How does someone get the chance to work with an Olympic and World Champion, such as Anky van Grunsven? One might think you'd have to pass 100 dressage tests with phenomenal scores or face an enormous amount of red tape.
As it turns out, van Grunsven is more accessible to aspiring dressage professionals than one might think. Here's how Tiffany Tyler, a dressage rider from Washington, D.C., became van Grunsven's groom, learning how to make Olympic horses shine.
After Tyler graduated from Sweet Briar College in 1999, she decided to commit to the sport she loved and knew that to become one of the best dressage riders in the world she needed to train with the best. So, without hesitation, Tyler simply emailed the address listed on van Grunsven's Web site and inquired about a working student position.
Six months later, she was on a plane to the Netherlands. "When I first came to Anky's, I didn't expect to get paid at all," says Tyler. "I knew that I could do this for a month or so and hopefully prove myself enough to get a paid position." Upon arrival, she received a working student position and was soon promoted to barn manager and groom.
Keeping van Grunsven's horses well groomed is fairly straightforward. Before van Grunsven rides them, Tyler brushes them well, picks out their feet and carefully brushes their tails. After the horses are ridden, they are hosed or sponged off and then hand walked for 10 minutes.
Following hand walking, and if the weather is cool, the horse goes under the solarium for a couple minutes, and the legs are cold hosed and the sand is washed out of the hooves. Then their legs and hooves are dried thoroughly. Sometimes Tyler would apply an aloe-based moisturizer on the coronary bands if they seemed dried out. When the horse is dry she would use a soft currycomb and go over the horse with it--when the muscles are still warm--for a thorough grooming and a gentle massage.
Attention to a horse's coat with thorough grooming is only part of what makes a horse shine as he enters the show ring. Tyler explains that "at Anky's, we check each horse's blood often to make sure everything, including vitamins and minerals, is in balance. The horses are also kept on a regular worming schedule."
At shows, the grooming routine follows the pattern practiced at home with a little extra attention. For example, to make Keltec Salinero's white socks really stand out in the ring she would apply a little baby powder.
Once recovered from the blinding gleam of Salinero's coat and his bright whites, his tail is next to be admired. Tyler cared for his tail on a daily basis by applying Cowboy Magic detangling cream, separating the hairs with her fingers then brushing them gently with a human hairbrush.
"I don't believe in not brushing a horse's tail. If you don't brush out tangles daily they multiply and begin to catch on things. I rinse the tail if it gets sweaty and wash it occasionally. I make sure to brush the entire tail, paying special attention in and around the dock," she explained.
Van Grunsven does all the tail trimming herself, but Tyler has watched enough times to give a full account. First, the tail must be clean and well brushed so when the bottom is trimmed it is even. Second, van Grunsven uses scissors to trim a little off the bottom--how much is personal preference.
Tyler notes that Salinero's tail is trimmed almost "jumper" short, which makes it looks much fuller. Van Grunsven then trims the sides of the tail for a conservative look with the goal to create smoother lines when the tail is lifted.
Tyler highly recommends the experience to anyone interested in competitive dressage. "I learned many important concepts. Some of which included finding the correct rhythm and ensuring my horse was relaxed, straight and forward before continuing with any other work," she said. Tyler advises those who want a similar situation to approach it with the mindset of soaking up as much knowledge as you can and learning if this is what you really want to do.
"Not only do you learn a lot about riding and technique but you also learn about the maintenance of Olympic-caliber horses. Just seeing Anky and Sjef in their day-to-day activities can really show someone what it takes to be the best," she said. "If you enjoy working with people that are passionate about dressage, then this is a great place to be!"
Pick up the May 2006 issue of Dressage Today magazine to read the full article with step-by-step directions for braiding manes like the pros.
Tiffany Tyler is currently grooming at Silver Spring Farm in Ashland, Ore., for former van Grunsven student and American Young Rider Lara Schleingh. Tyler works with horses of all levels and plans to show in the fall of 2006.