Tricks of the Trade with Phillip Dutton’s Groom Emma Ford
After multiple appearances at the World Equestrian Games, Pan American Games, and two Olympic Games – including their 2016 Olympic individual bronze medal win with Mighty Nice – you might say that 2016 USEF Equestrian of the Year Phillip Dutton and his longtime groom, Emma Ford, have got it all together.
Despite being part of a team at the pinnacle of international eventing, for U.K.-native Emma, the question has never so much been if equestrian sport would one day be a part of her professional life, but how. “I have always been surrounded by horses. My dad was a Master of Foxhounds, and I grew up through the Pony Club and also did a lot of show jumping. Having completed my Bachelor of Applied Science (BASc) degree, I wanted to travel for a year, [which is how I first] came to the States in 1998.”
Although she didn’t begin working for Phillip until 2005, apart from a year away in 2013, the two have been together ever since. Today, Emma is in charge of some 35-45 sales, training, staff, and competition horses while traveling with Phillip to events around the world. “I oversee the management of the whole barn, but my day is generally spent with the Intermediate/Advanced horses,” she says, adding that the first half of the year is divided between winter training in Aiken, S.C., and spring at home in West Grove, Pa., where Phillip begins preparing his Kentucky horses with incline gallops. “In a non-championship year, there is less traveling for the advanced horses – May, June, and July, we tend to stay at local events with the younger horses.
“If we’re lucky, we get to go to Aachen, Germany in mid-July for the CIC3*. The first two weeks of September are the top British CCI3* and CCI4*, and then it’s back home to the younger horses and competing at local shows. We generally finish our season by the end of October in Virginia, but occasionally, we might fly to California for the Galway Downs CCI3* the first week of November.”
No matter where in the world she is, Emma is bringing her extensive grooming and management experience to the Phillip Dutton string. Here are her favorite tricks of the trade.
Noëlle Floyd: What is a common horse care mistake you see that you would like corrected?
Emma Ford: Not so much a mistake but I struggle today with people not wanting to spend time with their horses. I see riders come through the barn that are really happy to ride and compete, but then don’t want to spend that extra time getting to know their horse and bonding with them from the ground. For me, bonding with my horses is what makes my job so worthwhile. I feel sorry for both horses and riders that do not get to experience that bond together.
You name it, I have probably tried witch hazel to solve the problem!
What is your claim to fame as a groom?
In 2015, I co-authored a book with Cat Hill called "World Class Grooming for Horses", published by Trafalgar Square Books. It has become one their top-selling equine books. From there, we are building a business, providing clinics and training in horse health, care, and management to all levels and disciplines of horse enthusiasts.
If you were stuck on an island and you could only take five things with your top horse, what would you take and why?
For Mighty Nice aka “Happy” (he puts a smile on my face every day!) I’d bring:
- His really long lead rope. He can sometimes do some Hi-Ho Silver moves and you need a long leadline to stay attached!
- My Posture Prep Groomer. It’s a grooming tool I use that is great for a good groom and most importantly, I use it to massage Happy and myself.
- Witch Hazel. It’s my go-to product for skin issues, leg liniment, and a final wipe over after grooming.
- A really long book to read!
- I should probably add Phillip as I don’t ride.
What is your biggest splurge item for horse care?
Phillip and Z at the World Equestrian Games. Photo by Sportfot.
Phillip has amazing sponsorships so we are very fortunate to have many of our horse care needs met. However, Legend and Adequan would be our big splurge products. Without healthy joints, we have no horses to compete!
What are your top five favorite horse care products and why?
(Limiting me to five is not fair!!!)
- Horseware of Ireland turnout blankets. Rambo blankets are the best when it comes to fit and quality so far as I’m concerned. I know the price might be seen as high sometimes, but the longevity of all their blankets makes the cost worth while.
- Posture Prep Cross Fiber Groomer. This tool allows me to curry the horses and whilst also using a specific grooming technique, I can massage them. Most horses love the tool and it helps me to work on muscle knots and tight areas on each individual horse.
- My Andis AGC clippers. Without these, I wouldn’t be able to have my horses show-ready. Because of the detachable blades, I can trim a horse or fully body clip one depending on what is needed.
- Witch Hazel. I can’t have enough of it in my barn! I use it for skin irritation, removing oil after clipping from horses’ coats, as a leg liniment, body wash… You name it, I have probably tried witch hazel to solve the problem!
- Rambo Ionic Wraps. These are therapeutic all-in-one stable wraps so just about anyone (or anything) could put them on. They are really effective in helping to prevent horses from stocking up overnight. I also will use them after hard workout session if the horse has to stay in his stall because I truly believe they help the circulation within the legs.
Phillip and Fernhill Fugitive at Kentucky. Photo by Sportfot.
What is your personal motto for horse care?
Get to know your horse! Many illnesses and injuries can be less of a problem if they are picked up early. The only way to do this is by knowing every bump, scratch, and dent on your horse. This also includes normal behavior, temperature, and daily attitude.
What is your ideal morning routine with your horses?
I try to have most my horses out at night, so first thing in the morning is about bringing them in, checking shoes, legs, and bodies for any abnormalities. After feeding and stalls, they go either on the walker or vita floor (vibrating plate to help relaxation and increase circulation). Depending on Phillip’s riding schedule, they might do either of these after being ridden.
What is your ideal evening routine with your horses?
All the horses get a thorough grooming in the afternoon before getting blanketed for the night. If the horses are out overnight, then they get fed around 3:30 p.m., blanketed, and put out by 4-4:30 p.m. Late night feeding for those that need it gets done at night check after 7 p.m.
Phillip and Z at the World Equestrian Games. Photo by Sportfot.
How do you deal with a difficult horse with poor ground manners?
I believe in repetition. What I mean by this is by asking the horse to do something simple over again until it understands what you are asking. For instance, a horse that moves around on the cross-ties whilst grooming, I will ask it to stand in the same spot. If he moves away from that spot, I will put him back there repeatedly until he understands his job is to stand there. Likewise with horses that tend to ‘take you for the walk’, I like to stop them before they get ahead of me and I will back them a couple of steps before moving forward again. If you repeat this action every time they try to get strong, most horses will eventually learn to walk with you and not ahead of you.
Do you have any tricks for sensitive skin?
I think you might guess this one – witch hazel. This is a natural astringent that is gentle enough to clean your own face, hence, it is great on sensitive skin. I do, however, feel that too many people ignore the importance of drying off horses before they are put back in their stall. Hand grazing a horse in the sun until it is completely dry will combat a lot of skin issues.
What is your favorite treat to give the horses?
I can honestly say I don’t think I have a favorite – whatever is handy! You will see me with peppermints at shows because these are easy to buy at the gas station when I’m driving there.
Feature photo of Phillip and Mighty Nice at the Rio Olympics by Erin Gilmore.
Written by Douglas Crowe
Nina Fedrizzi spends her days writing about horse sport, food, and travel. She began her career at Travel + Leisure and is a former editor at NF Style. When she's not tapping away on her MacBook, Nina can usually be found on a horse, sleuthing out the local pho, or refusing to unpack her carry-on. Watch her do all three on Instagram @ninafedrizzi.