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Jenny Ducoffre Lives For Grooming

The longtime groom for EuroHorse’s Jos Verlooy has seen championship medals, Longines watches and five-star victories. Yet still the driving forces behind her success are the horses themselves. The recipient of the Best Groom Award at CSI3* Indoor Friesland at the end of October last year chatted with HorseGrooms to share her unique role with the Verlooys, her special grooming concoctions and her advice to those starting out.

Jenny Ducoffre is the definition of the whole package. For 10 years, she has worked at EuroHorse, the renowned training and sales operation in Grobbendonk, Belgium. EuroHorse is owned by the Olympic show jumper Axel Verlooy, Nena Verlooy, and their son Jos Verlooy, team gold medalist at the 2018 FEI Nations Cup Final (Barcelona) and 2019 FEI European Championships (the Netherlands). With them, she’s created a job that doesn’t follow traditional lines, from riding the horses to creating her own grooming products to even having a voice in the development or improvement of products for Jos’ long-term sponsor Kentucky Horsewear.

Ducoffre has received the Best Groom Award three times. HorseGrooms sat down with her during Jumping Mechelen CSI5*-W, held in Putte, Belgium, on December 26-30 to talk about her favorite memories, her philosophy on working with horses, and her horse care methodology.

What are the best memories of your ten years working with Jos Verlooy?

From the beginning, it was very special. 

At the time, I wanted to stay at home to take care of the horses there. This was not a problem for Jos. Every rider has his showgroom, and I did help out at shows, if needed, for Jos, Harrie [Smolders] or anyone else who needed help. But just before Jos and Harrie were about to do a U.S. tour, Jos’ groom couldn’t go. So I accompanied him, and he won his first five-star grand prix with his horse Domino, who was a very special horse. He was very nervous and fixated on Jos’ mother Nena, who helped him with grooming. This horse didn’t really know me and yet gained trust so quickly that we managed to show at our best. I cried when he stayed clear in the first round. I am very much not emotional with people, but with my animals, I have an abnormal amount of emotion. When they are good, like when they jump clear, I can start crying–no matter what kind of show or class–just out of being proud and being overwhelmed by all the work we put in.

Jos is totally not like that. He might have thought, “She is crazy.” During that first five-star win, I was still crying during the prize giving. Since that show, I have been his showgroom.

CHIO Rotterdam (the Netherlands) in 2018 was also special for me. Caracas jumped the five-star grand prix there, and Igor jumped his first Nations Cup. Caracas won the grand prix, and Igor jumped a double clear. That was also unbelievable! 

At the 2015 Las Vegas FEI World Cup Final, Jos won a watch from Longines and a big bottle of champagne. He gave me the bottle, but I don’t drink alcohol. I said, “What should I do with this? I’d prefer the watch.” He said, quite surprised, “But Jenny, this is my first watch. You will get the next one!” That happened when Caracas won the grand prix of CHIO Rotterdam. We were close a couple of times before to a victory but were beaten several times by Roger Yves Bost.

Another great memory happened a year later at the European Championship in Rotterdam, where Igor was part of the gold medal team and in the individual final, where they earned third. I knew that Igor could do many amazing things and was a great combination with Jos.

What would be your first advice for starting grooms?

First of all, they should really be aware of the conditions of being a groom; taking care of livestock and being responsible for their welfare takes a lot more than a 9 a.m.–5 p.m. job. You will never be paid for the extra hours and the hours beyond that–because it’s impossible–even if you earn a lot of money. Your passion and the love of those horses pay back most of it.

In 2019, Jenny Ducroffe’s charge Igor won team gold at the European Championships with rider Jos Verlooy.

They should not doubt themselves if they don’t know how to do things. You can always ask questions to others. The most important thing that they need to remember is when they give their best, it is always good enough for the horses. Also, when they don’t have as much experience as other grooms, know that everybody started with not much knowledge. You can go a long way if you want to, but for the horses, it is the most important that you give everything that you have. Then, they will never judge you for things you can’t do. I really believe this. This is also the only thing that counts.

Who did you learn a lot from?

From myself. 

When I started with grooming, it was different than now. There was no head groom. You had to watch others and had to learn everything yourself. I was very young, and nobody took me by my hand and said, “We do it like this.” I was at Paul Schockemöhle’s stable in Mühlen, Germany, a lot, and simply by watching, I learned it the hard way. 

Franke Sloothaak’s old groom, Sara, made a difference to me when I was younger. She helped me, for example, at a jump during the warmup. Sara and “Dynamite” [Victoria Smith Dyna] always helped me. I always watched how they did things.

I had a scholarship, so I studied for a while and finished school. I come from a horse family, and we had an English groom at home. I can say I learned the basics from her. I already knew from a young age how to clip horses and how you really brush a horse. I still brush a horse like that today. It is, for me, very important to brush a horse. Nobody really knows a horse grooming brush [Kardätsche] anymore. Others polish their boots with it, and I polish my horses with it. Over the years, everything has become a bit easier because you’ve just done things, and you can see what works and what doesn’t work. But I have a lot of confidence in my instincts because they haven’t let me down that often. Now, if something happens with one of the horses, and I’m asked by someone what I need to do, I can only say what I would do at the moment and maybe how it can go on. But I’ll only know what I’ll do tomorrow when I’m standing next to it. 

It’s a bit difficult when you’re away so much. If a horse has mud fever, and you say, “You have to keep it clean, and it has to be washed.” But then there are also days where you can tell it doesn’t need to be washed. But if you say it has to be washed and you’re not at home, it gets washed every day. I can’t teach others that feeling. My brother once wanted to open a school for horse groomers, and he wanted me to teach there, but you can’t teach a feeling. It has to do with wanting, common sense and respect. For me, respect is the most important thing. Also, although my friends say my horses are always allowed to do anything and are very spoiled, I find they, including my stallions, are well-behaved.

How do you work with horses?

I am not a very strong person, so I’ve always tried to figure out how to do everything in a way that my horses would still respect me in more than a friendship way; it can take a lot longer to get to results, but it also lasts a lifetime.

I was very seriously ill in 2022. I was out for four months. I was also paralyzed and was really at a point where we thought I couldn’t come back. I can’t really use my one arm anymore, either. Now I need to have the horses on my side anyway. They have to be with me. I can’t win in a situation with strength. My God, if they had an idea how weak I am! 

Life with Igor

I have to think and be smarter than the horse. For example, with Igor, if I want to go to the right, he goes to the left. I have to give him the game that I want to go left, and then he goes right. This way, he can keep his character. With Igor, it was not so easy. He is one of the most arrogant horses I have ever worked with, but also the most incredible athlete I’ve ever met. I cried a lot at the beginning because I knew this was going to be my best horse, and he just didn’t want to be my friend. I had a love-hate relationship with Igor, but I had so much respect for him because of who he is. He never did anything wrong as an athlete–he did everything wrong with me though. You need to take your time for him; if you show stress, he won’t let you pick up his feet. His mentality is, “If you’re working with me, then I’m number one. If you don’t have time, then you don’t have to come.” 

Watch Belgian rider Jos Verlooy speak of his longtime groom Jenny Ducoffre after she earned the Best Groom Award at Indoor Friesland CSI3*

When Igor was injured, I stayed at home because I didn’t want to compete anymore. At the time, I thought I had already been doing this job long enough and that I had reached an age to stay more at home. I think having good people at home taking care of the horses is also very important. At that time, we didn’t have enough people at home; I thought it would be easier to find a showgroom instead of a home groom. Plus, I thought a life at home would be good for me. I did that for one year. Then, through certain circumstances, I went back to grooming at shows with Jos. I also like to be a showgroom. At the show, you have more quality time with the horses. I would love to do both, but I can’t split myself into two parts.

With Igor, I basically took care of him his entire career and still do. We became a strong team; I think we learned how to trust each other and how far we can go in that. It was a long and tough way, but I would not want to change it for anything. 

Championships are not really important to me as long as my horses give their best. I still do national shows with Jos. If we go to a show with seven horses, then we go to the show with seven horses. It’s definitely a lot harder than it used to be, but for me, it is so important to follow my horses and their steps as much as possible.

Your way of talking reminds me a lot about what Mel Obst said. You both have a similar philosophy of keeping things simple. 

That makes sense, I guess. We are both still old school, even though I’m quite a bit older. We do our things how we have done them for years and wouldn’t change something we had success with very quickly. It is not that we are not interested in other things; we are both very open to suggestions, alternatives, and new things that would also work for us. But I think we both try to keep it as simple and natural as possible, so it’s easier also for others to follow this system.

What works for you best in grooming?

Care in every way; give time in every way. Open eyes, ears, and heart. Basics: clean horses, clean tack, blankets, bandages, boots. These are my main rules. I believe in benefiting my horses and giving them a little extra care at shows; for example, I believe in the BEMER. I believe in everything that helps blood circulation, warming up, or just peace of mind.

Also, in aftercare, I keep it simple. My horses only get ice around their legs, and I wrap the legs with stable bandages as soon as possible after their performance. I don’t use clays or anything like that; they just don’t work for me personally. I always want to have the legs dry and clean. But, for example, with a swelling around the girth or bruising on spots I can’t easily reach with ice or cold water, I will use Ice Tight [Poultice] because it usually will take the swelling out.

How is it working with Jos?

He would say, “VERY EASY!” We respect each other a lot, at least in our professional ways—pretty sure as a person, too. Jos was young when we started to work with each other, and he still had to go to school and stay home as much as possible. He had to trust me to be able to take care of everything when I was away. That meant also that I’d ride the horses that I groomed. So many people have asked me why I don’t ride as a real rider, but I want to be a groom. I like to ride and know I can do that well, but I want to be the part on the ground or in the background–[be the foundation the horses can] come home to. The results showed that it really worked out for Jos and me to work like that. 

Jos is a worker; he works hard with himself and the horses. He tries to improve every time he gets on, but he also knows that there needs to be playtime and easy times. So my role–and favorite part–is being Miss HAPPY HORSE. That is also why I ride so much. I know how important a groom is for the whole system and how important a groom is for the horses. I don’t believe Jos would ever say I am just a groom. He had to rely on my knowledge and what I could do; that is a totally different starting point. I had a whole lot more responsibility. We worked hard for the success we had. Nobody can take that away from us. It is true that we have quality horses. However, we don’t get ready-made horses. All our good horses have been with us since they were young. We have really good horses. Jos doesn’t really like to ride horses without character.

You won the Best Groom Award at a show three times at three different shows: Indoor Friesland (the Netherlands), Hickstead (England), and Leeuwarden (the Netherlands). What is your secret?

I believe that the people who see me with my horses simply see that this is my life. This is not orchestrated. They can ask anyone, and they’ll say that I live for my horses and that I give everything for them. For me, it is special to just spend time with the horses and to do something with them. It is our job to find out what the horses need and want. I think that other people do notice that. 

However, I don’t need a prize for my grooming. It is really nice that they do that. When you do your best every day, you know you have won an award every day. And that has much more value because you win the award from your horses or the respect of your rider. The feeling of gaining trust from a horse or from the rider really makes a difference. 

In Leeuwarden, a retired groom (Yvon Brok – former groom of the famous Ratina Z under Piet Raijmakers sr.) checked out how the grooms were working. She did an outstanding job because I never noticed that somebody observed me. In Hickstead, the committee talked with the stewards. This is also a very good idea when you do something like that because the stewards are always around us. They know how we work and see us every weekend with the horses. They also know if we are always giving our best or if we give an extra effort just for the award. They also ask the other grooms about our way of working and if we are helpful to others–I find that also to be a good thing. 

The winning grooms at CSI3* Indoor Friesland. From left to right: Indoor Friesland Show Director (and former groom) Yvonne van Bergen, Mel Obst (groom for Marcus Ehning), Jenny Ducoffre, Madeleine Broek (groom for Marc Houtzager), and Dinette Neuteboom (HorseGrooms Founder and Press Officier of Indoor Friesland). Photo: DigiShots

Helping the Next Generation

I also like to compliment other grooms when they are doing a good job and when they’ve made progress with the horses. For example, when I would see a horse that is perfectly bandaged, I compliment the groom. I find it important to give compliments, but it rarely happens. I would love to groom every horse in the world if I was able to. I would never judge a groom if I was asked for advice about how to do certain things. For example, how to use hoof packing, which I personally rarely use, but I like to try everything out. Or if I see a certain horse has a problem, and I can help, then I offer my help through maybe products that I have. 

Can you tell us more about your grooming rituals?

Already, a lot of people are using my recipe for my “miracle water.” You basically really need to check the skin of the horse and then think about what the skin of the horse needs. I also made my own ShowSheen in the past. I always put vinegar in my water to wash the horses. As showgrooms, we wash and clip the horses a lot–we irritate the skin in a lot of different ways, so we take a lot of their natural protection away. If you clean them–as in brushing them well–it becomes a bit easier because the skin gets better and stronger. You can destroy the skin by washing them too much. In Florida, everyone says you must not wash the horses, but Jos can’t ride properly if he can’t let the horses sweat. And there are also different types of sweat: from stress, from working, etc. 

I also wash differently. There is nothing special in my “miracle water” which is vinegar. If a stallion has oily skin, then I put a bit of Dreft [dishwash detergent] in the water, which draws out the grease a little. At shows, I add a little bit of ShowSheen. If they have dry skin, I put a spoonful of boiled coconut oil in with it. Coconut oil is the only oil that gets absorbed into the skin. 

I almost always try out everything myself. We don’t work with a lot of supplements, but when we change something, I try it myself most of the time, also to know how it tastes for the horses. It’s the same with other products. I use a lot of things that are actually for people. I am not scared to try things when my horses have skin problems. I am a total opponent of cortisone and like things. If my horses have a rash, then I have done something wrong. So I have to find out. 

Having a Feeling

When we arrived in Florida last year, one of my horses had an allergic reaction to the disinfectant. You don’t see the horses for three days while they are in quarantine. They called me and said that he had a bit of a rash, and when I went to pick him up and saw him, I wanted to leave him there. I only had a week until Jos came, and he had to go to the show. I didn’t think I would be able to manage that. I didn’t want to use medication or any other chemical substances. I tried to keep him clean and moist. At the same time, I don’t have a specific prescription for it. It depends entirely on the situation. One day, I washed him with Head & Shoulders [shampoo], and the other day I washed him with Betadine. It really depends on the skin. You can only see these things, and it’s much easier if you know your horses well. But only if you always look there. You can do a lot of things, but you have to know what you are doing or better to really think about what you are doing. You just can’t do what somebody else says all the time; you have to feel and understand the horses. 

Working with a Shampoo Manufacturer

I worked together with a shampoo manufacturer. I told them what I would like to have. I showed them the shampoos that I liked to work with and that I needed a shampoo that I could use regularly at home. It is easier at the shows; I have my three or four things, and I do my thing. I also need something that works well at home and is good for every horse. I am a freak with washing and clipping the horses. Some say I make the horses too sensitive by being too clean. I clip, for example, the horses in Florida nearly every week. Most horses react very well to clipping actually; I personally never had an issue.

“But I don’t want to do anything else. This is me, and I am where I belong,” Jenny Ducoffre said.

I also believe in the BEMER system for people and for horses. We now use the new neck part, and I benefited from the BEMER when I was so ill. The BEMER was really good for my mood. It made such a difference. I am now quite fixated on the BEMER.  I only use the BEMER at shows and not at home–or if I do, there is a reason that they need it. At home, I like to keep it simple. There, we also don’t usually wrap the legs of horses.

Tell me about your relationship with Kentucky Horsewear.

Jos‘ sponsorship with Kentucky Horsewear already existed when I started to work for EuroHorse. I met Thomas Thuytens (the owner) and his wife Claudia at a show, and we connected very well. We are the same kind of people: hard working, interested in developing, and obsessed with becoming the best we can be. We have the same ideas [in regards to] products for the horses: gentle to the horses, strong protection, long if not everlasting, and affordable to anyone

Their range grew and grew and grew, and except for tack, I think I use everything from them.

We developed boots, blankets, grooming supplies, and other things together. We are in contact a lot and talk about ideas to improve all the time. They provide us with everything I need. I love their products and stand 100% behind them. If I were a horse, I’d “Wear” it, too.

What are some basic rules with horses for you?

My horses might seem spoiled, but I have limits, and they are not allowed to cross those. That is really important. I am also really strict with my rules. If something is not allowed today, then it is also not allowed tomorrow. They understand that even though Nixon is trying every day. He is a very playful stallion. I know with the stallions when I can do what. At home and at the shows, we have everybody leading all the horses in a chain. I want this because a lot of people are looking at their phones and are not paying attention, and when they spook you have more control. I always have a chain when I handwalk at shows because I never know what will come my way. I have a special headcollar with a rope noseband that is stronger than a regular one. I would never handwalk with just a thick halter. I am much more concerned with the stupidity of others than otherwise. I am not afraid to tell somebody when they do things that are not good, or I go to the stewards if somebody is hurting his or her horse.

I live for grooming. This is my life, and I don’t mind the way everything goes. I still like to get up every day. Some days are more difficult than other days. But as long as I like it, I will continue. It’s a lot more difficult since I got ill, but it’s all I want. For four months, I was completely at home and had enough time to think about options or different solutions. But I don’t want to do anything else. This is me, and I am where I belong. I’ve stayed at EuroHorse for 10 years not only because they are good for me but also because I believe in what we do. They treat the horses how I would treat a horse. We all pull on the same string. We all believe in the same way of working with horses. The horses are allowed to have their own character. 

Featured photo courtesy of Hippo Foto Media.

February 3, 2024

Adriana van Tilburg 🇳🇱

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