A lifelong love of caring for animals led Emma Ford to a career in grooming for some of America’s top event horses — but it’s more than just brushing a horse.
Emma Ford didn’t always want to be a groom. In fact, growing up in England with her foxhunting father, she spent most of her free time riding and participating in Pony Club.
But after moving to America, falling in love with the sport of eventing and witnessing what life at the top of the sport was like, Emma realized that, more than anything, she wanted to be at the pinnacle of eventing — and to achieve this, it wouldn’t be as a rider, but as a groom.
For the past two decades, Emma has traveled across the globe with America’s top eventing horses, learning how to speak their language in order to keep them healthy, happy and comfortable — both in the show ring and at home.
“Riding in the Womb”
Horses were always in Emma’s DNA — and at a tender age, her family instilled in her the importance of taking the best possible care for animals.
“I grew up on a farm and my dad was a master of foxhounds,” Emma says. “My parents definitely drove home the need to take care of your animals if you want to do this as a living or even if it’s a hobby — take the best care of them you can.”
When Emma was old enough, she started Pony Club and competed in everything: dressage, show jumping and eventing. She remembers her first rally — on a Shetland Pony named “Georgie” — to the purchase of a “schoolmaster saint” in show jumping who took her up the levels.
After her Pony Club days ended, Emma attended college with the plan of getting a real-life job and having horses only as a hobby. But when she graduated, she bought a ticket to the U.S. “I wanted to go somewhere different and play around with horses and have a bit of fun. That was in 1998… and I’m still here!”
A Moment of Clarity
After landing on her feet in America and getting a job with eventer Adrienne Iorio, Emma balanced both riding and grooming.
It wasn’t until a trip overseas to compete at Blenheim that Emma realized that she wanted to dedicate her life to grooming. “I walked into the kitchen one day and Mark Todd and Rodney Powell were sitting at the table having coffee and I’m like, ‘Pinch me.’ These are my complete and utter idols.”
“I remember thinking, ‘Wow, this is cool. I want to be at this level of competition.’ That trip cemented where I wanted to go in my career,” she says. “Then the job opened up with Phillip (Dutton) and it was a no-brainer.”
With Phillip, Emma has climbed to the top of the sport. She has cared for his horses as they’ve traveled overseas to three Olympic Games, four World Equestrian Games and two Pan American Games. And Emma herself has received some impressive awards, including Professional Groom of the Year by the U.S. Eventing Association.
Beyond the Brush
Although Emma’s title is “head groom,” she says that the term doesn’t feel fully accurate to her.
“I don’t think it encompasses everything that’s involved,” she says. “I think a lot of people hear that word and they’re like, ‘Oh, brushing a horse.’ But it’s so, so, so much more — especially at the higher levels.”
To Emma, being a groom requires a deep, holistic knowledge of equine behavior, health, best practices and proper horsemanship — a 24/7 job of listening to the horse. And as the head groom for a stable of elite event horses, there’s added pressure: making sure each horse competes at his best.
“If you don’t understand how that horse ticks at each competition compared to at home, then he might not feel his best when he’s actually competing,” she says.
Emma has also been expanding her knowledge of natural horsemanship and other techniques to make the horses in her care as comfortable and supported as possible. “I try to speak to horses using their language,” she says. “I truly feel that these horses give us everything and they want to do the right thing but they don’t owe us anything. So think we, as human beings, should be doing our best to understand them.”
With her success in the industry, Emma is passionate about sharing the knowledge she’s accumulated with younger athletes and adult amateur riders. Along with teaching horse management clinics, Emma is also the co-author of World-Class Grooming for Horses: The English Rider’s Complete Guide to Daily Care and Competition, a book she co-authored with fellow groom and friend, Cat Hill.
A New Adventure
At the end of 2021, Emma will say farewell to True Prospect Farm and begin an exciting new adventure: a four-month trip to South Africa and Thailand to volunteer on elephant reserves and help with environmental research and animal behavior.
“I’ve been put on this planet to help animals and it’s something I’ve always wanted to do,” says Emma. “I need to slow down a bit so I think now’s the time to do it.”
Although she’ll be temporarily exploring caretaking for a new species, Emma is confident that horses will always come first.
“One great thing about this job is I feel I could go anywhere around the world and groom or do something with horses. You don’t have to be restricted. I’m very fortunate that way. Horses will always be there for me.”