbles. They all stood around drinking beer thinking it was so entertaining. I’d have to pull her head up because I was sure she was going to get water in her lungs.”
Then Mewhinney left to work for Taylor and Raidt, where she met Caffarey, who had come from her home in England to work in the United States. After a while, the two friends took jobs together with Dello Joio again, and Caffarey cared for superstar jumper I Love You.
By the time she was 30, Mewhinney knew she wanted to do something different. “I loved the horse and the people, but you’re on the road all the time, and it’s just exhausting,” she said. “I think it was burnout.”
She started working in horse show offices. “You’re still hanging out with horse show people, but you’re warm and dry!” she said with a laugh.
Caring In Other Ways
After a decade of working in show offices, Mewhinney was ready to move on once again. Nancy Goff, a friend in the horse show office who also had nursing experience, recommended she try the medical field.
“She told me, ‘You have such a good way with people, you need to get into health care.’ By that time, my friend Dana [Goedewaagen] had already become a respiratory therapist, and she also encouraged me to look into it,” Mewhinney said.
She took their advice, and Mewhinney has spent 20 years working as a transplant nurse at a trauma hospital. “It’s just so different,” she said. “People ask me about the horse show world, and it makes you smile, but then there’s so much security in what I’m doing now. I have a nice, eight-hour-a-day job with health insurance. When I want three weeks off to go do something with The Grooms Award, I do it.”
Mewhinney found she had many transferrable skills from her grooming days. “Horses taught me so much that carries over to patients and—about caring and thinking about somebody other than yourself. I learned that in the barn for sure,” she said.
“We also learned such an incredible work ethic from grooming,” Mewhinney continued. “Nobody ever catches me at the end of the hallway with my phone. Everybody I’ve ever worked with says, ‘Your work ethic is amazing.’ And I think I think that’s horses. You know, in a barn there’s always something to sweep and something to do, like walking a horse or cleaning a trunk. In nursing it’s the same, even if you just sit with a patient and hold their hand. You know how to use your time and use your brain.”
Mewhinney lives in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, with her boyfriend, who is a truck driver, and her beloved golden retriever, Victoria. While she might have gotten out of horse shows, Mewhinney keeps her hand in showing a bit— Victoria is actually GCH CH Four Seasons Under The Wire CGC, a grand champion in the dog show world. Victoria is also the official dog of The Grooms Award. In her spare time, Mewhinney also volunteers with the local humane society.