It was the girl in the shiny black vest that really roped me in. There I was, standing at the rail of the warm-up ring at the Audi Equestrian Masters in Brussels, Belgium, last October. The sheer elegance of the place had already overwhelmed me the minute I walked in the door. Suffice it to say, it was nothing like the dusty show rings I had grown up around back in California. This place was all about glamour: stage lighting, white breeches and red carpets abounded. Instantly my mind began to scheme; I wanted to be a part of all this. Standing on the sidelines was just not going to cut it. I wasn’t so naïve to think that I could jump on a horse and instantly join Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum in the warm-up ring, but I knew there was a good chance I could find a job with a rider who needed a show groom.
Granted, my current job with Belgian rider Ludo Philippaerts was going great. I got to ride his amazing horses every day and live at his home stable an hour outside of Brussels. But I’d seen his show groom, and I didn’t harbor any notions about taking his place. Vladimir was a big, burly “man’s man,” well suited to loading equipment, pushing heavy cases around and handling Ludo’s muscled stallions. He drove the lorries from show to show and was clearly a man in charge. For that matter, Ludo was a man in charge, whether he was sauntering down his barn aisle speaking a steady stream of Dutch around the cigarette between his lips, or sitting on his horses with a princely air. I didn’t see myself elevating much past the level of exercise rider in his large stable without paying many months of dues in the form of endless straw boxes to clean, and I wasn’t sure I had the patience for that.
Riders in the warm-up ring at Audi Equestrian Masters in Brussels.
But, back to the girl in the vest at the show. Each rider was the center of their own little universe, around which solicitors of their attention constantly circulated. Whether groom, owner or admirer, everyone walked coolly about, doing much to reinforce my notion of all Europeans as super chic, classy people. I could identify the roles they played only if I concentrated hard. Case in point, the girl in the vest. She was the epitome of “Euro chic;” her black hair was pulled back in a crisp, shiny ponytail, vest and dark jeans perfectly paired, topped off with just the right amount of gold jewelry around her slender neck and wrists. I assumed she was an owner of one of the horses until she walked to the center of the warm-up ring and removed a horse’s draw reins. Hmmm…, certainly an owner wouldn’t be doing that, would they?
I watched closely as she began setting jumps for the rider. The other people standing next to the warm-up jumps shared her confident attitude, but they were all clearly at work. “Vest girl” followed her rider to the show ring, and I watched her hand the horse sugar cubes and take the rider’s helmet as the pair exited the ring after their round. It was certain then – she was a show groom. And like a little girl looking at a princess in a pink dress, I not only wanted to be like her, I wanted to be her.
Luckily for me, fate and good timing were working in my favor that day. I introduced myself to American rider and 2004 Olympic gold medalist Peter Wylde, who was competing that day in Brussels. Peter is one of the few American riders, and only U.S. Olympian, who is based full-time in Europe. And he was hiring for help at home and on the road at shows. Although I thought it was more than a little ironic to come all the way to Europe and end up working for an American, I jumped at the chance to work with Peter, who is universally respected in the show jumping world.
Peter Wylde’s gorgeous barn, Elmpt,Germany.
I soon bid goodbye to Belgium, and by the end of the month I was on a train to Peter’s stable in Germany. I didn’t know what I was more nervous about; proving myself to a new group of cool Europeans, or being in the presence of Fein Cera, Peter’s indelible partner from the 2002 Jerez World Equestrian Games and 2004 Athens Olympics. Fein Cera and Peter Wylde are a fixture in my Dover catalog, as much a measure of “making it” as the team gold medal that they helped secure in Athens. I knew I would learn a ton just from being around such a rider.
The minute I walked into Peter’s barn, I felt at ease. Now this was the kind of operation I could really relate to. Peter was away at a show when I arrived, but he had already planned out which horses I was to ride. It was a mere snapshot of the days and weeks to come as I began my indoctrination into the Wylde way of all things equestrian. There was a reason for everything and no detail, no matter how small would go unnoticed or unattended to. I had to learn this, or more precisely, “unlearn” what I thought I already knew in order to remain effective, not to mention, keep my job! Fortunately, as fanatical as Peter is about order and maintaining a pristine environment, he is a perfect gentleman who is never above jumping in when even the most common of tasks needs doing. If I’m going to be mucking stalls, this is one person I’m happy to do it for!
Erin Gilmore can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.