Two minutes may sound like a short amount of time, but when you're a show jumper racing against the clock, those precious seconds tick away faster than you can think. Two minutes of tackling challenging tracks, jumping fences taller than the average female, taking big risks and razor-sharp turns, testing the laws of gravity. From the outside looking in, those two minutes are all that’s seen when competing at a horse show, but it’s all in a day's work for top German show jumper, Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum.
What most people don’t see from those two minutes is what goes on behind the scenes to make that time count. Thousands of hours are dedicated to each and every one of Michaels-Beerbaum’s horses by the dedicated grooms, farriers, and physios that help keep her and her horses on top of their game. Through it all, there is one role that is especially important. Partner-in-crime, dynamic duo, tag team, double act – no matter what you call it, a top rider is nothing without their groom(s). A groom is not just a caretaker for the horses, he or she is also a cheerleader, confidant, friend. And that’s no different for Michaels-Beerbaum and her right-hand woman, Anu Harrila.
Together for over 20 years, Michaels-Beerbaum and Harrila have been tackling the show jumping world in a big way. Their major wins include team bronze at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, team gold at the 2010 World Equestrian Games, team and individual bronze at the 2006 World Equestrian Games, and three-time winner of the World Cup Finals. That doesn’t include the countless major grand prix wins Michaels-Beerbaum has dominated across the world.
“She’s been with me through ups and downs and she’s been with me through great horses. She started 20 years ago, so she’s been with me through Shutterfly’s greatest moments and Checkmate on to Bella Donna and Fibonacci. She’s been to three Olympic games with me,” says Michaels-Beerbaum of her long-time relationship with Harrila.
With such a dedicated groom and support staff, it’s no wonder Michaels-Beerbaum’s long list of accolades are so impressive. But what does a typical day look like for Harrila at some of the world’s biggest horse shows?
“The first thing [my husband, Markus and I do] is see what time the classes are starting and organize whether the horse needs to come out before that, meaning either get ridden or lunged or even just hand walked. And then I make a timetable with [Anu], who is basically my right-hand [wo]man,” Michaels-Beerbaum explains.
Following a busy morning of preparing the horses for their upcoming classes, Michaels-Beerbaum will spend a little time away from the stables depending on media obligations, interviews, and visits with sponsors and owners. While she’s away, Harrila holds down the fort back with the horses.
“It depends a little bit on the show that we’re at, what the obligations are, and the kinds of things I’m asked to do,” Michaels-Beerbaum says. “Every day is quite a bit different, but it all revolves around the show plan and the horses, and then everything else has to fit in somehow.
“[Depending on the] kind of competition, there are so many people around, fans, sponsors and often a lot of questions asked, and that sometimes can be disturbing or nerve wracking without anyone intending to be.”
Although Michaels-Beerbaum is a seasoned professional, nerves and uncertainties are normal feelings that are dealt with on a regular basis – especially when you’re competing on the world’s biggest stages. For those times when Michaels-Beerbaum needs some words of encouragement, Harrila knows how to keep her calm, cool, and collected to perform when it matters most.
“She’s family, she knows me, she knows my moods and temperaments, and she knows what makes me nervous and what can help to relax me.”
And having a friend and supporter like that on your side, through all the trials and tribulations of life with horses, is an indispensable comfort and a feeling unlike any other.
All photos by Andreas Pollak.