National Show Hunter Hall of Famer Tom Wright has trained decades of champions and USHJA International Derby Championship winners for owners such as the Lindner and Ingram families and Brad Wolf – with superstars like High Hearts, National Show Hunter Hall of Fame inductees Ashford Castle and Strapless, 2017 USHJA International Hunter Derby Champion Cuba and its 2018 winner Private Practice. In 2018, his peers awarded Wright with the Old Springhouse Trophy to honor his lifetime commitment to the sport. He believes that a good groom is essential to bringing out the best in a good horse.
What’s your background? Did you ever work as a groom?
I was a working student for Tommy Lowe in California, and I groomed for some families on the East Coast when I got older. I groomed and flatted horses and braided from the time I was 14 until I started my training career [at age 21]. My friends were the grooms; my idols were the grooms. They taught me so much about horsemanship.
I had the great fortune to go to indoors with Tommy Lowe. I took care of a conformation horse, Between The Lines, and he won the model at Harrisburg, and I was noticed by Wendy Waters Mathews [then longtime groom for U.S. legend Rodney Jenkins]. I’ll never forget, I was 17 years old, and at 4 a.m. they invited me to come over and have coffee with them in the morning. That was like this unbelievable acceptance from these idols of mine. And that led to everything else, all the other doors opening. It’s an amazing place to start, and it’s an amazing life.
As a trainer, how important do you think grooms are?
I think a groom is like a horseshoe on a horse; it all starts there. And if you don’t have a great group of people caring for the horses, then the rest of what you do is not going to be successful. Grooms are paramount to everything that we do.
That really is the cornerstone for me. They’ve got to know all the ins and outs of legs, all about care, about massage and chiropractors, about feeding programs. The list is endless, really.
They just make it so that as a trainer you can do your work and they let you shine. You’re able to trust that the horse is going to arrive at the ring healthy, happy, and ready to perform. The great grooms are horse whisperers. They know what a horse’s mood is. I can always ask any of the guys or girls that have worked for me, and they know their horse and if it’s going to be a good day or not such a good day.
For instance, Emilee Hamilton, who took care of Strapless, was really a force unto herself. She always knew when that mare was going to peak, and she knew how to get her there. And I don’t think we could have had the success we did with Strapless without her.
I think behind every top horse is their caretaker. If you look at Lafitte de Muze, he is taken care of by Tim Delovich, and he knows every moment of that horse’s day. He’s the manager for Amanda Steege, but he oversees that horse exclusively. He’s as good a horseman as I’ve ever seen. Behind every great horse is that caretaker. You’re not going to see a great horse have a long career without a caretaker like that. Because they have to step in when the trainer’s making an error; they have to step in when the rider doesn’t understand where the horse is that day. And without the caretaker, you might as well forget about having any kind of consistency with a top horse, because they’re all finicky and different. That’s what makes them great. And that caretaker is the one that keeps it consistent. They can bring them to the ring, round after round after round, and know they are going to perform.
What makes a great groom?
A groom is not just dedicated. They give up almost everything else in their life to take care of a horse 24/7. A great groom is full of self-sacrifice, because it’s always about the well-being of the horse and the horse comes first. You also know that you can trust them at all times to be there no matter what. They also work at educating themselves as far as vet work and shoeing. People that really care about those kinds of details shine through.
Good grooms really want to do such a good job and to be respected by their fellow grooms and their fellow barn managers. That’s really what drives a top groom—respect of their peers. Good managers were all good grooms to begin with more than likely, and they have shown that they can step up and put a group of grooms together and oversee them. For a great groom, it’s always about respect of their peers and their owners, and really caring for the horse.
What advice would you give someone like a young groom or someone looking to start out?
Go to a horse show and watch the horses at the horse show. Pick out horses that look beautiful, that have shiny coats, perfect braids, and then go talk to the groom that’s taking care of the horse and ask them if there’s a way to get into their barn to work alongside them.
It really is just putting the hours in and being ready to do anything that anybody asks. A person’s desire to work above and beyond is what will stand out. You’ve got to be detail-oriented; you got to be super smart; you got to really remember things. Being an organized person is really key to being a groom because there’s so much responsibility. But it is such a rewarding experience. And there’s such an amazing camaraderie with the top grooms.
What do you think the HorseGrooms online community can do for grooms?
I think HorseGrooms is a brilliant idea. There should be an organization for the grooms that they can turn to for help, for employment, for benefits, insurance, housing, etc. I think there needs to be a real open line of communication where people can share information.
It’s been word of mouth for years and years and years. If you are fortunate enough to be a groom and work for a great manager, then they help you out. But otherwise, there’s really no central organization to go to for help or education. Dinette has really created something wonderful in HorseGrooms. I think that the FEI and the USEF would be very smart to get behind her website, because this would be a spectacular way to be in communication with a whole group of people that don’t necessarily belong to all the organizations.
Grooms are a huge part of the industry, and we should be thinking about things like insurance programs, retirement programs, and IRAs for grooms. That’s the kind of thing that HorseGrooms could help with. [HorseGrooms founder] Dinette Neuteboom is a really forward thinker and a hard worker, and she has a heart of gold. And this is a really exciting thing that she’s created.
Feature photo courtesy of KIND Media LLC.
Molly Sorge grew up eventing, then spent a few years grooming in the hunter/jumper world before starting a job at The Chronicle of the Horse magazine. She spent 20 years at the Chronicle, writing and photographing at World Cup Finals, World Equestrian Games, the Olympic Games, and shows all over the U.S. She now works outside the horse industry, but will always be a fan of horse sports.