Rolex Kentucky: Tales from a Groom

Meg Johnson takes us behind the scenes at the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event, where she groomed for Rolex Rookies Ellen Doughty-Hume and Sir Oberon this past weekend. Ellen and "Obie" completed the event in 39th place. Thank you to Meg for sharing her story, and thanks for reading.

Ellen Doughty-Hume and her team. Photo via Meg Johnson.. Ellen Doughty-Hume and her team. Photo via Meg Johnson..

I’m reminiscing about Rolex week instead of focusing on the exhaustion or the court hearing I’m preparing for in my “real life” as an attorney, which has inevitably trampled the horse show hangover daze.

About five years ago, in the midst of my retirement from eventing, I first groomed for Ellen Doughty-Hume and met Sir Oberon. “Obie” was just special, and we both knew it — everyone knew it.

I kept telling Ellen that I wanted to groom for her at Rolex (knowing how few horses actually get there, and Obie was competing at Training level at the time). She’d smile and laugh and say, “OK!”

Although the birth of my son sidelined my weekend grooming fun, I continued to watch Ellen’s success with Obie as they moved slowly and steadily up the levels. Sure enough, in the fall of 2013, Ellen called after Fair Hill and told me we were going to Rolex!

Something that some people may not know, which is one reason that I admire Ellen and am so interested in her success, is that she and Obie are nearly 100 percent self-made. She works extremely hard managing a barn and teaching from dawn to dusk.

Trying to get the braids just right ... it's dressage day!

Trying to get the braids just right … it’s dressage day! Photo via Meg Johnson.

She doesn’t have a local trainer for regular lessons, and brought Obie from a “green bean” to four-star horse essentially all on her own. Luckily, some folks (who are much more influential than I) also noticed her talent, and named her to the USEF training list last year, which allowed her to spend some extra time in Florida with the O’Connors.

Ellen’s parents are wonderful. They gave her access to Pony Club to learn horsemanship and safety. They gave her access to lessons to learn to ride at a young age. And they instilled in her the confidence to follow her dreams. They also taught her that something worth having is worth working for — and she has.

I had no idea what an indescribable experience Rolex would be, even as a groom. And, apparently, no two years are the same. Although Obie was unfortunately spun at the first jog in 2014 due to a lingering heel grab from an event earlier in the spring, it gave us a “relaxed” opportunity to experience Rolex and prepare us for the adventure in 2015.

It also gave us a chance to fully enjoy the wedding festivities, as Ellen married her husband, Alistair Hume, at the Head of the Lake that weekend. Obie is a gentle giant (until you try to give him a cold bath), which is fitting since Ellen shares his quiet, cool and calm demeanor (but can also be outspoken).

Ellen with her parents after completing her first Rolex. Photo via Meg Johnson.

Ellen with her parents after completing her first Rolex. Photo via Meg Johnson.

I’m humbled that Ellen has trusted me with her most prized possession and allowed me to live out my little girl Rolex dreams vicariously through her. I’m impressed by her work ethic; despite having two or three grooms, she’s the first to grab a pitchfork or wrap her own horse.

I’m impressed by her yearning for knowledge, seeking and listening to each and every piece of advice from every world class rider offering one (almost as if she’s not yet realized that she, too, is now a world class rider). And I’m impressed by her horsemanship — immediate and unwavering concern for the well being and comfort of her beloved partner.

I’ve been so proud to wear my Sir Oberon groom’s badge the past two years, and I’m blessed to call Ellen (and my co-grooms) friends.

Being a Rolex groom is a surreal experience. We have access to the horses the spectators only wish to touch. We’re in the warm up arenas with celebrity riders many people only hope to meet. We have an open door to every part of the Rolex experience: office, rider lounge and Spindletop party.

It’s a labor of love, but also a great honor that comes with great responsibility. Every hair must be in place for the jog, every bit of dirt polished off for dressage and every piece of equipment checked before cross country — the success and safety of our friend depends on it.

Hacking Obie!

Hacking Obie! Photo via Meg Johnson.

There is no room for laziness or a bad attitude as a groom. No matter how tired, hungry, sore or cold we are, the horse always comes first. It’s important to always remember that we are easily replaced if we’re not the first to step up and help — thousands of people in those stands would give a limb to be in our Dubarrys.

We may not be competing, but I guarantee we jogged every step with her, rode every dressage movement and soared over every jump in spirit. We share the heartaches and the accomplishments. And this year, we shared the victory of Ellen completing her first four-star event. We even have the green cooler to display proudly next year showing that we’re Rolex veterans!

It’s not all serious business — we had so much fun with girl time, bonding and a ton of laughs — good belly laughs. You know what happens when the girls get into some Kentucky Bourbon? We talked to William Fox-Pitt at the Spindletop party and to Dan James, the 2014 Kentucky Reining freestyle champ, at the reining.

In 2014, we hash-tagged everything, but in 2015, our catch phrase was, “Coming in hot!” — including ourselves, our food and coffee, whatever we threw at each other, Obie,  and Buck Davidson as he flew by us into the vet box.

She did it!

She did it! Photo via Meg Johnson.

Ellen slipped on the wet grass while walking cross-country twice. We wore PJs to the barn, set up a pre-jog beauty salon in the tack stall, and dried up the supply of Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale at most local gas stations. We laughed until we cried several times, and in all seriousness, we all needed the comic relief. Especially this groom, whose “real life” as an attorney, mom, wife and college professor can be pretty stressful.

So, I’m back to my paying job today with little cuts on my hands from braiding, bags under my eyes and sore legs, and I cherish every little battle wound and every moment. I will be back to normal in the next few days, leaving me looking forward to next time.

Cheers to Michael Jung and to every rider who took home a green cooler (and, heck, everyone who even qualified to be there)! Signing off until Rolex 2016!

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