What is your background with horses?
I started as a 12-year-old with riding lessons at a local riding school. I went there after school on my bicycle and helped with tacking up the ponies for the other kids. I just loved to be around horses and ponies and already realized then that I liked to do that. I stayed there for several years until I started college. I did my teacher’s education to become a PT teacher. However, I had to stop because I fell off my own horse and sustained an injury that prevented me from continuing in that field. I ended up working part time in the stable of Jan van Dyck and studied on the side.
Then, I started working for Lieven Hendrickx in the tack shop. I was riding a little bit myself, but preferred to help my ex-boyfriend who is a rider instead of doing the riding myself. I also bred a foal and rode him until he was five years old. He was sold after the Belgian Young Horse Championships, and I haven’t ridden a horse since. I also knew I wasn’t a good enough rider and the pleasure for riding was gone.
Crossing Paths with Gilles Thomas
I ended up [working part time for both] Lieven Hendrickx and at Yves Vanderhasselt’s stable. That was really a good combination. It went well for a long time, and I liked it a lot. I stopped working for Lieven when I went with Yves to Calgary (Canada). Later, I went to a show with Yves in Waregem (Belgium) where he was fourth in the grand prix and Gilles was fifth in that same class. That was going to be my last show with Yves. I was very sad about it. I wanted to work full time for him, but he only had one horse, and there was a good chance that this horse would be sold. He was very honest with me.
While I was packing the truck at the show in Waregem, I came across the people around Gilles, and I congratulated them. We started to have a chat about different things, and I told them that it was my last show with Yves and that I had to look for a new job. The next day I received a phone call from Gilles. We talked things through, and I did a try-out in his stable. In the beginning, I wasn’t sure if I would be suited for this job because it was going to be working completely in a stable without also working part time in an office. I knew it was going to be a tough job. I started there when I was 30; most grooms start when they are younger, so they grow into the work. I actually said that I wasn’t going to stay, but I did a few shows and was asked to come to Mechelen (Belgium). I was incredibly lucky that I ended with a good team, and I am every day grateful that I made this choice. We will see what the future will bring. I officially started on the first of January in 2020.
How many horses do you have in your care?
I have between 10 and 12 competition horses, but I try to help at home everywhere where I can. At home, we have a lot of horses in total, but Gilles is not riding all of them. I try to keep a look on everything when I am at home. I find it unfair to just do a small part because I am away from home a lot. I also don’t want to interfere with the system that the team has at home; they are doing an outstanding job when I am not there, so I shouldn’t try to change something. I have to follow their way of working. Altieres Santos [Gilles’ home groom] is a really good groom. I don’t need to worry about anything. I don’t want to disturb his routine, so I do what he is asking me to do.
What is your daily routine when you are at home?
First I try to get up on time. I do not really live close to the stable, and I need to drive through Antwerp. If I arrive on time, I will start feeding hay and start cleaning the boxes (or stalls to U.S. readers). We normally start at 7 a.m., and Marc van Dijck (the owner of the stable) is feeding hard feed around 7.30 a.m. I work mainly with changing horses in the walker, and, when Gilles arrives, we look if I help with tacking up the horses or if the home groom will do that. It depends on what the schedule is.
I try to keep an eye on the supplements that I use at competitions when I am at home. I use the supplements of Julian & Jones; Gilles is sponsored by them. In the summer I give all of my horses electrolytes. At home they actually are not getting a lot of supplements. From Lannoo, I use a mineral balancer for the top horses such as Ermitage Kalone, Luna van het Dennehof and Feromas van Beek Z. Gilles is very happy with that. That is something they get every evening.
There is no such thing as a typical day at the stable; there is always something to do like handwalking and grazing in-hand. I don’t do a lot of clipping because I am not so good at clipping. I do enjoy doing it from time to time, but I am not a pro.
Do you have special routines in the grooming of the horses? Do you use special products?
At home we use Absorbine ShowSheen for the tail. I am very satisfied with that. We don’t brush the tails out when the horses are being ridden at home; we take most of the straw out of the tail by hand. I don’t really like to wash the horses before we go to a show. I prefer to wash them when they have been on a long trip at the event itself. I will use ShowSheen for the tail after washing when it is necessary.
I don’t use a lot of clay (poultice) for cooling the legs. This is now more because we are in the team of Valkenswaard United for the Longines Global Champions Tour. Through Mel Obst, who is the groom of Marcus Ehning, I use the Veredus Clay, and that I like to use. It is easy to wash off. It depends if I wrap the legs in wet paper and bandages. Sometimes during the day or when the horses are not used to the bandages, I will leave the bandages off.
I also use hoof grease every day for the in- and outside.
For the back of the horses, I like to use Arnica–plus, for the horses that are really working hard, I prefer to use the Activo Med blanket.
The Show Routine
At the show I really try to keep the same routine as that we have at home. I also leave them alone in the morning when they are eating; I will not start with mucking out or changing the water. I like to be left alone too when I am eating. I don’t like to take the horses out of their boxes 10 times because we are also not doing that at home. We take them out at home three or four times a day. I like to make plaits (braids) an hour before an important class, but I won’t roll them up until half an hour before Gilles is getting on the horse. I use the Activo Med blanket in the morning; it depends also on the horse. At Zangersheide there were a lot of people in the stable because of Ermitage Kalone, but an hour before the class started, I said that everybody should leave the stable. The horses need their quiet time too. This might also be my way to handle stress.
As long as I was working with the horses, I wasn’t bothered by stress, but the moment Gilles got on the horses I felt the stress again. I can really not complain because we had an outstanding weekend in Lanaken. Our 5-year-old was very good, and he hadn’t gone to many shows. Feromas van Beek Z became second in the [FEI Zangersheide] Sires of the World.
How is it to work with a stallion like Ermitage Kalone when there is so much pressure on him because of his popularity?
Personally, for me, it was very difficult in the beginning especially because I only had him a few times with me. He did the three weeks at the Sunshine Tour, but I had very long days there and not that much time with him. He was basically occupied the whole spring and summer with breeding. I didn’t have such a connection with him because I didn’t have a lot to do with him. Valkenswaard (the Netherlands) was the first show he was at again, but I had many horses with me, so I wasn’t just working with him.
He really grew on me in a short time. I had recently a few days where I worked a lot with him and where I got to know him better. Gilles said it already in the press conference of the Belgian Championship how smart Ermitage Kalone is; that is unreal. He really remembers everything. I did feel the pressure that was on him, but he wasn’t bothered by it. I was happy to spend time with him. He knows very well how this game works. He is an exceptional horse in every way, it is a true pleasure to work with him.
“He knows that it is all about him”
Ermitage Kalone is very easy to work with in the stable, he has a very pleasant character. He will also let you know when he needs a moment of his own. He can handle all the attention really well; it does not make him nervous. Everybody knew that we had Ermitage Kalone with us to Zangersheide for the Belgian Championship. The way he stood in the prizegiving was 100% like he was enjoying it. I cannot describe it in a different way. It really looks like he knows that it is all about him. Gilles can deal with pressure really well, but it seems that Ermitage Kalone can do that as well–like he knows when it is important. It is the combination between Gilles and Ermitage Kalone that makes it special.
How do you handle mares, geldings and stallions?
I am very lucky with the behavior of Ermitage Kalone. I don’t need a whip with the vet check. In Lanaken (Belgium), I carried a helmet with the vetcheck, not because Ermitage Kalone was behaving badly but because the organizers of the championship had requested this and because I think we also need to be an example for others. In the beginning I was afraid that people would think that he is not well behaved because he really is. Feromas van Beek Z can be very fresh and playful; he might show off how to stand on his hindlegs. I tried to use the chain for more control on him, but I got the feeling he is scared of the chain, and then he will freak out completely. During the Sunshine Tour this year I used a chain through the halter the first days to see how the horses would react. Plus, if I go grazing, I like to use the chain too. I prefer to use the halters of Kentucky that have a noseband that is made from rope. I am also lucky that I work with well-behaved stallions.
I don’t have a real preference for stallions or mares, but my absolute favorite is Luna van het Dennehof. I can’t really explain why, but she is such a fighter; she gives so much willingness to perform. But now that I got to know Ermitage Kalone better and better, it starts to grow. I actually don’t want to have a favorite horse. But for sure the horses that are with me a lot at shows make the work a bit easier.
Feature photo courtesy of Hippo Foto.
I’ve had a passion for breeding show jumping horses for over 30 years. I spent nine years looking after broodmares. After that, I wanted to learn more about the bloodlines of top sport horses and was given the opportunity to work as a groom in a top stable in Germany. It was here that my appreciation for grooms began, back in 2008.
So far, my journey as a groom and journalist has given me wonderful memories. I have had the opportunity to be close to some amazing show jumping horses. I have worked as a groom in Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands–long enough to get to know the horses, but not long enough to become a very good groom. I am now better at writing articles. HorseGrooms is a very good initiative to get support with many questions and to strive to become a better groom.