December 2017 | Professional Grooms are Unsung Heroes No More
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Professional Grooms are Unsung Heroes No More

Suzanne Bush - December 2017

Professional GroomsPhoto credit Tracy Emmanuel

The names are familiar to equestrians everywhere:  Laura Kraut, Leslie Howard, Rodrigo Pessoa, Norman Dello Joio. Their achievements in equestrian sport have earned them worldwide acclaim, medals and money. They’ve represented their countries with dignity, standing with their exquisitely-groomed horses for photos and shaking hands with presidents, princes and prime ministers. Those vignettes don’t tell the whole story, though.

Somebody worked anonymously but with extraordinary dedication for hours before world class horses like Cedric or Donna Speciale entered the ring. In the stable area, surrounded by the tools of their trade, grooms are hard at work—often before dawn. Grooms for upper level show horses are critical members of the team. They make sure every braid is perfect, every stirrup is polished, every inch of the horse is spotless. 

Although it’s unlikely they’ll ever achieve the fame of the horses and the riders they work for, some grooms at the equestrian world’s most prestigious events are finding their ways to the limelight. The effort to recognize how much work and skill grooms bring to the team began in 1998 at the Pennsylvania National Horse Show. “My friend Noel Glavin and I created the award in memory of Moira Caffarey who passed away in 1997, from cancer. She was one of the best grooms ever,” Andrea Mewhinney explains. Mewhinney was once a groom, but is now a kidney/pancreas transplant nurse.

The award, referred to frequently as the “Caretakers” award, and the “Grooms” award is formally called The Caffarey-Hennessy Groom's Award, paying homage to both Caffarey and George Hennessy, a horse transporter for the US Equestrian Team, who died in 2013. Mewhinney says that Hennessy was “a friend to all.”

And the Winner Is…

Coordinating the details of the award is a labor of love. “There are three people who organize the award and prizes,” Mewhinney explains. “Tracy Emanuel, who worked with me and is now a professional photographer, Nicole Orna, who was also a groom in the early 80s, now management in retail, and me.”

Mewhinney says that the Caffarey-Hennessy Groom’s Award is presented at the Pennsylvania National Horse Show to the groom of the horse that wins the Grand Prix de Penn National.  “A few years ago the award was expanded so each Grand Prix groom gets a bag of goodies,” she says. “People and companies donate to the award. The winner gets a pile of gifts, gift cards and prizes. Each groom's bag is packed with food, drink and a gift card to Starbucks or Dunkin Donuts.” The list of donors to the award is impressive, and includes items like leather goods, grooming box covers, picture frames, etc. Many of the sponsors and donors to the award are former grooms.

Who ARE You?

In the early days of the award, grooms were startled and surprised when Mewhinney’s crew distributed bags of treats to all the Grand Prix grooms. “The first year the bags were handed out—Saturday morning, back in FEI stabling—one of the Double H Farms grooms burst into tears.  She exclaimed ‘Who ARE you people?’ and hugged us.”

And there are some true outliers in the stabling area, Mewhinney says, recalling the rider who groomed her own horse. “Unheard of! She came with husband, new baby, stroller, horse, etc., and accepted her groom’s bag. Cute. Riders at the Grand Prix level rarely care for a horse. It’s definitely a job for a professional groom,” she says. “Riders ride and grooms groom. How many NASCAR drivers could tune an engine?”

She says there have been some memorable winners of the award, which is presented in the show ring, not back in the stabling area. And it’s an international cast of characters. “Oliver O’Toole, from Australia, took care of Laura Kraut's horse when she won in 2003. He hugged all the presenters in the ring!” In 2015 when Leslie Howard won the Grand Prix with Gentille van Spieveld, “KJ Cameron, from New Zealand, hilariously claimed to be the oldest groom in FEI stabling.”  The 2017 winner was an American, Emily Hayden, who took care of Falco van Spieveld, ridden by Canadian Nicole Walker.

Mewhinney says that more and more top-level competitions are recognizing the grooms for the work they do. But it’s not without controversy. “Some believe groom’s awards should be merit-based,” she says. “The grooms work ridiculously hard, and we believe they all should be recognized. Getting a horse ready to be judged on your ability to make it perfect for one merit-based competition is very time-consuming.” She says that selecting the winner based on the success of the horse in competition works well. “People who support the award love it. This groom’s award recognizes the hard work for every groom.”

Visit the Caffarey-Hennessy Groom's Award Facebook page and #groomsaward on Instagram.