There is a commonly held belief that a lot of riders today are lacking in what we call horsemanship—a well-rounded understanding of all aspects of horse care and handling, which comes from hands-on experience.
That too many young riders ride at full-service facilities with grooms to tack the horses up and handle all of their care. That these riders are stunted in their equine education because they know nothing about these animals once their butt leaves the saddle.
Is this true?
Yes. Yes it is.
Most of these people also believe that having a groom is exclusively for the well-off and lazy. People who want their only time spent with a horse to be on its back. To have a minion to take care of all the mundane tasks like feeding it and wrapping its legs because they can’t be bothered. That grooms fall into the same category as BMWs—they’re a frill, a status symbol, and nobody actually needs one.
Is this true?
Let’s look beyond the full-service lesson barns with the dead-inside grooms tacking up and untacking for preteens and turn instead to the show circuit, where riders of all levels make a life out of riding competitively at events all over the world.
No doubt about it, some of these riders are lacking in horsemanship. But the best ones are not.
The best Grand Prix riders have a full understanding of how to handle a horse on the ground and how exactly that will translate into their connection under saddle. They know the signs of illness and lameness, the steps to take before calling a vet, and when to call one right away. They understand the lingo of the chiropractor, the vet, the farrier and the horse.
They learned it because they know that to achieve their goals they must have a grasp on all the factors that affect their partner’s performance.
They spend time educating themselves on the products available on the market, not only limited to tack but also physio, liniments, ointments, medications, and the varied professionals offering services. They keep up-to-date on research that is always being done to learn more about horses’ bodies and how we can help them perform in ethical ways.
These riders know how to take care of horses themselves. Why do they need grooms, you ask?
First, time constraints. Second, neediness.
Many top riders have a string of three or more horses, plus they may or may not have students to train as well. They’re busy. Not the made-up kind of busy, like “I have to go meet my decorator for lunch and then I have a hair appointment and then, oh, however will I be ready on time for the gala?!”
But for real busy. “I have to flat three horses and then I have students going in the meter twenty and then I need to rush because I’m early in the meter forty speed, which hopefully doesn’t run too close to the Grand Prix I have two horses in because I really want time to eat my sandwich” busy.
If they are in the first ten to compete, they might need to walk their course and hop right on to start warming up. Someone needs to be there with the horse, ready to go. Someone has to set jumps for them. Most importantly, someone has to take care of the horse after it competes.
Maybe a rider with only one horse could figure out how to get all of that done on their own, but what if they have to jump off their first horse and rush to another ring and jump on another horse because they’re 12 away in the order?
The competition world gallops at a mile a minute. Top level horses need top level care, regardless of a rider’s wild schedule.
Top-level care requires a great deal of time and devotion, which is where neediness becomes a thing. You wouldn’t believe the amount of pre-game and post-game therapy some farms give their horses. Magnetic pulse blankets, lasers, handheld vibrating massagers, you name it. Some grooms literally spend hours getting their horses ready for and putting them away after their classes, trying to make them feel their very best.
So, regardless of your feeling on the lack of horsemanship in the sport these days, you can’t deny the fact that competition horses need handlers and caretakers whose entire job is their care. Also known as grooms.
Are there riders out there who don’t know the front of the saddle from the back if you don’t put it on for them?
Yes. It’s horrifying.
Is there an increasing lack of horsemanship in our sport these days?
Yup. There is.
Those are problems we should definitely be addressing. BUT to say every rider with a groom should learn more horsemanship and do it all themselves shows a huge lack of understanding. A groom is not just a brusher, not a pet sitter, and not necessarily a frill. Grooms at the top of the sport are a key cog in the well-oiled machine of competition, needed to keep everything running smoothly.
So before you condemn someone who works 60 hours a week riding, training, coaching and competing (on top of having a family) for having grooms, stop and think about it.
Then go to one of those full-service lesson barns who have longtime students that were never taught how to put a saddle on, and give those people the head shake they deserve. (Because that’s totally fine!)
About the Author
Morgan Withers is a professional groom on the ‘A’ circuit who has been there and done that and then done that and been there some more for good measure.