One of the top horsewomen in the world prefers to keep her feet firmly on the ground.
Though she occasionally swings a leg over one of the world champion horses in her care, Steffi Wiegard, 51, jokes that she’s too old for riding, never mind that her employer, World No. 1 dressage rider and German legend Isabell Werth, is the same age. Wiegard is content with a behind-the-scenes role.
Though Wiegard cares for some of the sport’s most famous faces, she starts her week in an office. Monday through Wednesday, she lives in Muenster, Germany, and works in the office of Hornbach, a home improvement and DIY store. But come Thursday, she’s off to Werth’s stable in Rheinberg, Germany, and her time belongs to the four-legged champions.
Wiegard’s grooming career started at 16 when she got a job with renowned dressage rider Reiner Klimke, learning her craft from his longtime groom Claudia Rosner while caring for horses like Ahlerich and Pascal. After that, she took a position with Klimke’s son Michael Klimke, and while she also worked as a rider, Wiegard’s devotion to horses lies in grooming and caring for them.
In 2013, Wiegard thought it might be time to retire from the trade. Then a phone call from Werth set Wiegard on her current path.
“When Isabell called me, I was speechless!” Wiegard said. “She said that she had heard I was looking for a new challenge. It wasn’t exactly what I had in mind, but I couldn’t say no.”
Wiegard jumped right in as caretaker for Don Johnson. She’s been by Werth’s side for gold medals at three FEI European Championships, two FEI World Equestrian Games, an Olympics and three consecutive FEI World Cup Final wins. Two of Wiegard’s charges, Bella Rose 2 and Weihegold OLD, have held the No. 1 Dressage World Ranking, and in 2017, three horses in her care were ranked in the top 10. In 2017 and 2018 she was nominated for the FEI Best Groom Award.
“Working for Isabell is an honor, but it’s always hard work of course,” Wiegard said. “There’s a lot of pressure to take care of these expensive horses and make them happy, and at shows I’m there 24 hours a day; it’s not like we party all night. Of course, I also have help; you always need a good team behind you.”
A Day In The Life
What’s a typical day like for Wiegard?
When at home, she starts at 6 a.m. and finishes around 5:30 p.m., though farrier or horse physio appointments can make the day longer. With her little dog Frieda shadowing her, she handwalks and grooms the horses every day.
In her grooming box she always has a lot of towels for horse and rider, baby oil and baby wipes, and extra hoof picks—important because she loses them often.
“I get really crazy when people forget to clean the hooves before they take the horse out of the stable—you can ask them!” she said with a laugh.
“Scissors are very important,” Wiegard added. “Duct tape is always in my bag, and I love good brushes—we call them wurzelbürste.”
Wiegard tends to take a conservative, traditional approach to grooming. The horses are impeccably clean; her braids are small and tight, and she’s not likely to add bling or glitter to the overall look.
The way Wiegard interacts with the horses makes it clear they have a loving bond. When she opens stall doors to introduce her charges, they stand quietly without a halter as she tells their stories. She doesn’t name a favorite but comments on each horse’s personality, noting that Bella Rose and Weihegold OLD are calm in the barn but light up in the competition arena. Maybe she spends an extra moment with Don Johnson, but even the young up-and-comers get her full attention.
“It’s a busy stable yard with many riders coming and going, sales horses, clinics and lessons and a small breeding program. There is always something going on,” said Wiegard.
Wiegard also drives the horse box to competitions throughout Europe, and she flies with the horses. While she feels tremendous responsibility towards the world-class horses, she takes it all in stride and has a network of friends to call on when she needs help.
“Grooms always help each other; it doesn’t matter which show you’re at,” she said. “It’s really nice. On the airplane, if one horse gets nervous everyone helps. When we were in Gothenburg [Sweden] I forgot to bring a broom, and show jumping rider Marcus Ehning’s groom lent me one. We’re all in it together.”
The Heart Of The Stable
There are few places Wiegard hasn’t traveled, but she remembers the Central Park Horse Show [New York] as one of the most challenging competitions she’s been to because of the logistics.
“We had El Santo there, and the pope came through during the show!” said Wiegard. “That whole show was really crazy. We kept the horses at Gladstone in New Jersey, but [we] had to be in the park with the horse by 3 a.m. We’ve gone twice, and it’s really crazy, but the organizers also went out of their way to make it a good experience. Getting the horses into New York City was really something. The shippers took them in on big trucks, but it was still a lot for the horses; they are not used to that kind of atmosphere!”
After so many years together, Wiegard and Werth have an established routine and a comfortable relationship.
“Of course if I were not here they would have another groom, but I try my best to keep them happy,” said Wiegard. “We sometimes have a discussion, but in a positive way, and we always try to make things better. There are so many nice people in the dressage world; they are not divas. Everyone works hard, and of course, they also have fun.”
Werth said that their partnership is an easy one.
“Steffi is the heart of my competition stable,” Werth said. “She gives everything for ‘her’ horses, 24 hours a day if necessary. Her knowledge, passion and feeling for every single horse is very important for me and the whole team, and part of our success. We know each other like an old couple! I’m very thankful to have her.”
When they travel to shows, Wiegard uses her vacation days from her other job, so she basically doesn’t have any days off. Despite the hard work and relentless schedule, she has no plans to retire.
“People think I am crazy, and I have to say they are right, but I still love what I do, and the horses give me so much back,” she said.