Written by: Jessica Lefroy
Sierra Sneath and Natalie Gascho travel across Canada and the US each year following the busy summer and winter horse show circuits. They are professional braiders, and make money working through the night to braid the manes and tails of their clients – some of the top competition horses in North America.
For those who think braiding is easy money for little work, Gascho’s advice is frank. ‘Make sure you aren’t afraid to work no matter what,’ she cautions. ‘Once you commit to taking on accounts for a season, you have to keep up your end of the bargain. If you’re sick or hurt yourself, you usually have to braid anyway. This is a physically demanding job. There are some nights where I stand on a stool for upwards of 14 hours. On busy nights, you have to be prepared to start before midnight, and work well into the day to get all the horses done. My knees, feet, and fingers are usually extremely sore by the end of the week.’
Although she admits that good braiders do net good money, she explains that supplemental work may be required during the off months – even when travelling south for the winter circuits. ‘You can make really good money if you braid beautifully and fast,’ agrees Sneath. ‘You get paid per horse, so if it takes you four hours to braid one mane, you’re not going to hold many accounts or make much money.’ Braiders typically make $40-$50 per mane and $25-$30 per tail, depending on the quality of braids and the show. For Sneath, who began braiding at the age of 13, it was the perfect job while she attended university, paying her expenses through the studying semesters. It wasn’t until after school she discovered she wanted to continue working with horses. She is now one of the most in-demand braiders on the circuits, splitting her time between Ontario and Florida, and doing additional work body clipping in the off-season.
Organizational skills are of utmost importance for determining what horses need to be braided by what time and division, factoring in variables such as horses who are difficult or who rub.
‘You need a detailed plan going into the night, or you won’t get everything done,’ explains Gascho. ‘Before going to bed I figure out how many hours I’ll need, usually about an hour per horse, and what order I’m going to braid them in, depending on which divisions they’re showing in and what kind of prep they’ll be getting when the grooms arrive.’ As an example, if she knows a horse will be getting lunged before showing at 8 am, she will try to have the horse braided by 5 am. Horses with a history of rubbing braids will also be left as close to their division start time as possible. ‘There’s nothing worse than doing a beautiful braid job, only to have the horse rub half of it out,’ she groans. ‘Fixing it can be extremely time-consuming.’
Sneath, who on a Saturday at Palgrave can have between 30-40 horses that she is responsible for braiding (either herself or by one of her helpers) adds, ‘Braiding is only part of the job – billing and organizing also takes up a lot of time. If a horse isn’t braided for its class, chances are the client will find a different braider the next time.’
Practice, practice, practice
‘It takes practice, and lots of it, to be able to produce straight, tight braids that don’t fall out,’ explains Sneath. ‘The most important thing when braiding a mane is to have every braid look exactly the same. When I first started, no two braids were the same and now, 15 years later, every single one of my braids is identical.’
‘Being a perfectionist also helps,’ laughs Gascho. ‘Make sure you can take criticism, and then implement people’s suggestions. Be observant, and practice, practise, practise! I had about 10 years of practice before I was good enough to do this for a living. I always ask advice from other braiders if I’m having a problem, and if a customer has a comment or complaint, I listen to them and then try to put what they have to say into practice. The customer is always right!’
The basic tools of a braider include: a mane comb, scissors, wool (Sierra uses ‘Vannas Choice’ wool, as it is very strong), a rug hook, a clip to hold back sections of mane, a bucket of water to wet down the manes and tails, and a stool. Sierra will also use a spray product on big occasions, such as Straight Arrow’s Spray N’ Braid, for a better grip and to keep braids tight.
There will undoubtedly be clients not keen on standing still. ‘Dealing with horses in any capacity is dangerous, so there’s always a chance one could hurt you,’ admits Gascho. ‘You have to be able to deal with problem horses – and there are plenty of them – in a patient manner. Some stand like statues, others are ear shy and don’t like the top five braids being done. Some are scared of you getting up on a stool to braid their forelocks, and others hate having their tails braided. It’s important to have a good understanding of horse behaviour so you can deal with these issues.’
‘I like being my own boss. I don’t have someone standing over my shoulder telling me what to do all day,’ explains Gascho. ‘It’s calm and quiet when I’m braiding, and sometimes it’s nice not to be surrounded by the hustle and bustle of a horse show in full swing. Once everyone starts showing up in the morning, things can get hectic, so I really enjoy when it’s just me, my dogs, and the horse I’m braiding.’
‘Being a professional braider is a fun way to make a living,’ agrees Sneath, ‘especially if you love horses. I get to work with the top horses in North America, horses that I otherwise wouldn’t have the chance to be involved with. I have also travelled extensively and met some amazing people because of it. It’s a nice feeling when a horse I have braided wins or when I hear the owner comment on how beautiful their horse looks because of the job I did.’
Grooming to Win: Delfine Roustan
Grooms are among the most hard-working, dedicated, and knowledgeable members of the horse industry. Often on the grounds of a horse show from dawn until dusk, there is little time left for sightseeing or any semblance of a personal life.
Delfine Roustan has been the head groom for Eric Lamaze since 2008, being responsible for the care of Hickstead, Coriana van Klapscheut, and Derly Chin de Muze, among others. ‘I became a groom because it allowed me to do the thing that I love more than anything in the world,’ she explains. ‘This job has given me the opportunity to travel and discover the world. I’ve met a lot of wonderful people, I’ve made a lot of friends, and in the end I’ve have the chance to learn from the best.’
The opportunity to travel to world-class events as a member of an exclusive behind the- scenes entourage is one of the most appealing aspects of the position, and yet it is not uncommon for grooms to work upwards of 15 hours per day. They have to put the horse first at all times, which means putting personal relationships, family, and sometimes even health on the backburner. ‘This job asks a lot of you and a lot of your personal time,’ she admits. ‘ You have to be sure you are dedicated and willing to make sacrifices.’
Some choose grooming as a way to take part in the competitive aspect of horse sport if they do not have the means to participate themselves. It is not a difficult profession to break into; begin by asking trainers if they will be hiring in the upcoming season, and be prepared to start at the bottom no matter what qualifications you think you have. Be willing to travel, and expect to work harder than you ever imagined (Salary ranges for grooms vary wildly, starting at about $50/day and up, depending on barn and experience. Some owners tip $15-25 per horse; some trainers include hotels, food, cell phone, lessons, etc.).
‘Anyone can become a good groom, you just have to work hard and believe in yourself,’ Roustan says. ‘Even the grand prix grooms start at the bottom; to get to the top, you have to do the steps and learn a lot along the way. Try to start in a stable where there is already a groom with a lot of experience who can teach you how this job works. There is a lot of learning involved – it’s a big team behind the scenes and you will have to learn from the vet, the blacksmith, the physiotherapist, the dentist, and all the professionals who can make a difference in helping your horse feel and perform better. You need to be dedicated to the horses and the job, you need to be a hard worker, you need to be patient and positive, but almost above all else you need to have a passion for the animals and the sport.’
It is the moments after the victory gallop that grooms look forward to; when a horse looks for their groom waiting at the gate with a cooler and treat for a job well done. While Roustan has experienced more than her fair share of triumph and incredible heartbreak, it has been an experience she wouldn’t trade for the world. ‘As a groom, you are living something unique. It is a very special connection between you, your horses, and your rider. Nobody will know you better than your horses, and they will teach you to know them and also to know yourself. With your rider, it’s all about trust, and when you have that trust together it’s just something fabulous, and you will have some amazing moments. Some will be great, some will be exciting, some depressing or sad – but it’s part of life and part of the sport.’