Looking back now, I would have killed me if I had raised me. There’s no way around it.
My early life was extremely difficult. I had no father figure growing up and I had a lot of rage inside of me because of that. I think I wanted to kill my father, if you want to know the truth. He’s dead now. Fortunately.
I was a very bad student. I was expelled from every Catholic, public, and private secondary school in Ontario, mostly for being a belligerent ass.
I had a mouth on me and a vocabulary that rivaled the King of England. When something came to my mind, there was zero filter between my brain and my mouth, regardless of how offensive, ridiculous, or obnoxious it was. I was a loose cannon all the time.
And had a temper to match. The police had to remove me a couple times from my house. One time it was because I put a speaker through a second story window. It was a big speaker, and a pretty small window. I may or may not have been throwing the speaker at my mother.
Another time I assaulted my science teacher, who was three years, at that point, off his Canadian Football League stint. I was a skinny kid and took him on full speed like a lawn dart from behind. Not my best idea.
A teacher once told me, “If you just applied yourself to this, and you could shut up for like 15 minutes during each class, you could graduate top of your class. But short of physically beating you, we can’t help you anymore. There’s nothing left that we can do.”
And that’s just it. There was nothing they could do.
An angry young man raised by women is a difficult situation to be in, because no matter how stupid you act, they’re always going to have sympathy for you. They’re always going to try to fix you. They’re always going to try to help you.
But no one could ‘fix’ me. I had to want to fix myself.
After I was expelled the final time in grade nine, my mother had the choice to send me to a military academy called Robert Land Academy, which is a real place that still scares me. Thankfully, the tuition, even back then, was something like $25,000 a year. My mother worked at General Motors, and had two other sons, and my grandmother lived in the house with us too. She couldn’t afford Robert Land Academy, thank God.
Around the same time, I’d become fishing buddies with a guy that rode horses. He took me with him to a horse show one day, and I quickly realized that men made up about 10% of the industry and the rest were all these beautiful women. I thought that was an interesting concept.
At the time, I was basically being paid by that friend’s parents to hang out with him and keep him from getting into an astronomical amount of trouble. That was something he did all the time, and though I tried it wasn’t really the best job for me either. Once, we racked up a $12,000 credit card bill at the horse show hotel on his dad’s credit card. But that’s another story.
I was terrified of horses initially. To this day, I don’t ride. I think it’s stupid. You fall off, you get hurt—even handling them scared me at first. That changed when my friend started leasing a Trakehner mare named Brookfield. She was this giant, chestnut mare, and the sweetest animal on the face of the earth.
Brookfield was one of the best horses I’ve ever looked after. She was affectionate. She was quiet. She needed almost no prep to go to the ring and show (even though in those days, people didn’t do much prep anyways). You’d take her to the wash rack, and she’d never move. She was just perfect all the time.
At 14 years old, I fell in love with that horse, and in gaining a little bit of confidence with her, it enabled me to work with more horses, and eventually to get into the industry full-time. By then, I’d been thrown out of school, and my mother had thrown me out of the house. Working with horses was kind of the logical thing left to do.
In those early years, I worked for some big-name farms in Ontario. I learned a lot from the grooms and other horsemen at those places, and over time, I stared to trust my instincts.
Don’t get me wrong, I was still getting into trouble. I had these get rich quick schemes in my brain and I could steal anything. If it wasn’t nailed down, it was mine—and I’m talking breaking into buildings, bypassing alarm systems. You name it, I could do it. I once stole thousands of dollars in power tools from a construction site and sold them to a biker gang.
If it weren’t for Juergen von Buttlar, I probably would’ve ended up being a drug dealer, or shot, or worse. You would have been looking me up in jail, I can guarantee you.
The crazy part, looking back, is that job almost didn’t happen for me. That first day I called Juergen asking for work, he said, “As long as you’ve told the person that you’re working for now that you are leaving, I will hire you.”
I told him I had, thinking he’d never check. He did.
When Juergen found out I’d lied, he lost his mind. He called me back and shrieked at me to the point where I started crying on the phone.
But that lady I’d been working for, in her infinite wisdom, knew Juergen, and she thought about it for five minutes and said to herself, There’s probably only one man on the face of this earth that can fix this guy, and that is Juergen von Buttlar.
She called Juergen back and said, ‘Hire him.’
It was three to six months of working before Juergen and his wife Martina Pracht would even think about trusting me. I never worked harder in my life than those years I groomed for him.
Because when you work for Juergen, the constructs of time don’t apply. It doesn’t matter if he shows up at 8 a.m. or 10 a.m. to the stable, he’s going to work harder and outlast you every single day. It’s just a matter of what needs to get done now and next, between the only two times a day that matter: when the horses need to eat breakfast, and when they need to eat dinner.
The rest of the time, you’re working, so why would you need a watch?
The other side of that murderous rodeo, though, is that, when you work for Juergen, your horses always look better than everybody else’s. They always go better than everybody else’s. People respect you because you are part of his orbit.
I believe that Juergen von Buttlar is the greatest horseman alive. His wife, Martina, went to the Olympics for Canada in dressage, and what Juergen could do managing and training horses on the flat was pure magic.
He helped put Eric Lamaze and horses such as Cagney, Rio Grande, Kahlua, Tempete van het Lindehof and Millcreek Raphael on the map in the 90s. “Raffi”—the last of those—was the most insane and obnoxious horse I’ve ever taken care of. But he taught me a lot about life, and the sport.
Would he have won and set the records he did under anyone else? Absolutely not. But what we all accomplished together in that period was freaky.
A lot of people would have taken that successes and made that into something that it wasn’t in their own minds. But with Juergen, the very next day it was back to work. He’d say, “Right. That’s great. Let’s do it again.”
The only bad parts about working for that man were self-inflicted, because he would give you all the rope in the world to hang yourself. He had an incredible way of making you realize what you had done, in the very end, and how it was all on you, and you had to own it.
When Juergen sat me down and reprimanded me, there was elements of the reprimand that I could actually apply logic to, and that actually made sense to me—probably for the first time in my life. I could see what I had done, and how I had made, say, someone feel bad based on what I’d said.
It wasn’t just, “You can’t do this because of X, Y, and Z.” It was, “You can’t do this because now that you’ve done it, you’ve created X, Y and Z.”
He’d always tell me, “Do think you can pull one over on me? Knock yourself out. I will catch everything you do. You need to either figure this out, or I’m going to have to let you go.” And that was all there was to it.
Growing up, I didn’t respect men. But it’s really hard to not have respect for a person who gives you the correct answer every time you ask him a question. That was so constant with Juergen. After about a thousand of those, you stop wondering if what you’re being told is going to work, you just automatically know it’s going to work. That’s why Juergen won so much with the horses, and why the staff had such implicit trust in everything he said.
Over time, I absorbed his lessons. I paid attention, and I started to get things right on my own.
Now, if there’s a problem with a horse under my care—be it health, or training, or riding-related—I’ll just think, there has to be a way to figure this out. Then I let my brain start running through every single option and scenario from start to finish. Once it’s run through like 300 of those, I pick the one that has the least disastrous effect. Shockingly, it works out more often than not.
Today, I can look at a horse, and probably tell you that the reason it just spun to the left, and chucked you off, and—instead of running back to the in-gate like a normal horse—ran around the ring and jumped fences backward is due to the fact that it has ulcers, and has probably been mismanaged for a long time.
I can tell when the reason the hunter goes great for the professional and terrible for the kid is not because it’s unsound, it’s because it really hates the kid that rides it. I don’t know if he hates her because she misses, or doesn’t know the right speed on course, or because she makes him jump far away from the base and he has to try harder than he has ever had to try in his whole life. But I can tell you when he doesn’t want to do this job any more—and I will, even if people don’t want to hear it.
That’s what’s hard about this sport: Sometimes the most obvious answer is the one people don’t want you to give. Even when that answer is the best one for the horses.
I’ve been in this industry for 30 years now. I’m a groom. And I’m proud of that title.
My greatest gratification comes when a guy like Amy Millar’s FEI groom, Danny Ingratta, or McLain Ward’s manager Lee McKeever says good job. It comes when someone who’s that good congratulates me, because they also recognize that I might be somewhat good at what I do.
But mostly, it comes from the horses, themselves, when I can do something to improve their lives.
We have a saying, ‘When horses don’t die, girls don’t cry,’ and that’s one principle I live by. My other favorite saying is something Juergen used to say: ‘We are slaves of the horses, not them of us.’ And I think that’s true.
No horse ever came trotting up the driveway saying, “Walk me into that box, run me around, ride me, jump me—maybe treat me when you’re smart enough to realize I’m lame—so then you can keep on running me and jumping me some more.”
No horse ever asked to be flown all over the world, or fed how we see fit. We captured them. We locked them in boxes. So, yeah, we are their slaves, and not the other way around.
That is the only form of slavery that is acceptable in this world, in my opinion. If you make an animal live a domesticated life it didn’t choose, then you’d better be willing to do anything for it. You’d better be ready to spend any amount of money to fix the problems it has. The horse has to comes first.
My goal is never to run out of ideas for how to do that.
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