'It's Not for the Faint of Heart': Former Grooms on Realities of the Industry

'It's Not for the Faint of Heart': Former Grooms on Realities of the Industry

Whether you’re a lifetime servant to the sport or just hoping to be the next McLain Ward or Beezie Madden, no one goes into grooming for the money or the glory. And, as international dressage rider and former FEI groom, Katherine Bateson-Chandler, points out, there isn’t a lot of glory. But what grooms do have is an insatiable desire to work with horses and the willingness to put in 36-hour days to make it all happen.

Katherine is well-versed in the dedication, passion, and grit that is required of a top-level groom, and she’s in good company; show jumper Mavis Spencer was grooming for Neil Jones Equestrian, Inc. when she took over riding for the at-the-time injured Lorenzo de Luca, and eventer Joanie Morris groomed for Phillip Dutton and Will Faudree prior to taking on the Managing Director of Eventing role for U.S. Equestrian (USEF).

Photo by Shannon Brinkman.

Growing up an hour from Robert Dover’s New Jersey farm, Katherine regularly snuck into his barn and would leave her name and number, advertising free help. “I think I did it like three times and would just sort of fly under the radar. Finally, Robert was like ‘Okay, come on weekends and I’ll give you a lesson a month.’ So that was the beginning of it,” she says.

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And what a beginning it was. After finishing school, Katherine started grooming for Robert full time, eventually becoming his assistant trainer. When Robert decided to retire (“again, for the millionth time,” Katherine jokes) she was offered the chance to take over riding his mounts.

Still, Katherine is quick to acknowledge how difficult being a groom was. “It’s not for the faint of heart — it’s truly a lifestyle, it’s not just a job. If you go to shows you’ll be traveling through the night, sleeping on the floor of a trailer, and having to get up and set all the stalls. You have to have a true passion for it.”

Katherine Bateson-Chandler. Photo by Shannon Brinkman.

Katherine insists that if riding doesn’t work out, she would go back to grooming — and I’m inclined to believe her. “You know riding is amazing — you go in the ring and you do well, and that’s its own special part. But I got just as much joy when I would groom for Robert and he would win. You know, you felt just as emotional about it.”

Seeking a Stable Mind

Following an illustrious junior jumper career, Mavis Spencer groomed for Kent Farrington and Darragh Kenny before taking the job with Lorenzo de Luca at Neil Jones Equestrian. When Lorenzo was injured, Mavis began riding his horses, launching her career as a grand prix jumper.

“Neil [Jones] and Lorenzo were the ones that gave me the chance to get back into the ring, and even when [Lorenzo] started riding again I was able to keep riding myself. If you had told me I was going to jump clear in my first Saturday night grand prix [at the Winter Equestrian Festival] in Florida, a year after I started riding again, I would have been like ‘Yeah, okay,’” Mavis says.

Mavis Spencer. Photo by Sporfot.

Mavis now has a successful career both in and out of the ring. She is part of the team behind The Equine Platform, a recently-launched service that streamlines the process of buying and selling horses, and she also trains through her business Gallop Apace, LLC. However, she feels there is a lack of support for grooms and other professionals in the industry.

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Mavis and fellow former groom Warren Stevens plan to launch “Stable Mind,” a charity that they hope will help mitigate mental health issues in the equestrian world.

“It is a stressful, demanding job, and there’s not much people can do as far as shortcuts because it’s something that translates over to the performance of the horses and the riders and the results.” Mavis adds, “I think that a lot of grooms end up getting burnt out, and there are too many people that end up leaving the industry all together. I’ve written too many posts about friends who have taken their own lives — it’s a reality and there’s just no need for it to be this way.”

Despite the stress of working in the industry, Mavis knows that she has no other choice. “At the end of the day, it’s just the love of the horses — you’re kind of stuck with them.”

Not surprisingly, Mavis credits one of her previous grooms, Lauren Dreyer, with helping her take the next step up in her career. “I would not have had even an ounce of the success I did without having her there.”

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Like Mavis, Lauren is passionate about promoting mental health in the horse industry and ensuring that the next generation of grooms are successful. “A lot of people come into this business and turn tail and run because they get bullied the second they come into it,” Lauren says. “It is so important for us to take in the people that actually want to learn, to take in this younger generation of grooms and put some effort into them. If, for no other reason, we owe it to the horses to do right by the grooms.”

Lauren has since traded grooming for braiding, a job that provides her the flexibility to work with her own horses. “Once I kind of found a niche, I just started asking braiders to teach me. I was ignored and turned down a lot. It wasn’t easy to get into — I really threw my heart and soul into it.”

‘The passion and drive is what keeps us going’

Joanie Morris served as the Managing Director of Eventing for USEF starting in 2012 (she recently announced her resignation, effective April 1, 2019), but she has been immersed in the sport for much longer. She got her start as a groom after writing a letter to famed eventer, Phillip Dutton, asking if she could work for him for two weeks over winter break. She continued to groom for Phillip during college, and began freelance grooming for eventer Will Faudree, as well.

“[Will] went to the Pan Ams in 2003, and I went with him. We traveled to Athens for the 2004 Olympics, and I tried to make myself as useful as possible, at that point doing whatever might need doing to take something off someone else’s plate. That’s how I really got connected with the USEF,” Joanie says.

Joanie Morris. Photo by Shannon Brinkman.

After five years at Dutton’s farm and a short-term publishing job, Joanie began working as the Communications Director for USEF in 2007 then transitioned to her role as the Managing Director of Eventing in 2012.

While it has been quite a while since she has groomed, Joanie understands the stamina and determination it takes to groom for top riders.

“You do it because you’re passionate about it, you love the sport, you love the game, you love to travel — I don’t think anyone in eventing is doing it to get rich,” she says. “There are a huge amount of hours worked, and there is burnout, but I think the passion and the drive is what keeps us going.”

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Feature photo of Mavis Spencer by Erin Gilmore.

Written by Maressa Taylor Levy

Maressa Taylor Levy has been in love with all things equine as far back as she can remember. When she’s not freelancing for NOËLLE FLOYD or teaching therapeutic horseback riding, Maressa works as a content creator and consultant in Orlando, FL. She has an affinity for OTTBs and shares her home with two three-legged rescue dogs and a geriatric cat.