Tips from the World's Top Dressage Grooms

The world’s top grooms share their experiences of working with equine superstars and some secrets for success.
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Countless hours of work and worry behind the scenes by devoted grooms help make the magic happen in the spotlight. Here, U.S. Olympian Steffen Peters follows his groom, Eddie Garcia, and mount, Legolas, into the warm-up arena. (Credit: Rebecca Neff )

Countless hours of work and worry behind the scenes by devoted grooms help make the magic happen in the spotlight. Here, U.S. Olympian Steffen Peters follows his groom, Eddie Garcia, and mount, Legolas, into the warm-up arena. (Credit: Rebecca Neff )

For dressage enthusiasts, there may be no sight more breathtaking than a stunning Grand Prix horse and rider passaging effortlessly down centerline at a major international championship. But it’s the countless hours of work and worry behind the scenes by devoted grooms that help make that happen. What does it take to keep elite equine athletes like Valegro and Legolas happy, healthy and performing at their best both at home and on the road? Dressage Today spoke with four top grooms from around the world to get a sneak peek at their work behind the scenes as well as share some of their tips for success with your own horses. Following are thoughts from Great Britain’s Alan Davies, America’s Eddie Garcia, the Netherlands’ Vanessa Ruiter and Germany’s Carmen Thiemann.

Know Your Horse

Alan Davies is the ever-present guardian and friend of the dressage horses ridden by Olympians Charlotte Dujardin and Carl Hester in Gloucestershire, Great Britain, including international superstar Valegro, Uthopia, Nip Tuck and Wanadoo as well as several up-and-coming young horses. Known for the immaculate turnout and care of these mounts, who are constantly under the bright spotlight of dressage superstardom, Davies was nominated for the 2014 FEI award for best groom.

Valegro’s groom, Alan Davies, celebrates with British Olympian Charlotte Dujardin. Davies has developed a huge bond with Valegro during their travels around the world. “I love the way he trusts me to put him on planes, trains, boats or whatever and never questions anything,” he says of the horse. (Credit: Arnd Bronkhorst – Arnd.nl )

Valegro’s groom, Alan Davies, celebrates with British Olympian Charlotte Dujardin. Davies has developed a huge bond with Valegro during their travels around the world. “I love the way he trusts me to put him on planes, trains, boats or whatever and never questions anything,” he says of the horse. (Credit: Arnd Bronkhorst – Arnd.nl )

DT: What are your job responsibilities?

Davies: I have an apartment above the stables so I am always close to the horses, and I am responsible for the day-to-day care of all the Grand Prix horses here at the barn. I am in charge of all veterinary and shoeing details and I have to organize travel details for all competitions. I drive the horses and take care of their needs while getting to all the major competitions here and in Europe and manage everything for the horses at the show for both Carl and Charlotte.

DT: How long have you been in this position?

Davies: Six years ago Carl asked me to take four horses to Vidauban in the south of France for a two-week show. It was Valegro’s first international competition. I was supposed to just do the one show, but I wasn’t allowed to leave, and I’m still here.

DT: Do you have a favorite horse that you care for?

Davies: I hate to talk about favorites because I love and respect all my charges for varying reasons. Obviously, I have developed a huge bond with Valegro. We have been all over the world together, and I love the way he trusts me to put him on planes, trains, boats or whatever and never questions anything. Uthopia is a beautiful stallion in looks and temperament and has never taken offense at being in Valegro’s shadow. Nip Tuck is the rising star and is very different from the others: He is quite insecure and needs a lot of reassurance. I’ve watched him grow in confidence and become a star in his own right and I really admire him for all he has achieved so far.


DT:
What’s a typical day like for you?

Davies: A normal day starts at 6 a.m. with feeding and haying and mucking out. I usually get on Valegro at 7:30 a.m. and give him a short hack before he works in the arena with Charlotte and Carl. I will cool him off after his workout by either hacking in the fields or on the roads and then I’ll wash him off and he will go in the paddock for an hour while I prepare another horse to be ridden. Afternoons are spent walking the horses, sorting out equipment for shows and I take Valegro and Uthopia to the water treadmill twice a week to make sure they are super fit to cope with their competitions. I feed at 5 p.m. and check that they have their legs bandaged, have the correct blankets on for the night, et cetera.

DT: What do you like best about your job?

Davies:I love all aspects of my job! I love being with the horses, and I think I have a really important job keeping them fit, happy and well, so to see them progress and represent our country and win medals makes me so proud. 

DT:What is the most challenging part of your work?

Davies: Trying to keep the horses’ lives as normal as possible. They have become global celebrities and people want to get near them all the time, but they need time to be themselves and be horses. 


DT:
Does that celebrity status bring extra pressure for you?

Davies: Yes, that also brings a bit more pressure on me to keep them at their peak. There is a lot of expectation on these horses and they are in my care. Because I take care of both Carl’s and Charlotte’s horses, it means I have to get half the British team to the championships to represent their country. Luckily I’ve been doing this job a long time, so I try not to let it bother me and keep everything as relaxed and normal for the horses as possible.

DT: Do you enjoy all of the traveling?

Davies: I love all aspects of traveling. Each show has its challenges, but I look at it as another adventure with my best friends, and we head off and deal with whatever might meet us. Sometimes I might have to find overnight stabling en route or may even have to reroute, but I have a lot of friends on the circuit now so we always help each other out. 

DT: What is your most memorable competition?

Davies: Obviously, grooming at the Olympics is, of course, a very memorable time. I was at the Sydney Olympics in 2000 and that was an incredible experience, and London was fantastic, too. It was so well organized but there was a lot of pressure and expectation on the team. Luckily we did it and it was actually quite a relief leaving Greenwich Park.

DT: What grooming tips can you share for helping your horses look their best?

Davies: To keep the horses at their peak and looking their best there is a combination of factors. Good feeding is very important, and I like to make sure I give them a good rubdown with a rubber curry comb at least once a day. I think it’s good for their coats and it helps circulation and is great for massaging the muscles, too. I like to keep their skin moisturized with baby oil as well. I use baby oil as a finishing touch for that glistening look on the face and it also helps moisturize the skin to keep it soft and prevent any sores from occurring. I apply it by soaking an old tea towel and then wiping gently around the muzzle and face area. I also wipe it over the quarters before I do quarter marks as it helps keep the hair in place. If applied sparingly it doesn’t attract dust. We are lucky to be sponsored by Nettex and they have some great products, including a great conditioning shampoo and a great coat-shine spray.

DT: We have lots of debate in the U.S. about how to care for horses’ tails. What do you do—brush or no brush on a daily basis?

Davies: I wash Valegro’s tail at least twice a week and spray it with detangler every day. I only use a big-toothed comb to comb through once a day and the rest of the time I just remove any shavings with my fingers. I never use a brush. 

DT: What advice would you have for someone thinking of pursuing a job as a professional groom?

Davies: The best advice is to always be ready to learn. Get as much experience as possible and always be open-minded. There are always new things to learn from other grooms, vets and farriers. I have friends in all disciplines and we are always swapping ideas. 

DT: If you were to share one secret of success with horse owners for helping horses look and feel great, what would it be?

Davies: I don’t think there are any hidden secrets for keeping horses looking and feeling great. But I think the most important thing in my job is to get to know your horse. I love spending time with them so that I know what they like and what they don’t like and what routine suits them best. Then you can help them feel in top form.

A Serious Commitment

For 10 years, Jose Eduardo (Eddie) Garcia Luna, of Escondido, California, has been entrusted with Steffen and Shannon Peters’ stable of dressage champions, including Ravel, Weltino’s Magic, Legolas 92 and new superstar, Rosamunde. With an ever-present smile and above-and-beyond attitude, Garcia is not only a critical member of Team USA but also a mentor for other grooms, and as a result was presented with the 2015 FEI award for best groom. 

Eddie Garcia, pictured with Rosamunde, has worked as Peters’ groom for the last 10 years. While he admits that traveling can be hard, taking him away from his family, he says he loves what he does. “I love the horses! This is my passion.” (Credit: Jennifer Keeler)

Eddie Garcia, pictured with Rosamunde, has worked as Peters’ groom for the last 10 years. While he admits that traveling can be hard, taking him away from his family, he says he loves what he does. “I love the horses! This is my passion.” (Credit: Jennifer Keeler)

DT: What’s a typical day like for you? 

Garcia:Steffen likes to ride early, so my day starts before 6 a.m. because I take care of the morning feeding. I directly care for six horses, and first up is getting Legolas ready—Steffen always rides him first. After all the riding is done, the tack and equipment are cleaned and some horses go on the treadmill while others are walked. We do have help—a crew that cleans the stalls—so I can focus on taking care of the horses. At home, all the grooms work five days a week and we take turns working on the weekends.

DT: What do you enjoy most about your job and what is most challenging?

Garcia:I love the horses! This is my passion. I grew up with Western horses in a small town, so I’ve loved them from the start. The shows are tough because there’s so much more focus at a competition. I make a detailed list for every show to make sure I have exactly what I need because otherwise you could fly halfway around the world and not have something you need and no way to get it.

DT:Do you feel additional pressure as the groom for such high-profile horses?

Garcia:Sometimes I think about it, but one of the things I like best about working for Steffen is that he’s the best about not letting you feel pressure. He’s always very relaxed and he encourages everyone around him to be the same way—“Take your time and don’t worry.” It’s very different from other people I’ve worked with before. He’s not someone who demands that everything be perfect all the time because, in reality, it’s not possible. 

DT: Do you enjoy all of the traveling to competitions? 

Garcia: I do enjoy traveling, but it’s difficult to be away from my family. I have a wife and two young children, aged 9 and 5, at home, so it’s hard to leave. But they understand that this is my job and this is what I love. 

DT: What is the most memorable competition where you worked as a groom?

Garcia: I think the Pan Am Games in 2011 in Guadalajara, Mexico, when Steffen won three gold medals. I remember that another rider put the pressure on with a big score right before he entered the arena, and Steffen and Magic went in there and had to really go for it. It was an incredible feeling! 

DT:Do you have a favorite product or grooming tool that you use?

Garcia: My grooming equipment is pretty standard. There’s no secret in using good brushes and equipment. I really like using the rubber curry hand mitt, but I don’t just use it in the standard circular motion. I also use it with a firm stroke in the direction of the hair. It pulls the hair and the oil out to the surface for more shine. I like to use some baby oil before they go in the ring: a little on their faces and chests to make them shine. I also use fly spray on a towel and wipe it over them for even more shine.

DT: How do you care for your horses’ tails?

Garcia:I like to use Cowboy Magic detangler in the tails, and because it works so well I do brush them every day. I wouldn’t brush the tail without using a good detangler or you’ll for sure break the hairs. I also don’t shampoo their tails too often.

DT: What advice would you have for someone considering a job like yours?

Garcia: Take some time to learn not only how to properly groom a horse but what’s involved in being a groom at this level. It’s quite a commitment.

DT: If you were to share one secret of success with horse owners, what would it be? 

Garcia: Take your time when grooming. I see a lot of people in a hurry, and I think you have to be patient. No shortcuts! Putting in the time not only makes the horses look good, but they feel good spending time with you.

Pride in Horse and Rider

One of the lucky few to live and work closely with dressage legend Totilas, Vanessa Ruiter has worked for more than 12 years as a professional groom for Holland’s top-ranked dressage rider Edward Gal, at the Glock Horse Performance Center (GHPC) in Oosterbeek, the Netherlands, traveling with the team around the world for major international competitions including Olympics, World Equestrian Games and World Cup Finals. 

Vanessa Ruiter has worked for more than 12 years as a professional groom for Holland’s top-ranked dressage rider, Edward Gal. She accompanied Totilas on his first plane ride and cared for him at the 2010 World Equestrian Games in Kentucky. (Credit: Arnd Bronkhorst – Arnd.nl )

Vanessa Ruiter has worked for more than 12 years as a professional groom for Holland’s top-ranked dressage rider, Edward Gal. She accompanied Totilas on his first plane ride and cared for him at the 2010 World Equestrian Games in Kentucky. (Credit: Arnd Bronkhorst – Arnd.nl )

DT: Which horses do you care for and do you have a favorite?

Ruiter: At home we have a team of grooms and we take care of all the horses. At shows, I always take care of everyone. In general, I love all the horses, of course, but there are always the really special ones that will steal your heart, and they’re all different and special in their own way. Glock’s Undercover is a very special and goofy horse. He’s always happy and very social. Glock’s Voice always makes a lot of noise, but he always wants to cuddle when you are in his box. He is very sweet. Two of my other favorites are Interfloor Next One, who is 20 years old now. It was always so much fun to take him to shows all around the world. I’m so happy that he can go in the field at the GHPC to have a well-deserved retirement and finally he can just eat as much as he wants. My other huge crush is Risky Business, as I’ve known him the longest. He is still a stallion and sometimes acts like a 3 year old. He’s 25. He is the king of the stables, and I really adore him. 

DT: What’s a typical day like for you? 

Ruiter says a groom has to have a big heart for horses and be willing to give up a big part of his or her normal life. “Horses take a lot of time and care, you work many hours a week and you’re going to be tired and think, Is this really worth it? But, yes, it is when you see your ‘child ’ in the arena giving his best.” (Credit: Arnd Bronkhorst – Arnd.nl )

Ruiter says a groom has to have a big heart for horses and be willing to give up a big part of his or her normal life. “Horses take a lot of time and care, you work many hours a week and you’re going to be tired and think, Is this really worth it? But, yes, it is when you see your ‘child ’ in the arena giving his best.” (Credit: Arnd Bronkhorst – Arnd.nl )

Ruiter: We always try to have the same schedule for the horses every day so that they know when they are going to be ridden or put in the field or on the walker or aquatrainer or hand-walked, and we make sure that they will always have some rest hours in between activity. All the horses at the GHPC get out of their stalls to do something three times a day, and everyone goes out in the field or paddock. We start at 7:30 in the morning with feeding pellets and hay, and Edward is riding his first horse around 8. Before he gets on we walk them a bit in the arena for a little warm-up. When Edward is finished he will take the saddle off and we will walk them by hand for the cooling down, then they are washed and they can dry under a solarium or hair dryer. At noon they get fed again and the horses who got ridden early are going in to the walker for some more exercising. Mid-afternoon we are starting with the last round of taking all 34 horses out for the last time that day. Luckily we work with a team of eight or nine grooms each day. At 4:30 the horses get their pellets again, and the last feeding of the day is around 7:30 p.m. with hay and mash.

DT: What do you enjoy most about your job and what is most challenging?

Ruiter: Sometimes you have bad days, but then you see the goofy, sweet face of Glock’s Undercover and your bad day is over because you have to smile. It always makes my day. The biggest challenge is keeping all the horses fit and happy. They have to feel good, and that’s the most important so they can be happy athletes.

DT: Do you feel additional pressure as the groom for such high-profile horses?

Ruiter: Of course! I give my all for them. I make sure that they have or get anything they want or need. That’s my calling, so that’s what I want to do.

DT: What is the most memorable competition where you worked as a groom?

Ruiter:There are a few special memories—the 2010 World Equestrian Games in Kentucky, where we won three gold medals. That was also the first flight (via airplane) for Totilas. Also the 2012 London Olympics, where Glock’s Undercover won team bronze and ninth individually. That was really amazing because not only was it my first Olympics but also because we had had him for only a few months and he did so well. I had such a fantastic time there. Everybody was nice, and it was awesome to see Charlotte Dujardin win her gold medals. I have many good memories also from Lingh, Gribaldi, Ravel, Sisther and, of course, Totilas. Now we have so many wonderful Glock horses, so hopefully many new memories will still be to come. 

DT: Do you have a favorite product or grooming tool that you use?

Ruiter:I think it’s important to bathe the horse with a really good shampoo, and what also really helps are good-quality brushes. I like brushes with long hairs that are not too hard and not too soft. For the face I prefer a very soft brush that’s almost fluffy. As a finishing touch I take a towel to take the last of any dust off and make them even shinier.

DT: How do you care for your horses’ tails?

Ruiter: All of our horses have thick tails, so we brush them every day. I always spray some Equishine in the tail, and then you can brush them quickly and easily and don’t lose any hair. If the tail is very dirty, I shampoo it first, put Equishine on and then brush it when it’s dry.

DT: What advice would you have for someone thinking of pursuing a job like yours?

Ruiter: You have to have a big heart for horses and be willing to give up a big part of your normal life. Horses take a lot of time and care, you work many hours a week and you’re going to be tired and think, Is this really worth it? But, yes, it is when you see your “child” in the arena giving his best. Then you will forget everything and the only thing you can think about is how proud you are of your horse and rider.

DT: If you were to share one secret of success with horse owners, what would it be? 

Ruiter: The secret is to just love them with your whole heart. Make them happy and keep them happy.

More Than a Job

For more than two decades, Carmen Thiemann has been an integral part of the legendary Klimke dressage dynasty. She currently works as head groom and stable manager for Ingrid Klimke in Münster, Germany, home to Olympic-level eventing mounts as well as rising international dressage star Dresden Mann. In 2013, she was presented with the FEI Best Groom Award.

For more than two decades, Carmen Thiemann (right) has worked with the Klimke dressage dynasty—first with dressage master Reiner Klimke and now with his daughter, Ingrid (left). (Credit: Horst Streitferdt )

For more than two decades, Carmen Thiemann (right) has worked with the Klimke dressage dynasty—first with dressage master Reiner Klimke and now with his daughter, Ingrid (left). (Credit: Horst Streitferdt )

DT:How long have you been working with Ingrid?

Thiemann: I started working for her father, Reiner Klimke, in 1990 when I was right out of school. When Ingrid started her own yard in 1998 she asked me if I’d like to come with her, so I did. That was our start together. It’s been a long time, but it’s still a lot of fun and I love working with her.

DT: Which horses do you care for and do you have a favorite?

Thiemann: We have 15 horses on the farm and I help care for all of them. We have student grooms who help. They are studying and working toward their German Bereiter certification. They stay with us for three years at a time and then can take a test at the end to get their license, so we’re helping teach the next generation of horsemen and women. 

DT: What’s a typical day like for you? 

Thiemann says prospective grooms need to know that it’s not a job for everyone. “You can’t be looking at your watch, and you have to be willing to work hard every day, even Sundays. You have to have your heart in it." (Credit: Arnd Bronkhorst – Arnd.nl )

Thiemann says prospective grooms need to know that it’s not a job for everyone. “You can’t be looking at your watch, and you have to be willing to work hard every day, even Sundays. You have to have your heart in it." (Credit: Arnd Bronkhorst – Arnd.nl )

Thiemann: There’s really no “typical” day because every day’s a little different. Some days we go out cantering on the hills, other days are jumping schools or dressage training. Generally we start at 7 a.m. to feed and turn out. All the horses go out in the fields for hours, and we think that’s part of why they stay so happy. We like to let them be horses. Then we start riding. Others will be longed. Then we bring the ones who were out into the barn and start again for the afternoon.

DT: What do you enjoy most about your job and what is most challenging?

Thiemann: The horses! I love being close to them and I also love working outdoors. I couldn’t work in an office all day. I also enjoy all the wonderful people I get to work with. I think the most challenging thing is to get everything to come together at the right moment fitness-wise—having a horse in the right physical condition at the right time to perform his best.

DT: Do you feel additional pressure as the groom for such high-profile horses?

Thiemann: I don’t allow myself to think about it, because if I think about it then I’ll start to worry. You have to be confident in what you’re doing and that you know best for your horses. If I think about anything bad that might happen, then it will happen.

DT: Do you enjoy all of the traveling to competitions? 

Thiemann: I really do enjoy the traveling because at the shows it’s like a big family and I enjoy seeing new places and learning new things from others. But I also love working at home, especially bringing the youngsters along. I wouldn’t ever be disappointed to stay at home.

DT: What is the most memorable competition where you worked as a groom?

Thiemann:Our first Olympics in Sydney (2000) was special, as it was the first Olympics for both Ingrid and me, and I loved Australia. London (2012) was also a wonderful atmosphere. On the flip side, I also enjoy some of our local shows that have really unique atmospheres to them.

DT: Do you have a favorite product or grooming tool that you use?

Thiemann: I think it’s so important to curry them really well. It gets the dirt off but it’s also good for the skin and muscles. Of course, grooming only goes so far without the horses having good food. They have to feel good from the inside out. 

DT: How do you care for your horses’ tails?

Thiemann: We don’t brush our horses’ tails because all of our horses go outside and roll in the mud. If we were to brush them without washing them, it would damage the hair. So for a normal day, we pick out the straw from the tails and leave them as they are and just wash for shows and special occasions. We keep them very natural.

DT:What advice would you have for someone thinking of pursuing a job like yours?

Thiemann: It’s a really hard job, and you have to really love horses. You can’t be looking at your watch, and you have to be willing to work hard every day, even Sundays. It’s not for everyone. You can’t just look at this as a job—you have to have your heart in it. 

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