After more than two decades, she’s still finding ways to keep the equine athletes she adores, happy, healthy and performing like champions
Long days. Grueling physical demands. Minimal recognition. Generally low pay.
Being a professional groom isn’t for the faint of heart, but it’s definitely for those whose hearts are full of love for horses — people like Sally Robertson.
Twenty years into her career, Sally’s as happy now as she was when she began. And as right hand to eventing star Lauren Kieffer, every day Sally draws on her knowledge and broad experience to keep the horses happy, healthy and performing at championship level.
Helping the Horses Shine
Grooms are responsible for a lengthy list of crucial details — bathing, brushing, tacking up, wrapping legs, feeding, cleaning stalls and so much more. Although those tasks might seem mundane, they add up to make a significant difference in a horse’s life.
“I take a lot of pride and satisfaction when the vets come to look at the horses and they make comments about how the horses look great, healthy, and happy,” says Sally. “The care is paramount. It’s the daily little things.”
For Sally, the goal of proper grooming isn’t just about seeing results or winning — it’s about the program, from start to finish, and making the horses the best they can be. In fact, when preparing for a big competition — hopefully the 2020 Tokyo Olympics if Lauren makes the team — Sally says consistent care is key.
“A lot of people love saying, ‘You’ve gotten picked for the team, something big is coming up — you put them in bubble wrap.’ I’m like, ‘Why?’ You start treating them differently, they’re going to hurt themselves. I’m a firm believer in just keeping it the same. If it’s working, it’s working.”
Sally attributes much of their program’s success to the fact that they tailor each horse’s routine to meet the animal’s individual needs. “We treat the horses as they want to be treated and we try and keep them as happy as we can,” she says. “Our horses want for nothing.”
Because the health and happiness of the horses is the No. 1 priority for both Sally and Lauren, they spend a lot of time with them — and the barn’s training philosophy tends to fall on the more natural side, meaning a kinder, less stressful approach to achieving harmony with the horse.
“Lauren’s amazing; she’s what I consider a true horse person. She loves her horses and knows them as well as I do and that’s a rare find,” explains Sally.
A Grueling Career
Born and raised in New Zealand, Sally spent a few years working for an Australian show jumper and instantly enjoyed grooming. “There’s so much variation to it,” she says. “No day is the same.”
In 2004, Sally took the leap and moved to the United States to work with eventing legends Karen and David O’Connor before joining Lauren’s program.
Although Sally is only 45 years old, she notes that she’s one of the oldest grooms working today. “It’s a hard job. It’s hard on your body,” she says. “We may not take the tumbles the riders take, but when you’re really busy and lugging water buckets around at a show with seven horses and you go from 3 a.m. to 9 p.m., it takes its toll.”
Plus, for many grooms, the financial compensation can be discouraging. “You work hard for the money you earn,” Sally says. “That’s why most people tell you they’re doing it because they love it. It’s not because they’re making big bucks.”
“It’s interesting being older and having been in the game a long time,” Sally adds. “It’s a lifestyle you have to love and choose to be invested in. Of course, we all want to go to the big stuff and hope our rider makes a team, but that can’t be why you’re in it.”
Finding a Second Family
Moving from New Zealand with no family in the U.S., Sally says being in the horse industry has given her a second family.
“You have great support,” she says. “It might not be a glamorous job and you might not earn the biggest wage. But you bond with the people and the horses you’re around. And there’s a lot to be said for that. I think that’s something the industry should be proud of.”
She also notes how incredible it feels to make an impact in someone else’s life — whether it be horse or human: “If you put all your heart and soul into it, it’s amazing the difference you can make to a program, to the horse’s quality of life and to helping a rider achieve their dreams.”