Lenore Brown, former groom and current Director of Sponsorship for Wellington International, gets honest about the challenges and opportunities faced in the grooming industry, advocating for your wellbeing and career development, and the unexpected skills you hone while grooming. This interview was originally posted as a HorseGrooms podcast episode and can be listened to on Spotify and Apple podcasts.
Dinette Neuteboom: “We’re here with Lenore Brown from Wellington International at the WEF Showgrounds. You’re director of sponsorship, but you’ve done a lot of other things before you got here.”
Lenore Brown: “This is my most recent life. I’ve had a bunch of other lives. I come from a family of horse people. I’ve been on horses since before I was walking. I’ve also been a groom, a barn manager, and a vet tech, and I worked at a marketing job and ran a marketing company [Phelps Media Group] before I came here [at Wellington International]. I’m also an amateur equestrian.”
Following Curiosity in Her Career
Neuteboom: “What did you like about being a groom back then?”
Brown: “It was never my intention to be a groom. I went to college. Like I said, I grew up around horses. I galloped racehorses when I was in high school early in the mornings for extra money. My parents had a farm in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, they still do, that’s called Last Laugh Farm; I helped them break babies, and I rode Thoroughbreds off the track.
Then, like a lot of people, I decided I was going to go to college. I also went to college to swim because I was a competitive swimmer. I’d swim for school in the winter, and I was on two swim teams. I was busy. So, I thought when I went to college that I was done with horses.
I had a degree in history and art history and a minor in international business, and I graduated college in 2008. I was hopeful to go work at the Philadelphia Art Museum. Of course, in 2008, the market crashed, and so there were no jobs in the art market anymore. I felt really strongly that I didn’t want to go back to college, not because I didn’t like it, but because I really wanted to work.
I was living on the farm with my parents, and I ran into my childhood trainer, who was working for Leslie Howard and Timmy Kees at the time. I was just telling him how frustrated I was that I wasn’t working, and he said, ‘Well, why don’t you come apply to be a groom for Leslie. You’ll travel all over the country. You’ll take care of nice horses; she goes to great horse shows; and you’ll get lessons. You can do that until you find something else, or you can do that.’ Of course, I was like, ‘OK, I’ll only do it until I find something else,’ and it just sort of snowballed. Obviously I never went back to have a ‘real job.’ I stayed.
So that’s how I got into it. And then I stayed in it for all the same reasons that other people who are grooms do.”
Neuteboom: “Which are?”
Brown: “The travel, and I’m a very competitive person, so I’m working for really good riders, having really nice horses, and going all over the place was really interesting to me. The horse show world really becomes like your family, and I loved the people I was with.
But I started having different interests. I was a groom for as long as I felt like I did what I wanted to do as a groom. I had a horse win a derby at Spruce Meadows–that’s a big thing. So at that point, I felt like I had worked hard enough with the team to get a horse to that level, and I wanted to do something else. So, I left jobs for more money.
At some point I was like, ‘Well, I’ve groomed, now I want to be a barn manager.’ And then when I got to a point where I could manage a barn with 40 horses and 15 people, I was like, ‘OK, now I’m interested in what it takes to know about veterinary stuff’ – just being curious. So then I was lucky to go work as a vet tech. Then after that, I felt like, ‘OK, I want to see the business side of horse shows and horse showing in the horse industry.’ I transitioned out of the barn, so to say, and into an office job. That sort of snowballed to where I am here.
It’s definitely not a straight line. But that has more to do with the fact that I always want to do new and different things. When I get curious about something, I want to learn about it and do it. I’ve always felt like the only way you learn about something is by doing it. So here I am.”
New Chapter At Wellington International
Neuteboom: “Here you are. How do you like your new job? How long have you been with them now?”
Brown: “I have been with Wellington International for just over a year; I started on December 15, 2021. I love it. It’s really a good mix for me. I love working for the Global Equestrian Group. Part of the reason I really wanted to be here is the focus and the goals of the group really aligned with what I wanted for my career: to work at the top of the sport. I love communicating to businesses the value of working in equestrian sports.
The timing couldn’t be better because there’s an Olympic cycle coming up. So we’ve got a lot of big competitions going on here. Also it keeps me at the horse shows, so I’m still surrounded by the people who have been my friends for the last 10-12 years that I’ve been in this business. I still see my friends that are grooms at the ring every day, and then some of my friends that are not grooms, I see them in their new jobs. This is my family, so it really keeps me close to my family still.”
Neuteboom: “Is that also one of the positive effects of the horse world and being a groom?”
Brown: “Yes. The horse world is such a small community. If you meet someone at the grocery store–and not in Wellington, because everybody in Wellington is in horses–but anywhere in the world, you meet someone and they like horses and you like horses, within 15 minutes, you know somebody that knows them. It keeps you super connected. Also, people who love horses are their own kind of weird. So we all relate to each other fundamentally.
I’ve grown up with most of the people in this industry, and that means a lot to me. Watching people grow and change and achieve, get married, have kids, or change their life and be whoever it is they want to be, I think it’s cool that we get to do it together. There are bad parts, too, but I don’t think that the bad parts outweigh the good. I think fundamentally, this is a really cool thing we get to do, and we get to do it with really interesting people most of the time.”
Neuteboom: “Can you talk a little bit about the negatives in grooming?”
Brown: “I think a lot of it has to do with the hours and the conditions under which the grooms are asked to work. The biggest negative for me was the fact that there was no balance; there’s no work-life balance. That’s a buzzword now. COVID really changed people’s perspective on what having a life was across the board in the world. But in our industry, grooms are the first ones here and the last ones to leave, and it’s a service industry. It’s very closely in parallel to hospitality; you’re working for customers, you have to be there before the customers, and you have to be there after the customers. The difference is that you have an animal that depends on you to be happy, healthy, and sound, and it needs you to care for them. So there’s not only the hours, but there’s an enormous amount of pressure, and that after a while, I think, weighs on people. And if you don’t work for people who advocate for you to take time off or take vacations or help you balance the other stuff, then it can get really difficult.
This is changing because grooms are advocating for it to change, and the industry is advocating for it to change. But some of the events don’t have good conditions for the grooms. So unless you work for somebody that respects you and wants you to be in a safe and healthy environment, that doesn’t always exist. So those are some of the things that, for me, were negatives. But some of the things that I did aren’t done anymore because the industry has changed a lot, and I think it’s changed a lot for the better.”
Bringing Positive Change in the Horse World
Neuteboom: “You told me before that Wellington International is trying to bring positive change in the horse world for grooms. What are you doing? How are you doing it?”
Brown: “It’s little things. One of the things that I wanted to focus on, and what we talked a lot about over the summer, was just saying, ‘Thank you.’ So now, when you come in at the exhibitor’s entrance, there is a sign that says, ‘Thank you to our riders, our grooms, our vets, and our farriers.’
In my opinion, and I know many of the people at the horse show feel the same way, we don’t have a horse show without the support teams. It’s getting harder and harder to find good professionals in all of those support teams. Like the equine veterinary industry is in crisis. It may seem like there are a lot of farriers, but having farriers that are educated, accredited, apprenticed and learned, that’s difficult to find, too. The same thing is with grooms. People come in to groom, but they’re not mentored the way I was mentored. Suey Braun, who was Leslie Burr Howard’s manager when I started working for Leslie, she mentored me; she drilled horsemanship into me. And Lee McKeever was essential with just saying, ‘Hey, you’re doing this right; you’re doing this wrong.’ I didn’t even work for McLain Ward. He just saw me at the ring and wanted me to do right by my rider and the animals. Mentorship and stewardship are really important, and I think we’re lacking that a little bit.
Going back to what I was saying, the horse show doesn’t exist if we don’t have horses that are sound from the ground up. So if the vets don’t keep the horses healthy, they don’t show. If the horses aren’t sound with the farriers, they don’t show. If the grooms aren’t taking care of the horses, they don’t get to the ring and then they don’t show. So we’re not here because we’re running a horse show. We’re here because of a whole bottom-up that happened to make this possible. So we need to and want to say, ‘Thank you.’
Also when you walk in a major thoroughfare here between rings 7, 8, 9, and 10 and the corner of the DeNemethy and Mogavero [rings], we now have a huge trailer that used to be covered in sponsor recognition. We have tons of sponsor recognition. So we said, ‘No, we’re not going to do that.’ We totally re-utilized the space to say, ‘Thank you’ to our grooms and with nice signage. Saying ‘Thank you’ is first because that’s the most human thing we can do. But also, we now have a groom’s lounge space where you can get coffee and snacks at both the Global Dressage Festival and here at the Winter Equestrian Festival. The riders’ lounges are open to grooms.”
Neuteboom: “Where do you have the riders’ lounges?”
Brown: “At the International Ring, presented by Hermès, here at WEF, and then over on the deck at the Global Dressage Festival, there are riders’ lounges where FEI grooms are entitled to go in and get water or snacks. We’re just trying to do little things that support them, and we want to do more.
Everybody’s talking about the development at this venue. There’s going to be a lot over the next five years. But every year they’re going to try to do something more to make it better for the grooms. The other thing we’ve done is we have sent out–and we’re going to continue to send out–surveys directly to the grooms so that the grooms can tell us what they like and don’t like. Then we can take that list and make the most improvements possible. We’re trying, and I’m proud of the fact that we’re trying.”
Neuteboom: “What are you thinking about in the future? Can you tell us a little bit about it or is it a secret?”
Brown: “It’s a little bit secret. But I think that’s only because it hasn’t been completely decided. But I know that every single year, we’re going to be taking the feedback, deciding what feedback is most important to act on, and then doing our best to correct it, make it better or make something new to alleviate a problem.”
Horse Groom Careers in America Versus Europe
Neuteboom: “You’ve told me that you’re also helping grooms change their careers?”
Brown: “I try, when I’m asked. I still have a lot of friends that are grooming, or I get connected to people through friends who have someone who wants to change their career.
Everybody kind of knows that I’ve had a whole bunch of different careers and to end up here at Wellington International, I think people want to ask how I got to where I am. So when people ask me, I absolutely try to help them brainstorm how to transition to the next step of their career, whether it’s in horses or out of horses.
I also try and connect them to people that I think can help them. I’m really committed to networking with people. Something I love about our industry is that you meet so many interesting people. I try and keep all those relationships in my back pocket, and if I think two people can help each other or would be a good fit, then I try really hard to connect them.
It takes a special person nowadays to be a career groom, and I think in America it’s a lot harder to be a career groom than it is in Europe for a myriad of different reasons. I didn’t ever personally groom in Europe, so I don’t have direct experience with that. But I know so many of my friends who have done so.”
Neuteboom: “Why do you think that is?”
Brown: “In America, it’s a service and not a career, which is a shame. But that’s also a little bit of a difference in mentality between America and Europe across the board. In Europe, riding is a career; in America, it’s a privilege or a hobby. And it’s harder to access in America than it is in Europe, and that’s a whole other topic that I get worked up about.
But we’re shrinking the access to the sport. When I was growing up, my mentors were Beezie Madden, Margie Goldstein-Engle, Laura Kraut and Leslie Howard. Those women all got to ride horses that didn’t cost six figures. They rode what they had and then somebody gave them a chance, and they did better. You can’t have horses in your backyard anymore and compete at big horse shows; you can’t even have horses in your backyard and compete at middle horse shows.
As an amateur, I own one horse, and it’s almost impossible for me to do that. It’s so expensive, and that’s not a good pipeline for our sport. Our sport’s not grow if we make it so difficult that people can’t put their kids on ponies and graduate them to do something else. I don’t love that that’s how we are, and I wish we did more to address having a middle class of horse sports in America. Because it’s hard to have just two ends of the spectrum and nothing in the middle.”
Neuteboom: “But you’re right, that’s a different topic.”
Brown: “That’s a different topic. But I think that grooms in America, there is no growth pathway for them. Even as a manager in my role now, and something I see with the horse show grooms too, is: ‘How do you create pathways for growth for your employees?’ People need to have goals and aspirations and things that they can meet. What happens when you stick to one thing, and then that’s just where you have to be? That’s not a great way to work.
I think in America we need to work harder to create other opportunities for grooms or treat them with the respect they deserve because what they do is hard. They know a lot; it’s not just about tacking the horse up and getting them to the ring. It’s nutrition and proper care and keeping the horses on a schedule and knowing the different levels of soundness and how to transport horses from one place to another safely. Horses are complicated, sensitive animals, and the people that care for them have to be super detail-oriented. Good horsemanship is getting increasingly harder to find. So I wish we could create opportunities for grooms to learn in a positive, structured way and grow to be recognized as professionals and recognized for their achievements. Bring some pride back to it.”
Neuteboom: “Maybe we should also focus on the employers.”
Brown: “That’s different. This is in any business: there are good employers and bad employers. But there’s a level of self-advocating that has to happen. If you don’t like the situation you’re in, then say, ‘I don’t like this,’ and if it doesn’t change, then you make the change. I think a lot of people don’t advocate for themselves because they don’t think things are going to be any different anywhere else. That’s just not how I approach things.”
Neuteboom: “Or they love their horses so much that they don’t want to leave.”
Brown: “Yes, but that’s another harder topic to deal with. And I empathize with that. I’ve had that situation, too. But at some point–”
Neuteboom: “You have to make a decision.”
Brown: “You have to make a decision.”
Neuteboom: “Could you give one example of somebody [in the horse business] that you helped transition to something else?”
Brown: “I recently had a friend reach out to me who had been a groom and a manager and was looking to have a little bit more of a stable life because they were burnt out. Over the course of two or three conversations we talked about what their interests were, where they wanted to live, how much money they did or didn’t want to make, whether they wanted to go to school or transition right into a new job.
I always ask people if they can give themselves some time in between jobs, because sometimes you don’t know how burned out you are until you actually get to stop and take a breath. And then you’re like, ‘Woah, I’m tired and I need a second.’ I also think, because this is my personal experience, that I sometimes transitioned to jobs for the wrong reason–just because I was in a bad situation, and I wanted to get out and move on, I wasn’t thinking clearly or making good strategic decisions. So anybody I talk to, I try and say, ‘Who, what, when, where, why.’ And help them make sure that they are clear about what they want.
Then I just connected this person to other people I had met, and eventually, within two or three connections, they had a different job. Now they’re happily in an industry where they’re comfortable, and they’re using their skills–which is super rewarding to me because I’m helping my friend and also because you’re able to make other people’s businesses better by bringing good employees to them that help solve problems.”
Neuteboom: “You don’t have to mention any names, but what is this person doing right now? Is he or she still in the horse industry?”
Brown: “They are still in the horse industry. They’ve transitioned from working in a barn setting to working in a sales position with a corporate company that needs to do sales in and around the barns. It’s great because this person brings a lot of barn knowledge to the corporation and helps them really market or sell more effectively to the people in the barns. That’s a deficit in big corporate companies that are in the equestrian industry. So it’s nice to have somebody who can speak the language and help actually bring products to market that make a difference or solve a need.”
Translating Grooming onto a Resume
Neuteboom: “Do you think there are a lot of opportunities for grooms if they want to get out?”
Brown: “I think that the biggest thing—and I really struggled with this too when I transitioned out—was that grooming doesn’t translate well on a resume.
I’ll never forget when I was trying to get my first job out of being a groom, I knew for myself that there was no problem that I couldn’t solve. I managed travel logistics; I worked with veterinarians; I managed feed orders; I took care of however many living animals there were; I had great communication skills because I dealt with all different levels of people. But none of that stuff translates when you put it down on paper. I just think people are like, ‘They’re a groom; they don’t have any logistical skills.’ That’s crazy. We all have insane logistical skills. 90% of the grooms are so capable, and they run businesses. They run businesses for their riders, and they manage clients, and they manage expectations.
I think there’s tons of opportunity if the people that are doing the hiring and these other businesses understand that even though the skills don’t seem immediately applicable on paper, if you actually take the time to sit down and meet these people, once you start talking to them it absolutely makes a difference.
The reason I feel so serious about networking or connecting my friends to other opportunities is because I never would have stopped being a groom if someone hadn’t advocated for me. When I was transitioning out of working for a veterinarian, I really wanted to go work at Phelps Media Group. I interviewed three times, and the hiring managers there did not see any value in me. They didn’t’ get it. Then finally my very dear friend Ralph Alfano, who had trained me when I was a little girl in Pennsylvania, who had known me all my life, we were chatting at a horse show, and I was telling him how disappointed I was. I really wanted to work at Phelps. I really felt like I could do it, but nobody would give me a chance. Ralph was like, ‘Well, this is silly. I’m going to call Mason Phelps directly and tell him that he needs to meet you.’ At that point I hadn’t met Mason; I just met the hiring managers. Ralph got on the phone and said, ‘Mason, I’m here with this girl, and she really wants to work for you. She’s got what it takes. You need to meet her and see if you’ll give her a chance.’ Which Ralph didn’t have to do.
Mason was like, ‘Yeah, absolutely,’ and met me two days later. He met me with the hiring managers. It was funny because the hiring managers were just sitting there staring at Mason and I talk for an hour and then two hours, just connecting and gossiping because Mason loved to do that. I left that, and Mason was like, ‘Well, I’ve seen all I need to see. You’re going to have a job here.’ Then it took some doing because there were details to sort out before I did that. But within three months I was working there.”
Neuteboom: “What was the difference between the hiring managers and Mason Phelps?”
Brown: “Because Mason also had a varied career as a horse trainer, a horse show manager, and whatever else. Number one, I think Mason appreciated that I was driven. But number two, Mason could see inherently that I had ideas that could help the marketing company be better marketers for their clients to the barns.”
Neuteboom: “Because of all your experience.”
Brown: “Because of all my experience, and that’s what happened. I continue to see Ralph here at the horse shows, and I have continued to see Ralph throughout my whole career, but I wouldn’t have a career if it wasn’t for Ralph introducing me to Mason. I wouldn’t have a career if it wasn’t for Mason believing in me and saying, ‘Have your ideas; go have your life.’ Mason changed my life; being at Phelps Media Group changed my life. Those people believing in me and seeing that my experience was applicable—and I wasn’t just a groom—I want to do that for other people, because it’s possible. This is my dream job. I’m doing what I always wanted to do, because so many people gave me a chance. It started with Ralph and Mason. If I can do even a third of that for another person, believe in them and give them a chance to achieve something that they want to, that’s really important to me.
And even here, with Michael Stone and the people in the Global Equestrian Group, they took my marketing background–because they didn’t have any sales—they looked at my marketing background, listened to what I wanted for the industry and what I wanted for myself, and really valued my industry connections and also gave me a chance.
I think helping people communicate their value and helping find the right place for them was literally the very least I could do for how fortunate I’ve been in the industry. Because I am very lucky.”
Inspiring More Conversation
Neuteboom: “So I learned two things from you. One, you always have to help people and try to get them to a place where they will thrive. And secondly, we should try to find a way that grooms can put their skills in a resume so that other people that don’t know the horse business still understand that they’re so good.”
Brown: “And I think that with this HorseGrooms platform, those are great things that we can offer people. Grooms that have transitioned out to doing something more corporate, help giving resume-building tips is a big deal. I’ve hired dozens of people now over the course of my career, and there’s language that stands out to me more immediately and language that doesn’t. I think helping people to communicate that is really important.”
Neuteboom: “Let me have a look at my questions. I think you’ve answered a lot of them already. Do you see more improvements that are needed in the grooming world?”
Brown: “Oh yes, it’s a never-ending cycle. But not because people are inherently doing things wrong. I think that the equestrian industry is at this place where they’re having to transition out and function in a real-world scenario. COVID really sucker-punched people into having to say, ‘I don’t want to have just worked myself to the point where I can’t work anymore.’
We were so fortunate, I think, in horse sports in general because we all worked outside; the horses needed to be cared for no matter what. I didn’t know a lot of people that lost their jobs in this industry because of COVID, and almost all the people I know in the ‘real world’ were stuck at home or lost their jobs. We didn’t have that happen to us. I was at home for two months, but then we were back going to horse shows when we realized we could be outside and work. We were really lucky. But also, so many people were like, ‘Man, I don’t want to just work for the rest of my life because it doesn’t make me happy.’ That’s where I think the equine veterinary crisis comes from; people don’t want to work 14 hours a day treating horses. It’s not sustainable. You can’t have families; you can’t have hobbies; you can’t have the things that make life more worthwhile. And it’s the same for grooms; we have to make sure they have days off.
I don’t know if a five-day workweek is attainable; I don’t have a five-day workweek for sure. But having some balance and having employers respect people’s need to have work-life balance is really important. And helping grooms have the language to ask for work-life balance is really important too. I think people being unable to advocate for themselves is sometimes the bigger problem.”
Neuteboom: “It’s funny. I talked to a sports psychologist, and she said the same thing. We were talking about the mental health of grooms, and she said they need to take a look at themselves from the outside and say, ‘What do I want? What’s important for me?’ and then base their decisions on that.”
Brown: “For me, even in my job now–and I work Tuesday to Sunday when we’re horse showing–I get up and go to the gym in the morning. I don’t like getting up early, but between the hours of 5 a.m. and 9 a.m., that’s my time. I don’t work then. I’m happy to work from 9 until midnight if that’s what it takes. But my time happens when I get home. Or turning your phone off on a normal workday at 8 o’clock and not answering emails until 8 o’clock the next morning. Those are decisions that a lot of people don’t make for themselves, but we have to. Maybe that’s not applicable when you’re grooming, but employers having enough staff so that grooms can rotate out and have time off, not scheduling appointments on Mondays, changing the lesson schedule so appointments can be on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, hiring additional staff just for Monday so grooms can take off– the little things that create space for people to be more human are really important. And also grooms saying, ‘I’m tired’–and not feeling ashamed to say, ‘I’m tired’–I think that would help for sure.”
Neuteboom: “What do you think of our new initiative, the HorseGrooms website?”
Brown: “It’s a really good step in the right direction of helping create a forum where there’s positive communication around some of the challenges of the industry. Being a manager, I am acutely aware of the fact that there’s a big difference between having feedback that maybe isn’t positive but that creates an opportunity for change versus just having a forum for complaints. There’s a big difference between complaining but not then working to have a change.
When I was grooming, I was very guilty of grumbling but not actually bringing forth any solutions. That’s part of being a young person. I’m not so young anymore, but also, I’ve had enough life experience to say, ‘Well, if you don’t like it, then voice your concerns. But also present a solution and a way you would do it better.’ So I think that this program is a really good way for people to be honest about what the challenges are for grooms in our industry and be honest about what the challenges are from all the different touch points in the industry–but then also create a pathway for positive change.
People are capable of changing. The industry is capable of changing. There are lots of very smart, kind people in this industry who want to do the right thing. So as long as we create the ideas, the conversation, and the opportunity for change, I think there can be a lot of it.
And also [this platform is] giving visibility to other grooms that they are not in it alone. That’s another big thing when you get into a tough situation, it can make you feel really isolated. You’re not alone; you’re never in anything alone, and it’s OK to ask for help. It’s also OK to say, ‘I’m having a hard time dealing with this. Can you guys help me or help me brainstorm a way to fix it?’ There’s always a solution, and you’re never in anything alone. It sounds sappy, but I really feel that way.”
Neuteboom: “I think you’re right. But I also think there are many grooms out there that start–not in Wellington or at the Sunshine Tour but in [in remote areas] like the middle of Wyoming–and want to be a groom, but it’s hard for them to get there, meet people who think alike or that give them opportunities. So I hope this website will contribute [fixing] that a little bit.”
Brown: “I hope so too, and I think having more conversation is always better. I think working on communication is a big thing. This is a great opportunity to have a platform for having a dialogue, having resources, and giving people options for what they want to do with their careers in horses. Because it’s a really great career. I come to work every day–in all of my jobs, even when I’ve been really miserable about my jobs–I’m like, ‘Man, I get to work in some of the coolest places with animals that are just amazing that they do the things we ask them to do for us. How fortunate am I that this is my life?’ I think helping people to see how cool our industry is and the opportunities that we get that most people don’t is a big deal.”