Meticulous attention to detail, curiosity, and a passion for the horses has propelled Emma Ford to three Olympic Games, four World Championships, and countless international events. Working alongside Phillip Dutton as head groom for well over a decade, Ford has quite an impressive list of diligently cared for, happy, and superbly turned-out horses.
In 2015, Ford published World Class Grooming for Horses with Professional Groom Cat Hill, who formerly managed Olympian and five-star eventer Mara DePuy’s program. Together, the co-authors are expanding their positive influence over many horses' lives by teaching workshops that educate riders in all aspects of equine management and care.
“Our goal is that we want people enjoy horses on the ground as much as when they are actually riding them,” Ford said. World Class Grooming clinics and workshops enable equestrians of varied disciplines, age groups, and aspirations to better connect with their equine partners.
“It’s really nice to know you’ve been a part of expanding the knowledge. Cat [Hill] and I both say that our clinics are not about us talking for hours on end. With younger kids especially, at Pony Club clinics, for example, it’s really fun to see the riders go from quiet as mice in the morning to talking non-stop by the afternoon. They’re wanting to share their experiences and information about the horses. It makes me happy that they are coming out of themselves a bit and enjoy that side of the horses.”
A Pony Club “B” Graduate herself, Ford began to appreciate the value of proper horse care and the benefits of time spent with horses out of the tack at an early age. “My granddad taught me to braid when I was eight. Looking back on those now I think, ‘Oh, god’! Things have definitely improved since then.”
“Doing Pony Club (and, of course, my parents) instilled such a ‘from the ground-up’ attitude. I did not go to a rally or a show or anything unless I did the work myself. I did so much learning from mistakes doing everything myself, and eventually had great ground management skills instilled in me. If you don’t enjoy that side of it, you’re not going to get much further.”
Ford followed her passion for horses to the United States where she worked for international eventer Adrienne Iorio at Apple Knoll Farm in Massachusetts. “I was so lucky, I was riding and grooming and everything,” said Ford.
“At that time, it was all about who you landed with. I ended up staying with Adrienne for seven years and developed into loving grooming more and more. In 2000 I flew to Blenheim with Show of Heart and that was a real turning point. We were stabled next to Karen O’Connor, I had the chance to meet Max [Corcoran] one-to-one, and spend time with the Australian team a bit. I remember saying to myself ‘I want to do this, I want to go where I can with this.’”
In 2005, Ford went to work for Phillip Dutton, which required some adjustments and quick-thinking. “Kudos to the folks who were here at the time and showed me the ropes. They taught me some things to prioritize. I definitely had a lot to learn.”
Ford’s willingness to continue to her knowledge base has helped her to keep countless top International horses looking and feeling their best over the years. “I do my best to turn the horses out as top-notch as I can but I think there are some that do it better. I never stop learning. At every championships you learn something from someone. I’ll admit I’m maybe a bit nosy and I wander the aisles - whether it’s your own team grooms or another, everyone has their own way of doing things.”
“Being a professional groom takes your life and your soul,” Ford admitted, though it doesn’t seem she would trade it for anything. “I’ve been doing this for so long, I know what it takes. There’s really nothing like seeing a horse do their first four- or five-star competition. It brings me to tears every time. Horses don’t go at that level without trust for their rider and the people around them.”
By directly connecting with the equestrian community through World Class Grooming workshops, Ford hopes that riders will come to understand that a properly turned-out horse is simply the beginning. “I’m really strong on asking, ‘How do you build compassion with the horse, with the team, and with the environment in general?' I think it’s so important to involve compassion in everyday life. Then, building from there - how do you bond with the horse?”
“Every horse is an individual. To me, bonding with the horses is about knowing every tic. If they’re standing on the cross-ties and they seem a bit dull, what might that mean? What has happened? Are they sleeping in the stall more than usual? At shows, does the horse need to be left alone or does he need to be taken out of his stall. I have one now that I graze for 30 minutes before tacking him up because he seems to feel the nerves.”
So much of the compassion-fueled outlook that Ford has stemmed from a profound respect for each horse she has been able to work with. “If I pick one [favorite], I let the others down. They’ve all brought me so much with their quirky personalities! I love figuring out what makes them tick and their characters in general.”
“I love working with the horses with quirky personalities, [Phillip Dutton’s] Connaught “Simon” taught me that. He was a finicky eater and a terrible traveler, and I will never forget the best compliment Phillip ever gave me was when Simon shipped to Germany in 2006 for the World Games. Phillip said it was the best he had ever looked getting off the trailer. Then there’s Mighty Nice “Happy” . . . I struggle to explain him. He’s such a character, he loves the attention so much. He thinks everyone is coming to see him. You’ll see me at a show dragging him around like a pony. If I get after him he goes up in the air! He has learned and deserves to do what he wants, and that’s all right.”
Ford’s accomplishments and continued successes have stemmed from all of her experiences with horses, both good and bad. For those looking to develop the skills and understanding necessary to become a professional in the industry, Ford says, “Take a few years and work on the ground with a professional. Learn as much as you can! You might conclude that their management system isn’t for you, but unless you’ve learned different techniques you’re not going to learn what will or will not work for you.”
You can find and easily register for upcoming opportunities to #LearnFromTheBest with Emma Ford via Event Clinics. Click here to find a World Class Grooming workshop or clinic. For more details on Emma Ford and Cat Hill, visit www.worldclassgrooming.com.
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