Grooms are the unsung heroes of the equestrian world, and dressage rider Belinda Nairn wanted to do something special for them at this year’s Dressage At Devon.
Nairn, Williston, Fla., lost her groom of 34 years, Jeanne Pakes, to colon cancer in July 2016.
She decided to create the Jeanne Pakes Memorial Groom Award in her honor, to be given to the groom of the winning Grand Prix freestyle horse. A prize of $500 will also be awarded each year. Nairn started a GoFundMe page to raise $10,000 for the award, and after a week she’s a little over halfway to her goal.
The inaugural recipient was Grand Prix freestyle winner Brittany Fraser-Beaulieu, but her father Craig Fraser accepted for her. Fraser-Beaulieu has been doing her own grooming of All In, a 12-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding (Tango—Leontine, Damiro), recently.
The inaugural awarding of the award was an emotional one for Nairn, and Pakes’ brother, Dave, joined them for the ceremony. The award is a forged metal grooming box made by Steve Fontanini and designed to match the one Pakes carried. Vendors donated goods like leather cleaner, gift certificates for massage and animal communication sessions, and other goodies to fill the box.
Pakes came to Nairn looking for a summer job more than three decades ago and stayed on. She lived in Nairn and her husband Bill Wertman’s house, and they helped care for her for the nine months after she was diagnosed until her death at age 58.
“She was absolutely my backbone, my confidant, everything. She was such a special person and absolutely irreplaceable—somebody with a work ethic that’s very hard to find these days,” said Nairn. “This was her favorite venue. We thought it would be a good thing to do because the grooms never get mentioned, and they really are the backbone of what gets everybody here.
“Her grooming box has become like a shrine that no one will touch. A good friend of ours who does ironwork made a perpetual trophy. The idea is to fill it with things to give to the groom every year,” she continued.
Nairn was impressed with Pakes’ dedication to her horses. While she loved all the horses she cared for, she had a special relationship with Goffert 369, a Friesian stallion that Nairn rode to Grand Prix.
“She loved them all. She was one of those people for whom there was no 9 to 5. It was, you got out there early and stayed until everything was done. We spent a lot of time together, and one of the things we did one year was we made this fantasy barn and kept it secret. We had to take out a horse everyday. We started with 20 horses that we’d had and see who we’d end up with in the end. We both ended up with the same horse, which was a Friesian stallion I rode for Iron Spring Farm, Goffert,” said Nairn. “He was a horse with a tremendous amount of personality and came to us with some issues. We just worked through them, and he turned out to be a phenomenal horse. He was certainly a challenge at the same time, but she loved that. Anything like that was something she really relished.”
Pakes enjoyed getting into the personalities of her charges, and always told Nairn that people who don’t spend a lot of time with the horses miss so much about it.
Pakes was in the barn by 5:30 a.m., and stuck to a routine, which Nairn appreciated. She recalled Pakes helping move horses all night at a horse show during a bad storm in Florida and remembers trips to Florida where she would sleep in the tack room for six weeks to be closer to the horses.
“She was so special to us, and I’m sure there are so many people that have grooms behind them—maybe not for that longevity. She might have broken a few records with that! We want to give some recognition to the unsung heroes,” she said.