Thursday, May. 30, 2024

Groom Spotlight: A Year Of Trial By Fire: Part 1

As the fall season comes to a close and the post Fair Hill coma sets in, there is time for reflection. I often have flashbacks of the last 10 months but it seems now that things are actually starting to slow down, the entirety of those months begins to become clear.

I have a friend who finds a theme for each year. Usually it’s a word or a phrase. This year I chose “trial by fire.” It seems from when I started my new life on Jan. 2 that every bit of it has been some sort of trial by fire or baptism by fire.

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As the fall season comes to a close and the post Fair Hill coma sets in, there is time for reflection. I often have flashbacks of the last 10 months but it seems now that things are actually starting to slow down, the entirety of those months begins to become clear.

I have a friend who finds a theme for each year. Usually it’s a word or a phrase. This year I chose “trial by fire.” It seems from when I started my new life on Jan. 2 that every bit of it has been some sort of trial by fire or baptism by fire.

Welcome to Maryland—please get to know these 12 horses, their quirks, habits, tack, appearance of legs, feet and body within the next week before you leave for Aiken, S.C., and all 12 of them are in your sole charge for the next 12 weeks.

Welcome to Aiken—please be advised that you will be in charge of every aspect of these horses’ care. You will work 12 to 14 hours every day for the next 12 weeks, feeding, mucking, changing blankets, treating wounds, fixing fence, tacking up, cooling out, turning in and out and any other odd jobs that may arise.


Looking between the ears of Covert Rights, or C.R., on a hack in Aiken.

Your feet will ache like you have walked 100 miles each day (because you have) and your will to keep going will be tested at every turn. Keep going.

Welcome to your first show working for someone else. You will be expected to turn out not one, not two, but five horses to a high quality standard. All must be bathed and braided, socks white and tails clean.

You will not know where anything is when you arrive—blindly follow the masses and hope the dressage arena is where you thought it was. Thank god Pine Top is easy to navigate. It hadn’t occurred to me that up until that point, all other show grounds I had laid foot on were ones I was intimately familiar with. There were no questions of where the office was or where warm-up was—it was second nature. Now? Follow the masses.

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Welcome to your first FEI event. You will have not one, not two but three horses in the CIC3*. This will be your first time running a vet box. You will lose your common sense to stress and you will push through anyway.

You will walk 200 miles on cross-country day alone and you will be expected to keep the stable area clean, neat and tidy to the highest standard. The Fork was a beautiful setting for my first official FEI event as a “professional” groom. There, the pressure was on.

I fell back on my Pony Club training to keep the barn in working order while managing the mass chaos of ride times and exercise rides the best I could. I was most nervous for managing the vet box with the three CIC3* horses but all passed with mild blunders. The Fork also coincided with our return to Maryland from three months in Aiken. It was starting all over again—a new routine, a different barn. Just three short weeks before the big Kentucky.


Packing is an understatement.

Welcome to the Rolex Kentucky CCI****. You will have not one but two horses to turn out to the utmost highest standard come Wednesday and you will have the first horse down center line and the first horse out of the box come Saturday. You will again have two horses to turn out on Sunday and you will sit in the middle of the Rolex arena during the awards ceremony.

Are you ready to have your breath taken away? I hope so. Rolex is and was a blur of excitement. While I had been to Rolex before as a spectator, it never occurred to me that I would return the next time as someone behind the scenes. While back in the barns in is all quite ordinary, the first walk down the chute to the Rolex ring kind of swept me up and made me take a step back and wonder. To think of all the greatness in the ring before and those that stood before me then.

The only thing that made it more special was watching Colleen with her homebred Covert Rights (C.R.) have the most incredible test and to then have both CR and Luke (Shiraz) be part of the top 20 at the end of the weekend. It was a weekend of a whole lot of highs. It is in those moments where I become most thankful and humble for our sport and those few and far between high moments.


Colleen and C.R. at the Rolex Kentucky jog—one of the highlights of the year. 

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Welcome to Jersey Fresh and Virginia. It all begins to pale in contrast to the last weekend in April. Setting up tack stalls and managing ride times put your mind at ease and jogs and vet boxes and the whole lot seems less than they were before. Is it the exhaustion setting in? Probably.

Welcome to Great Meadow. The ultimate highs and lows of this sport will show their colors. The stakes are high. Breathe. Believe that hard work pays off. It does.

Great Meadow had a different vibe to it. As the Pan American selection trials and a CIC3*, there was lots of action and activity that put on a bit of stress. We co-competed at Surefire with Roulette (Rou) and made our way to Great Meadow for dressage and show jumping. Both phases were lack-luster for our two boys, C.R. and Escot 6 (Monkey). In the end C.R. pulled it out for a third place finish after a stellar clear cross-country round. Monkey showed his greenness at the level but tried his heart out nonetheless.

Welcome to Millbrook. Disappointment has a name. Millbrook reminded me a bit of home—forests and rolling hills. We took three, C.R. and Monkey at advanced and Rou at intermediate. This would serve as C.R.’s last run before his departure across the pond and the pressure was on.

Dressage and cross-country were strong but as we all know, the show jumping ended our Saturday high with two rails down, dropping C.R. from first to seventh. We turned back to the drawing board as we returned home to quickly pack for England.

Come back tomorrow for Part 2, in which we travel to Europe and the rollercoaster ride continues!

Alex Ambelang works as a groom for four-star eventer Colleen Rutledge and spent 2015 traveling with Rutledge’s three- and four-star horses. Alex grew up in Montana and achieved her HA rating with the U.S. Pony Clubs as well as eventing to the preliminary level. She graduated in 2014 with a Bachelor of Arts in Cultural and Medical Anthropology from the University of Montana. Then, in early 2015, she took the job with Rutledge. 

You can read Alex’s introductory blog here and all of her blogs here

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