It’s a situation that happens often—a horse-crazy kid has to put his favorite hobby on hold to attend university. That was Dale Hailstones’ path.
Hailstones, a native of Glasgow, Scotland, studied musical theater in school and received his master’s degree. He took a full-time job as a manager at a bar and restaurant, and he moonlighted as a professional singer on weekends. But soon he felt like he was hitting a dead end and was desperate for a change.
“I still owned a horse at the time, but it was completely just a hobby at that stage,” said Hailstones. “I had never really taken a break from school or university, and a friend of mine said, ‘You know, you should go and groom for a good rider for the summer. You’d get to travel a little bit and see some cool places and just figure out what you want to do.’ And a mutual friend got me in contact with Laura [Kraut], and I called and said, ‘I’m kind of looking for a job just for the summer, and it’d be really good experience.’ And then they were really keen, so I kind of did that immediately. I think I called them on Friday, and by Monday morning, I was there. And that was almost five years ago now.”
Hailstones is now the head show groom for Kraut’s string of horses, and he hasn’t looked back since. While he cares for many of the horses at Kraut’s barn, his primary charges are two of her top mounts, Zeremonie (Cero—Toulouse, Quick Star) and Confu (Contact Me—Riga II, Cambridge).
“Both of them together is actually really funny. They’re kind of opposite,” said Hailstones. “[Confu is] very dependent on people; Zeremonie is kind of not. She’s quite happy to do her own thing, and when you’re there, she’s happy to see you and is very tolerant. But she’s a little more independent. Confu wants you there every step of the way.”
While much of Hailstones’ duties are a given: feeding, hand walking, lots of baths for Kraut’s gray-heavy string, riding is a perk of the job, and he gets to hop in the saddle every day to help exercise the horses. Hailstones and the other riders like to hack the horses out in the English countryside or do gallop sets at Dan Skelton’s racing stables in Warwickshire.
“I’ve always loved to ride, and I guess for me it was a bit of a toss-up whether I was going to ride as an amateur and have fun doing that, or whether I was going to hang up my riding boots and groom and get some experience at the international level as a groom,” said Hailstones. “I’m very, very fortunate that actually I’ve been able to do both. I’ve been able to continue riding and improving myself in that way, and also being able to groom for a rider like Laura, it’s kind of worked out really well for me.”
Hailstones got his start in the horse world at age 10, after he passed a field of horses while in the car, which prompted him to announce he wanted to start riding. After begging his parents for lessons, they eventually gave in.
“I would go to the riding school where my pony was, and I would help with all the weekly lessons, and that all contributed towards the cost of keeping the ponies and stuff,” said Hailstones. “I always worked around the horses from a very young age, and I think that’s where I became so passionate about it. And I guess that’s where I started to enjoy all of the groundwork and the grooming, as opposed to only being focused on the riding element.”
Although Hailstones had a strong background in horse care from all those hours spent in the pony yard, he quickly learned that professional grooming was very different.
“Not to sound cocky, but I think when you’ve always been around horses, and you were brought up around them, you are confident in your abilities. For sure, I knew that I could take care of a horse, and I could turn out a horse. I could present one looking well,” said Hailstones, 27. “But when I got to Laura’s, it was just completely a new level. All the other grooms there at the time were head and shoulders above me, ability-wise and experience-wise.”
In the year leading up to this year’s FEI World Equestrian Games (North Carolina), every part of Zeremonie’s schedule was planned down to the minute. Hailstones believes all the time spent with the mare is what helped bring their relationship closer, despite her independent attitude.
“It took quite a little while [for Zeremonie] to warm up to me because I think I have to say that Laura’s previous show groom, who had been with her for a long, long time, spent so long with that one horse, and they had a very special journey together,” said Hailstones. “So I think for me to come in and kind of take over that role, it took [Zeremonie] a little while to adjust also. Luckily, she’s a really cool horse, and she’s very special. Like I said, the last year it was very intense with the lead-up to the WEG, so we spent a lot of time together. So I guess I had to force her to love me a little bit.”
Most of the time the grooms are the ones behind the scenes, but Hailstones got his own taste of the hype that surrounds the international athletes during the WEG.
“On one of the days of competition, [Zeremonie] pulled a shoe in the schooling ring and right beside one of the stands was where the blacksmith was to put her shoe back on. There were so many people taking photographs of the horse, and they’re saying, ‘Oh my gosh, she’s amazing! We love her!’ ” said Hailstones. “I think what was really special there was to see how much the spectators loved the horses. They knew the horse by name, and people were even calling [Zeremonie] by her stable name, which completely took me by surprise actually. I guess you don’t really realize how much of a fan base the individual horses have, and at [the WEG], I think that really came out.”
While it can be a difficult balancing act for Hailstones to keep up with his personal and familial relationships while he’s on the road from show to show, he believes the gratification of learning something new every day and seeing where he’s come from since that very first week at Kraut’s stable is what keeps him pushing on.
“Going from studying performing arts and singing for a living to working full time with horses—and it was pretty much an overnight change, actually—it was very sudden. It took quite a lot of my friends and family by surprise,” said Hailstones. “I think it was always a little inevitable that I would have ended up working with horses, but never did I think it would be on this platform, on this level of the sport with a rider like Laura and working with the unbelievable horses that I have here. I never in my wildest dreams thought it would be at this level, so that’s really cool.”