Olympic groom Margo Thomas on what her days look like when the team is at home or showing on the road, her approach to leg and skin care, and her advice for aspiring professional horse grooms. This interview was originally posted as a HorseGrooms podcast episode and can be listened to on Spotify and Apple Podcasts.
Dinette Neuteboom: “This is the Podcast for HorseGrooms, and we have Margot Thomas on. She’s the head groom for Laura Kraut. You went to the Olympics in Tokyo, you just got back to your summer base in the Netherlands after winning the Nations Cup with the American show jumping team in California, and now you’re on the podcast. Thank you for doing this, Margo.”
Margo Thomas: “Absolutely, happy to.”
Neuteboom: “Tell us a little about yourself. Where are you from? How did you get where you are now in your horse career?”
Thomas: “I’m 33. I’m originally from Louisiana in the United States. I grew up there and always wanted to ride horses and didn’t quite know how to get into it. Then I got a flier in the mail about pony camp and kind of hit the ground running from there and didn’t look back. I went to college at Virginia Intermont and majored in equine studies and then started grooming. I actually used to do three-day eventing and had some horses and started out grooming there. And then eventually looked at my cards and decided I’d rather make money than spend money. So, I sold my last horse and moved over to show jump grooming because the pay is a bit better. This was my eighth year in Wellington, [Florida]; my eighth year of doing show jump grooming. I’ve had a few different jobs over the years. This is my fourth summer in Europe and [I’m] about to finish up my fourth year with Laura.”
Partnering With Laura Kraut
Neuteboom: “And how is it to groom for such a top-class rider like her?”
Thomas: “Oh, Laura is fantastic. She, first of all, is just a good person and has such a great attitude. Her horsemanship is great, and she really cares about her horses and what’s best for them. She is the first to say, ‘I screwed up’ or ‘I did this wrong on course.’ And she supports them in the best way that she can, no matter if it’s a 7-year-old or one going to the Olympics. She cares about her horses a lot. It’s been great to work for someone like that. She’s just a pleasure to work for.”
Neuteboom: “And is that really important for you–the way a rider treats their horses?”
Thomas: “Absolutely. I like to see someone that cares for the horses and the sport, as I do, but also doesn’t think of them like machines–because they’re not; they’re living, breathing creatures. They make mistakes. There’s a long road of teaching them how to do it from jumping their first jumps all the way up to doing grand prixs. There’s a lot that goes into it, from what I do on the ground to what they do in the saddle. I couldn’t work for someone that only saw them as a means to an end; a way to make money; a way to gain fame. That’s not the point of it.
Most of us–I would like to think all of us– start doing this because we love horses. The core value that I have in life is caring about the animals. And I don’t think I could work for someone that didn’t also share that.”
Neuteboom: “Does who you work for make a difference to you regarding the care of your horses?”
Thomas: “I mean, at the end of the day, they are all horses, and they’re not inanimate objects. They are creatures that have personalities and have hearts. There are certain things that they all need. But as far as care goes, a horse that’s making a big effort over a 1.60m, yes, they need a lot of attention to detail: muscle soreness and things that you have to pay attention to. But that could also be your 18-year-old amateur horse or a horse that had an injury before. I think that it’s case by case, based on the horse, as to what kind of care they need.
A Quarter Horse that lives in a field 24/7, I’m not going to spend three hours giving it an immaculate bath to just put it back out in the field. I think there’s different levels of care depending on what the horse’s job is or what they need from you to support them as an animal. But, at the end of the day, there’s still basic things they need: a clean place to live, food to eat multiple times a day. Then recognizing what support they need: if there is an ulcer or if they need to be dewormed or they need new shoes or go barefoot, it just depends on the horse. Again, if we’re demanding more from them by jumping bigger jumps, or if we have a horse that used to jump a 1.60m and now is jumping a 1.15m, then it probably doesn’t need the same support–even if it’s the same animal–it probably doesn’t need the same care to support its body to do a much easier job. So, I think it just depends on the animal, as to what they need, and then it depends on who you’re working for.
Some people want you to jump through every hoop to make sure the horse is ready for that 1.15m. Or, there’s other riders that don’t even own a magnetic blanket for their animals, and so that’s maybe not something they value as much or think makes a difference. I’ve met vets and riders that don’t believe in chiropractors. But I’ve seen chiropractors make a huge difference in my horses over the years. It just depends on who you work for as to what they want for their animals. And you do that accordingly, because at the end of the day it’s also a job.”
A Day In The Life of a Horse Groom
Neuteboom: “We’ll talk about that little more later on. What does an average day at home look like for you? And an average day at a show?”
Thomas: “It definitely varies depending on where I am. A few weeks ago, I was in Florida getting ready to go to California, and I only had two horses. So I honestly roll out of bed, brush my teeth, go out to the barn in my pajamas, feed my two horses, come back in and make my coffee and get ready for the day. Whereas here in the Netherlands, we have about 25 horses and a whole group of grooms.
Personally, when I’m at home and when I’m at the show, I like to have that first quiet moment of the day with my horses. I usually try to be one of the first people in the barn and go out and drop the grain, feed all of them, and just have that moment before everybody arrives and everything starts up.
Here at home, it depends on if Laura is in town or not. If she’s there, I spend most of my time on the ground: grooming, getting horses ready for her and putting them away. All of our horses go in the paddock, if the weather permits. They also treadmill or go on the walker or go for a hand walk. I try to get them out at home and at the shows at least three times a day, so they’re not completely sedentary. At the show, it depends on where you are. Some shows like Grimaud, St. Tropez in France only have one ring. The show starts at 8:00 a.m. and goes until it’s finished. We usually bring five horses to that competition, from one-star, two-star to four- or five-star. That goes all day. But there’s only one ring, so you’re not running around. Whereas there are other big shows, like Wellington or Knokke, Belgium, where there’s multiple rings, and we usually bring 15 horses with clients and riders.
Even though I only focus on Laura’s horses, we are a bit of a team. So it’s coordinating, ‘Oh, can you help me? Can you take the ice boots off this horse while I go to this other one?’ There’s no telling what the day will hold. I try to get a plan from Laura, ‘When are you going to ride these horses between teaching? This, that and the other.’ In Florida, I usually have to start early in FEI, because the rings all start at 8, and she coaches a lot. We have a lot of clients in Florida, so I usually leave and start way before [everyone at] the home farm, because she’ll come riding in FEI before she goes to teach at the ring. It just depends on where we are. And obviously indoor shows in the winter are mostly a lot of night classes. So you don’t have to get up quite so early, but you stay up a lot later.”
Neuteboom: “And do you get a day off a week? Or is it really hard with all those shows?”
Thomas: “Sometimes I’ll get back from being on the road for a while and get two days off in a row. But when we’re on the road, I don’t usually get a day off here in Europe. Sometimes we’ll travel through for weeks and trade out horses and things like that. There’s not always days off.
Luckily, in Florida you are in the same place. I usually get a day off in Florida every week. In Europe, it’s definitely less consistent. Wellington is full on because it’s 12 weeks straight of big FEI showing. Whereas here, at the moment, my colleague is in Rome, and I’m at home. The next week I go to St. Tropez, so I won’t get a day off while I’m in St. Tropez, but then I come home for the following week to show at a local show. It depends on how the weeks go but no telling.”
The Passion For Grooming
Neuteboom: “Well, we all do it because we really love it. What do you like so much about grooming?”
Thomas: “For me, it’s a couple things. It’s definitely the time spent with the horses, whether that’s riding or grooming and having that connection with them. Just the amount of time you spend with them. At the same time, I love this level of sport. I love taking Laura’s horses to the ring, especially the string we have right now. Every time I take one to the ring, I feel like we have a good chance of winning this or being in the placing. That’s a nice feeling. I enjoy doing well in the sport and being competitive, and so that’s a big part of it for me as well. I’ve tried other jobs on the lower-level and jobs for amateurs; it’s just not quite the same as getting to go to the big shows and be at the top level of the sport. That’s definitely what I enjoy the most about grooming at this moment in time.”
Neuteboom: “Then things can’t get much better for you.”
Thomas: “I think I’ve got a pretty great job.”
Taking Care of World Class Equine Athletes
Neuteboom: “And what do you find important to keep your horses fit, healthy and happy?”
Thoams: “I try to get them out of their stalls three times a day, if it’s possible. At home, that’s turnout, riding, and either the walker or the treadmill or hand walking. At the shows, unfortunately, you do a lot of hand walking or you lunge them, either to get some energy out or get them working.
We have a great program here; we have a lot of horses that are very fit and good at their jobs. I think there’s a lot that goes into grooming. I’ve met grooms that only bathe their horses and never pick up a curry comb. I’ve met some grooms that never bathe their horses and only curry them as much as possible multiple times a day–and they both produce shiny horses. I’m somewhere in the middle. I try to keep their legs and tails clean, but not excessively because that can cause more problems. I think there’s something to be said for picking up a curry comb and finding out where their soreness is in their body, where they do like and they don’t like to be brushed. And getting a feel of their legs every day; always trying to pick out their feet when you go in the stalls because that’s also another chance to run your hand down their legs and see is there something new; is there a problem brewing; or is there heat somewhere?
I think it’s just the hands-on, not rushing through or just going through the motions. There are definitely days where I’m so tired that’s all I can do. But there’s something to be said for making sure that you check all the boxes and make sure you’re very hands on with the horses. Seeing how they’re feeling day-to-day, you can tell if they’re morose or if they’re in a bad mood. It’s just that time spent getting to know them is how you keep them happy and healthy.”
Neuteboom: “How do you take care of their legs at home and at shows? Is there a difference?”
Thomas: “It depends. In Florida there’s a lot of bad funk and bacteria in the dirt and sand there, so keeping their legs clean is quite important. But on a Monday, they get turned out in the paddock. You flick off the dirt and hope they won’t get fungus in one day. It’s just about good care.
When I’m here at home in the Netherlands, I’m not trying to wash their legs constantly; just trying to make sure they’re clean. As I said, I do try and run my hands on them. If you’re taking a horse out to the walker or go on the treadmill first thing, you pick out their feet and you run your hands on their legs. Even as you’re trying to get them to pick up their feet, that’s a chance to feel for any heat and feel their tendons.
When I’m at the shows, it’s obviously a bit different. I typically give them a bath the day of the jog or before we go to jog, just to start off the week with the clean horse. And then after that, depending on the weather–whether they need a bath or whatnot–I always try to wash their legs and at least the bottom of their tails after they’ve jumped. I don’t like having a lot of footing on their legs, especially at some of these shows the footing just gets turned over; manure doesn’t always get picked up. I like to get all of the grit from the footing out of there. That’s another chance as well, when you’re washing their legs after they’ve jumped, to see if they nicked themselves somewhere or see if there’s anything going on externally. I also find that the ice boots get colder if their legs are wet. That’s typically what I do when I get back from the ring: give their legs a wash. The bottom of their tails I find it easier to run a comb through them if they’re clean and not full of footing from them kicking it up. When I’m at the show, I get their legs washed only on days that they jump–unless it’s a gray horse, and then that’s debatable. After they jump, I try and ice them; definitely front legs and back legs if they’ll tolerate it. It just depends on the horse with that or if they have an injury that I’m chasing after.
I’m not a huge poultice person. I’ve observed other grooms, and I know some grooms that poultice every time they jump and some that never touch it. If they have a previous injury that I’m trying to keep quiet, then I’ll poultice. Or if they’ve jumped a big competition, a Nations Cup or big grand prix and they did the jump-off. Or if it’s this horse’s first time doing that level, and I feel like their legs might have been strained, then I’ll use poultice. Otherwise, I’ll use a mix of Tendonel, Arnica or Traumeel on their legs. Then I try to bandage again, if they’ll tolerate it. I have some horses that do, and some don’t.
At home, if they’ve had a jump school, I usually put bandages on it. It depends on the horse and how big they jump, what they need.”
Neuteboom: “Does that mean that you only bandage after jumping and not every day?”
Thomas: “Again, it depends on the horse. If I have one that has an injury, we do try to keep bandages on them overnight. I have some horses, especially older horses, that their fetlocks can get a bit big. If having the pressure of wraps while they’re standing in the stall for 12 hours overnight helps, then we’ll do that.
Personally, I don’t try to leave wraps on a horse every single day unless it’s necessary. It’s nice coming back to the Netherlands now. We’ve had some cool evenings where I come in in the morning, and I can get a feel of their legs. ‘This horse’s legs are cold and tight first thing in the morning, and that’s a great sign.’ That’s always nice to be able to get a read on a cold morning, but we don’t always have that advantage. Generally, I only wrap when they jump. And then it depends if they’re schooling a 1.10m and they’re 1.60m horse, eh–I try and support them when they need it, and I try not to overdo it when they don’t need it.
That’s also why I don’t poultice all the time. I save that for when I feel like they’ve exerted themselves, or if they have an injury. If poultice is all you do, if it gets worse, you don’t have many more options to try and help support it. I feel like my system has been working for me, but it just depends on opinions and barns and your experiences. You find what you’re comfortable doing.”
Taking Care of Horses’ Legs and Skin
Neuteboom: “And when you talk about washing the legs, you’re using shampoo or just water?”
Thomas: “I do use shampoo. I personally don’t use dish soap. I like Ivory, which is not a major one, but I try not to use Palmolive or Dawn all the time. I feel like the point of dish soap is to strip oils off of dishes. If I’m stripping all the oils off of their legs you can have dry skin issues. You can actually get more fungus from taking away the protective oils.
I do use soap. Sometimes it’s usually a shampoo made for horses, but that’s when I say washing legs. I wash them off with soap and a sponge or a scrub or something.”
Neuteboom: “How do you keep the skin of your horses healthy?”
Thomas: “Unfortunately, you do end up washing a lot in Florida because it’s so warm and humid there. And that’s a place where I try and make sure their legs are as dry as I can get them before I put them in the stall so that the bacteria from the stalls doesn’t get into the skin on their legs.
Sometimes if they’ve been sweating, I’ll spray them off, but I’ll do a rinse of some sort. Usually, apple cider vinegar is very good for moisturizing their skin. It’s an astringent in the same way that witch hazel is. I’ll dilute that and sponge that over them sometimes. I also use coconut oil. Sometimes I’ll make a rinse of apple cider vinegar and coconut oil.”
Neuteboom: “What does coconut oil do?”
Thomas: “Coconut oil, I find, is good for moisturizing, and when you towel them off, it kind of helps bring the dirt to the surface. Then, if you’re not giving them a soapy bath, I’ll use coconut oil. That’s my thing. I use coconut oil for dry skin, for spur rubs, any sort of rubs to try and moisturize their hair to grow back. I use coconut oil a lot.
I find that the vinegar and the coconut help keep their hair from drying out or getting sunburned, especially in Florida. It’s another option, something to put on them that’s not soap that’s going to keep their hair healthy. I’ll do that once a week if I can. Especially at the shows, if I don’t want to be bathing them constantly to keep a bit of a shine in their coat. If you’re in the Netherlands, it’s quite chilly today so I didn’t bathe anything or rinse or wash any legs. Sometimes I also do a bit of hot toweling with coconut oil or Dettol. Sometimes I’ll throw ShowSheen onto that–I’ll make a concoction and see what works; experiment a bit. Try and take warm water in a hot towel and rub it in, use that and take the rag almost like a curry comb, and really move it around into their fur. Then I’ll let it dry, and then I’ll curry them after and brush them off. That really helps get a nice sheen into their coats, especially if you’re in a dry climate like California. It helps get the dust out of their coats and give them a better shine.”
Open to Learning New Things
Neuteboom: “Where did you learn all those things? Do you pick it up along the way?”
Thomas: “Watching other grooms. Eventers are ones that really use apple cider vinegar baths. It’s very old-school eventing. That’s where I first picked up that. Then it’s been learning things from other people and a bit of trial and error–this is what works for me, or this is what’s worked in this situation. I try and pick up from other grooms and have conversations with them of what works for them. Different jobs along the way teach you different things.”
Neuteboom: “So always be open to other people’s ways.”
Thomas: “I’m definitely always trying to learn even though I’ve been doing this for 10 years. I’m happy to answer people’s questions, but I’m also always asking other grooms why they do this or how they do that. It differs from America to Europe. Since I’ve been over here the last few years, I’ve even learned more things about how to take care of horses in a different way.
Neuteboom: “Like what?”
Thomas: “Well apple cider vinegar is not nearly as common in Europe. It’s also harder to find witch hazel over here. So those are less common products. But something like Dettol we used to use a lot in England, which is good for mixing with water, instead of the vinegar; that gets the dust out of their coats. Tendonel actually is more common over here than in America. When I had other jobs in the U.S., I was doing a lot more poulticing because I didn’t have any Tendonel. I had some Arnica gels, but some of them are thinner in America. I’m in a colder climate over here, and even though I learned hot toweling back when I was in college, it’s something that I’ve definitely used more over here. I’ve been doing this for so many years it’s hard to remember where I picked everything up.
Injury Prevention for Horses
Neuteboom: “What do you do to prevent injuries?”
Thomas: “I mean that’s going back to knowing your horses. Knowing exactly what their legs look like. This one has a splint there. This one tends to get a little bit thick here. It’s definitely keeping track of how their legs are feeling and getting a feel for their body.
Along the way I’ve learned some massage techniques. I have a low-grade laser that I use. We have a therapeutic ultrasound. We have various tools that I use, when necessary, like for horses with injuries or to help them feel better. I use a magnetic blanket a lot, before and after, if it’s not too hot. I usually put on in the mornings, just kind of as a warm up for their muscles.
I also make a lot of the decisions about feeding when I’m on the road at competitions: using products like Lactanase or one of our sponsors, Foran Equine, has something called prefuel, which has BC2A in it which is for muscle support, and I’m adding certain vitamins. I’m doing things that are through their grain and their feeding program that’s supportive. Making sure that they have enough energy, but not too much energy, while they’re competing; that they’re not straining themselves, that they’re not stiff somewhere and over compensating somewhere else.
A lot of what I do is hands-on with their body care and as well adjusting their feeding to support how they go in the competition. Even though once Laura puts her foot in the stirrup, it’s out of my hands to some extent.”
“Don’t Be Too Cocky”
Neuteboom: “What advice do you have for young people that want to be a groom or young grooms who want to become like you?”
Thomas: “I think the first rule of thumb is, ‘Don’t be too cocky’–and I definitely have been that person before. There’s always something new to learn, and there’s always something else that you can pick up along the way. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and talk to other grooms. It’s such a supportive community. Here in Europe and also in America, I have different groups of people that I rely on.
I’m also the first person that will lend you something if you need it. I think that comes from having a good attitude and being a nice person when I’m at shows. Even if I’m stressed out, I try to say, ‘Hi’ to everybody I see. Just try to be a person that’s nice to be around. I think that goes far with having a good attitude, so that when you ask somebody something, they want to help you out. I’m happy to answer any questions if people want to know how I do something. There’s so much communicating going on between grooms, even if it’s just, ‘Can I borrow some poultice; I left mine at the farm’ or ‘Do you have this product because my horse cut its mouth?’ There’s a lot that goes on, of supporting each other. I think the most important thing to remember when you’re getting into this is that there’s always something to learn.
I’ve also had jobs when I first started out–my first show jump grooming job, it was torturous! There were some managers, even if you could get to the same ending point, if you didn’t do it their way, you did it wrong. And there was a lot of working through fear of ‘How do I keep from getting screamed at today?’ I learned a lot from those people. You also learn how, if I were a manager, I’m not going to treat people like this because this is not how you get people to stay; it’s not how you get things done. It’s observing other people even if it’s hard. You’re definitely going to run into getting mistreated. It’s happened to all of us but learn from that.
Keep an open mind and watch what’s going on in the world around you. Try not to have a bad attitude because you never know how that’ll come back around. You’ve got an interview with this great rider, and there’s a groom you worked with five years ago, they will remember if you were that person that always came in half an hour late. It’s trying to always put your best foot forward. It’s not always possible. I’ve burned bridges along the way.
Be the best professional you can because it is a professional job. It is brushing horses, picking up manure, but it is a job. It’s knowing that if you want to stay in this industry, there’s always something else to learn, and there’s someone else to learn it from. Remembering who you’ve met along the way, whether that helps or hinders you. That’s my biggest piece of advice.”
Recognizing Grooming Horses is Not an Easy Job
Neuteboom: “What do you think needs to be improved to make the grooming world a better place; To make the good grooms stay?”
Thomas: “It’s hard to say because I’m sitting in a good job that I enjoy, but I have had other bad jobs. It’s recognizing that this is not an easy job. I think there’s definitely a lot of talk of younger grooms coming in, and they want so many things handed to them. Riding is a privilege at jobs, and I’m so thankful when I get to ride horses like Confu or Baloutinue. I mean there’s no universe where I could afford to ride them, and I’m perfectly fine not jumping them. But I’ve also had many jobs along the way where I didn’t get to ride. There are days here where I don’t get to ride because I’m too busy brushing horses and picking up manure. There needs to be a balance found somewhere between ‘This is a hard job,’ and ‘You need to pay people well for their time.’ Because this is not a 9 to 5; it’s not even usually a 7 to 3. It’s many hours. Especially if you’re a show groom.
It’s recognizing that not only do you need to be compensated well, but you need to be treated with respect as a human being. Even if we pick up manure, we’re still people and we’re allowed to have an opinion, and we’re allowed to ask questions and not just be shot down. So, I don’t know if there’s one thing that we, as an industry, could do differently, other than just continuing to cultivate an atmosphere or a way that makes people feel included.
And I think we’re moving away from the old school way of doing things, which annoys me when people say, ‘Let’s go back to the way things used to be.’ Because that’s not the world we live in. The world is moving forward, including the horse world. You can’t pay people pennies to do this job anymore and expect them to stay. You also can’t treat them poorly, or treat them with less respect because they’re demanding more money.
I’ve heard many stories. I’ve also been at the short end of it. I had one boss that later told me he made my life a living hell for two months because I’d insinuated that I wanted a raise, and he was trying to prove to me that I didn’t deserve it. I’ve been down those roads where you feel like everything you do is wrong, but you’re going to work your tail off because you’re trying to prove something, and you want to stay there. I’ve seen that happen so many times where people stay at bad jobs because they love this horse, and they take care of this horse, and that’s all that matters to them. And that’s unfortunately part of it. That’s why we do it, isn’t it? People end up in bad situations and take advantage of you because of your love of the horses.
There are many unfortunate tales in this industry. You have to take care of your people. Especially over here, you can’t just pay illegal immigrants dirt cheap to do the labor. Or having five or six guys live in a two-bedroom apartment is not a way to live. It’s unfortunate to see that that’s still happening in this industry. There are other ways that we can do this, but I’m not sure it’ll ever be a regulated, unionized thing. We’re never going to get only the hours from 7 to 3; that’s not the job. That’s why it is the way it is. A lot of us do it for the love of the horses because I wouldn’t work this hard for something I didn’t love doing. That gets taken advantage of because this is a job of passion not just an office job.”
The HorseGrooms Support System
Neuteboom: “Well, Margo I’ve heard a lot about horsemanship and good conditions for grooms and being there for each other. That’s basically what HorseGrooms stands for. I’m curious what you think of this initiative?”
Thomas: “I think it’s a great idea to give us a wider support system and create a community. There are other grooms out there that do the hunters or lower-level jumpers and people that want to learn. There are kids that are 18, 19, 20, that want to do this, and it’s a great way to learn new things and figure out the best way to take care of your animals. I think it’s great to have as a support system. Having things like the podcast is going to help everybody learn to take care of their horses better.”
Neuteboom: “Thank you for being a part of that and sharing all your experience and your knowledge with us. It’s really appreciated by many people. Good luck this season. I hope to talk to you again.”
Thomas: “Thank you so much. Have a great afternoon.”
Featured photo courtesy of Devyn Trethewey/US Equestrian.