Between the Ears with Stephanie Simpson

It seems like these days we look at each other’s lives through the lens of a highlight reel. We get to see the incredible trips, the best jumps, and the moments that we’re proud enough of to put on social media. What we don’t talk about is how much pressure this adds to athletes on both ends of the news feed.

Riders, whether professional or not, are made to feel like they ‘have to’ post something that makes them look cool and successful. Then, as we consume this content, we are stuck with the disillusioned perception that the sport is easy and that if you’re not succeeding, then maybe you aren’t cut out for it. I would like to take this opportunity to go ‘between the ears’ of some of the riders that make up our Eventing Nation and work to understand some of the real challenges this industry presents.

To read more from the Between the Ears series, click here.

Boyd Martin’s Tsetserleg and his groom Stephanie Simpson. Photo by Leslie Threlkeld.

Grooming, especially at the highest level, is one of those jobs that looks glamorous from the outside. With international trips and the opportunity to be part of the success of elite riders, there ARE a lot of really cool things about being a groom. As with anything, however, the lifestyle doesn’t come without its challenges.

Having spent some time as a professional 5* groom myself, I know how turbulent the position can be. I’ve always felt like in Equestrian sports, there is equal opportunity for triumph or heartbreak and as a groom, you really feel those highs and lows right alongside the riders. Stephanie Simpson, who has been Boyd Martin’s head groom since May of 2018, has an uncanny ability to work hard and remain positive regardless of what kind of pressure is on at any given moment. This edition of Between the Ears is a must-read for anyone interested in pursuing a life with horses.

What do you think helps you maintain the lifestyle of a groom?

“I think one of the biggest things that has helped me maintain my lifestyle as a groom is my obsession with the sport. My involvement in this program is much more than a nine-to-five job, it has become my entire lifestyle I am in a never-ending pursuit to improve. I find the work and hustle quite rewarding and something I look forward to every day.”

How do you manage to have your own goals while grooming? Do you still ride and compete or have any desire to do so?

“Managing my own goals has become two-fold. On the one hand, I oversee this program that is full of horses at every level that I am incredibly dedicated to, which is always my first priority. On the other hand, I do enjoy riding and bringing along my own project horses. Most days I ride once Boyd is done for the day and the majority of the work is done. It’s very rewarding for me to bring along my own horse and still be able to work on myself. If nothing else, it’s 45 minutes when I don’t have my phone on me and for the most part am not on the clock. As one can imagine, I am on the road quite a bit so my horse’s competition schedule is nearly non-existent but Boyd has ridden him at a few shows for me which has been so valuable for his education.”

Stephanie Simpson and Tsetserleg in Tokyo. Photo via Stephanie Simpson.

How does managing a head groom’s position affect your confidence about your own riding?

“My role as a groom has given me a very unique perspective on my own riding. I am very fortunate to be in the presence of some of the best horsemen, trainers, and coaches in the world and I get the opportunity to use bits and pieces of this knowledge in my own riding. With a program as big as ours, there are so many different horses that all go differently which makes for a well-rounded perspective. I’ve spent an immeasurable number of hours watching lessons, setting jumps, and listening to instruction at every level which I can apply to my own riding. I also think that being surrounded by professionals has given me a very good understanding of how difficult this sport can be but also how important having a good program is.”

Have you ever experienced burnout and what do you do to avoid/overcome burnout?

“I think that most people in this industry have experienced burnout at some level. For me, burnout is something that I am aware of and try to avoid at all costs. Luckily I find a lot of happiness and satisfaction in my job and thrive in chaos. In our program, there is a lot of consistency which satisfies the type A part of my personality, but also a lot of variety which helps keep things interesting. In order to avoid burnout I think that it’s important to find small things that keep you engaged whether that’s horse related or not. I also think that mastering skills and learning your trade, whatever that may be, adds to the feeling of accomplishment which continues to create drive.”

I want to highlight what Steph says here about ‘mastering skills and learning your trade.’ In a fast-paced and physically demanding job such as grooming, I think most people turn to things like Netflix to take the pressure off, relax and try not to get burnout.

It is counterintuitive but sometimes more work, if directed in the right way might be just what you need to rekindle the spark for the job. Feeling like you are mastering and fulfilling your talent is the highest level of psychological development and is a need that drives us all forward. Don’t let physical exhaustion get in the way of mastering the skills you need to feel like you are becoming the best version of yourself.

Tsetserleg and Stephanie Simpson. Photo by Sally Spickard.

What do you think is the biggest obstacle you’ve faced in your career?

“My biggest obstacle on the way to achieving the things that I have would be the concept of self-belief. I did not grow up in the horse industry so the idea that I’ve been able to work my way into the manager role at the top of the sport is something that sometimes feels surreal. To evolve from a struggling working student to grooming at the Olympics and winning a 5* sometimes makes me wonder if I’m even qualified to be in these situations. I think that everyone goes through some sort of existential crisis as they evolve in their career and transform from the one asking the questions and becoming the person being asked.”

What advice do you have for someone in the sport who is currently facing adversity?

“My advice for someone facing adversity in the sport would be to know your worth and seek opportunities that get you where you want to go. I would encourage everyone to work as hard as possible and make connections with people who add value to your life. It’s important to make genuine connections with people within the industry because chances are most people can relate and possibly offer a solution. I’ve been very lucky to climb this ladder but it hasn’t been without a lot of blood, sweat, and tears. Adversity is something that people face in every aspect of life, so I would use it as motivation rather than the reason why things didn’t work out.”

If you’ve ever seen Steph in action, you know that her work ethic speaks for itself. She’s the kind of person who can take eight horses to a jumper show all day on a Tuesday, get home, repack the trailer, and head to an FEI Event with seven more horses less than 12 hours later, always with a smile on her face.

There’s a certain level of passion, for the horses and for the sport that you have to have to get you through the hard times in this sport. The fact of the matter is there will always be setbacks, whether you are a groom or a rider, plans will change, horses will go lame, and sometimes it’s not all sunshine and daisies.

You can’t choose what hardships might come your way, but you can choose to put value and passion into the work that you are doing so they never seem too overwhelming.

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