Before Emma Ford’s groom clinics started, a mother came up to tell Ford about her daughter. Her daughter was diagnosed with autism and probably wouldn’t engage much, she said, and she wanted to give Ford a heads-up before the session commenced.
“This one girl, in the morning, was super quiet; didn’t really want to join in, just stood on the outside,” remembered Ford. “And then I did a clipping demonstration in the afternoon and got the clippers in her hand. And you could not shut her up. All of a sudden, she just blossomed and was like, ‘Oh my God, this is the most amazing thing.’ And I was like, ‘Look, you can do this and that and this. You could create patterns.’ (quarter marks). The mother came over to me at the end of the afternoon, and she was in tears. She’s like, ‘I’ve never seen her so enthusiastic about something.’”
Ford and Cat Hill had just started traveling across the country doing clinics based on their book “World Class Grooming and Care for Horses: The English Rider’s Complete Guide to Daily Care and Competition” and were still fine-tuning their system. But this one clinic and this one participant solidified that the two veteran professional grooms had found the right path.
“Not only was the horse just standing there and being with her, but just the fact that one-hour session, for me, it felt like I changed her life,” said Ford. “It was very cool to just have that reaction. That was at the beginning of our clinics, and we were still working out how to do them and what people want, and everything. That one thing, I was like, ‘Well, we’re going to figure it out because this is worth it.’”
The Itch To Travel
Growing up in Bideford, England, Ford didn’t have to look too far to find four hooves.
“My dad was Master of Foxhounds, so I grew up in England and was probably on a horse in my mum’s womb,” she said. “I was really lucky to have been involved with horsemanship basically all my life.”
She competed in the Pony Club system and show jumping in the United Kingdom. But upon her completion at Aberystwyth University (England), Ford booked a ticket bound to the United States.
“I finished university and just wanted to travel,” she said. “I’d never been outside of England, and then I came over to the States and worked for a lady, Adrienne Iorio in Massachusetts. It was a boarding facility/lesson program. She had two event horses at her barn and she wanted to expand her eventing herd.”
And what started as a way to travel ended up being a job for seven years.
On a trip to Blenheim Horse Trials (England) in 2002 with Iorio, Ford tasted the life and experiences of an international groom. And after loading the horse onto the plane, she was hooked.
“It was sort of that trip that cemented that I wanted to go as far as I could as a groom,” she said. “I was never going to be one of those aspiring young riders. I was definitely a little bit gutless as a rider, but I loved eventing.”
By happenstance, the trip coincided with the 2002 FEI World Equestrian Games in Jerez de la Frontera, Spain, and Ford and Iorio stayed at the same layover farm as other international riders. And there she brushed shoulders with idols and world champions.
“There I was working with world-renowned riders alongside their professional grooms, which was fun, even though we were nothing to do with that,” Ford said. “There was one evening that I walked into the house, and in the kitchen, Mark Todd and Rodney Powell sat at the table with Phillip [Dutton].
“It was just a very surreal moment for me like, ‘This is crazy. My idols. I got posters of them jumping in the Head of the Lake or at Badminton,’” she continued. “And here they are in the kitchen, like, ‘Here, sit down. Have a cup of tea.’ ”
That feeling of awe continued at the horse trials when they were stabled next to all the other Americans.
“Just to be surrounded by all that, I was like, ‘Wow, this is something I could do and want to do at the top of the sport,’” Ford said. “I realized the path I could go. I’ve always been that person; taking care of the animals was really big for me. Yes, the riding was fun, but I grew up on a farm, and my parents always instilled that taking care of the animals takes priority. It was sort of a natural progression.”
Fulfilling The Dream
In 2005, Dutton was looking for a groom, and Ford jumped at the chance.
“At the time, it was a bit of a no-brainer,” Ford said. “He’d already got his two-team Olympic medals. And I was like, ‘If I want to train with anybody, he’s the person to train with.’ I decided to work for him in 2005, and then my journey to becoming a professional groom really started.
“You also just never stop learning in that environment,” she added. “Just with the sheer number of horses at this barn, the vet was there three to four times a week. The farrier was there two times a week. You’re just always learning and just surrounding yourself with professionals all the time.”
She learned how to create meaningful bonds with a horse of Dutton’s despite the sheer size of the program – which could have 40 horses at one time. And she fulfilled her dreams of international travel and success in the over fifteen years she worked for him. Notably, her charge Mighty Nice won the individual bronze medal in the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics.
“For me, it is the relationship with the horse – that’s what it was about,” she said. “Whenever they ran well, it was always great, but seeing a horse come through Kentucky that was doing his first five-star and finish, that was always emotional. When Phillip got the individual bronze, that particular horse was very special in a lot of ways. That was crazy. That’s the best part.”
When Trafalgar Square Books approached Hill in 2012 about publishing a book on grooming and horse care, she asked Ford to join. The two had met through the eventing community and solidified their friendship in 2007 when they were both a professional groom at the 2007 Pan American Games in Rio. Ford never pictured she’d become an author of one book, let alone three. But since 2015, the pair has published “The Kid’s Guide to Horsemanship and Grooming” and “World Class Braiding Manes & Tails” in addition to “World Class Grooming.”
“If you had asked me in ‘98, ‘Was I going to be an author of books?’ Absolutely not – I barely passed English school,” said Ford. “So the fact that I actually have my name on three books, that’s something to be very proud of.”
“People want the knowledge,” she said. “If you put it out there, people want the knowledge.”
Always About The Horses
After the Tokyo Olympics, Ford decided to start a new chapter. She took time to continue traveling before landing a job managing Twin Ponds Farm, a rehabilitation center in Cochranville, Pennsylvania. There, she continues to put the horse first as she works with post-surgery care and is starting to venture into sport horse rehab.
“I’m very interested, especially the sport horse side, where the technology and the science and the research is going and how we can help these horses improve and be better athletes,” she said. “To be honest, a lot of it comes down to giving them time. But how can we better improve that time so they’re even better when they come back from an injury or surgery and last longer?”
Between international grooming to now clinics and rehabilitation, she’s in awe of how her life has unfolded.
“I’m very thankful,” Ford said. “It’s amazing when you take a different path in life, and it does work out.”
I started riding horses in a desperate attempt to be like my older sister. So, when she turned in her ballet slippers for barn boots, I did too. From 5 years old onward, I’ve never been far from a horse whisker, as I worked my way up the levels in the hunter ring. I graduated with honors in art history and communications at Washington & Lee University, where I captained the school’s IHSA team.
Leaning into my communications major and love of horses, I joined the editorial staff of The Chronicle of the Horse. For six years, I traveled the country covering top competitions and found a great love for long-form features (especially historical ones) and profiles. Currently, I’m freelancing out of Virginia, where I live with my horse Nelson and rescue dog Minnie.