It might be cliché to say that grooms are the ‘unsung heroes’ of the equestrian world – we all know that they are the backbone of the sport (if you don’t know, now you know). But what exactly are the secrets to success for an international eventing groom? Catherine Austen sits down for a chat with the ultra-busy but always on point Bryony Milton, head groom to Italian Olympic eventer Vittoria Panizzon, to find out.
Photo by Thomas Reiner.
Organization Should be a No-Brainer
“To be good at this job, you need to be very organized – and your time-keeping must be good,” says Bryony, who has worked for Vittoria for nearly four years. “I always overestimate how long a task – such as plaiting at a three-day event – will take, and work backward from that. You can’t redo a plait you don’t like, for example, if you haven’t left a time cushion. Horses don’t like rushing; there is one horse in particular of Vittoria’s for whom I give myself tons of time to get ready so I am always chilled and passing on calming vibes around him.
“Plan ahead. At a three-day event, I try to get ahead of the game by changing bits and bridles well ahead of the time when they will be needed. Don’t leave it until cross-country morning to tap out stud holes, [do things early].”
"To be good at this job, you need to be very organized – and your time-keeping must be good"
Keep Track of all the Moving Parts
“I make detailed notes on everything, which not only helps with good horse management but is also a great help when billing owners – which horses had the farrier or the physio, what they said about them, which horse has traveled where or been cross-country schooling, any veterinary things, etc. You won’t manage to hold that information in your head [when you’re managing] 20 horses, so write it down.”
“In the same vein, we keep different diaries and lists on the yard which everyone can see, so we are all singing from the same hymn sheet. They include work notes and plans for each horse and lists of yard jobs – big and small – that need to be done.”
Don’t Skimp on the Small Stuff
“It’s important that the basic things are done to the highest possible standard. Research shows that horses sleep better and get more rest in clean, thick, well-bedded stalls for example; I think skimping on bedding is a false economy. Not only should you muck out really well, but you should ensure that corners are swept out, old hay in mangers is thrown away, all feed and water buckets are kept clean and scrubbed out regularly. It makes economic sense to do so; if you let your stables get stale and moldy, you are less likely to have healthy horses who perform to the best of their ability.
“On top of that, attention to detail is essential. Know each horse individually – know what is ‘normal’ and you will know quickly when something isn’t quite right. Get to know their personalities and how they are physically. When a new horse comes on to the yard, I will have a really good look at and feel of their legs and will write that down so we know where we are starting from. I am always looking at and listening to the way they walk.
“Build good relationships with the horse professionals involved in your yard and with your rider and don’t be afraid to ask for help and advice.”
"Attention to detail is essential. Know each horse individually – know what is ‘normal’ and you will know quickly when something isn’t quite right."
Five Top Secret (Okay, Maybe Only a Little Secret) Tricks of the Trade
- “Use cheap sunflower oil as every-day hoof oil and save the posh, expensive stuff for [shows like] Badminton! Likewise, regular soap or washing-liquid is perfectly good for washing horses – you don’t need to spend a fortune on essentials like specialty shampoo.”
- “Set reminders on your phone for things like icing a horse’s legs at a competition, so that even if you’re distracted from what you are doing, you are reminded it is time to take it off/do it again. And I always take a spare battery pack for my phone so I never have to leave it to charge, [so I always have it on me].”
- “I have a backpack at events in which I keep anything I might need, such as fly spray, baby oil, water for the rider, a towel or sponge, a hole-punch, and spare kit such as a whip and gloves.”
- “There’s no magic involved in getting Borough Pennyz [Vittoria’s London Olympics ride] white – just elbow grease, Vetrolin White N Brite shampoo, and chalk. But a soft body brush when washing is much more effective than just a sponge.”
- “Take a head-torch to three-day events – unless it is midsummer, you will be doing plenty of jobs in the dark, particularly on the morning of the final horse inspection.”
Chime in below! What tricks of the trade have you found? Do you think deep bedding is crucial, Bryony does?
Feature photo by Erin Gilmore.
Written by Amber Heintzberger
Freelance writer and photographer Amber Heintzberger lives outside New York City with her husband and children. She grew up riding and is a graduate "H-A" member of the Greenville Foothills Pony Club. As often as possible, she loves to spend time on her parents' horse farm in Upstate South Carolina.