Rachel Watts, international super groom and 2017 Equestrian Australia’s Groom of the Year, is well known for her complete dedication to horses.
Q: Were horses always part of your life?
A: Yes. I grew up in Kyneton, Victoria and all my family had horses and rode.
Q: You studied at Marcus Oldham College and received a major award.
A: I received the Australian Equine Scholarship to study an intense one-year course at the college that included practical, veterinary and business management. My mentor was Nick Roe, a veterinarian, 3* eventer and racehorse trainer. Upon graduation I received the Marvis Wardell Award, which recognises an outstanding contribution by an individual to the course. I then went to work with Nick for ten months.
Q: When did you start with Shane Rose?
A: In 2006 I worked at Bimbadeen, Shane and Niki’s property, for a few months while he went to WEG in Aachen and on to Burleigh. I began full time there in ’07.
Rachel and the affectionate CP Qualified (Image by Janelle Christopher).
Q: Have you ever ridden competitively?
A: I rode up to 3* on some great Thoroughbreds but I realised I wasn’t as good as I needed to be to compete at an elite level. And I really enjoyed looking after elite level horses.
Q: Do you ever ride for pleasure or to cool down a horse?
A: Riders are plentiful at our yard. There’d have to be a severe shortage of them for me to be asked to ride! We try to stick with our strengths at Bimbadeen.
Q: You groomed for Chris Burton in the UK. Do Shane and Chris have different training methods?
A: A difficult question. They have different riding styles. Burto likes to control every aspect of his horse and every move is calculated. Shane tends to be less so. I can’t say any more than that!
Q: Shane often takes 20 horses to a show. How do you plan for that?
A: There’d be up to ten people participating at an event but I’m the only one working solely from the ground. The riders pitch in to help when they’re able. All schooling is done in the saddle. Shane’s not into lungeing horses so I don’t have to do that either.
Q: How many international venues have you attended as head groom?
A: Once every month when I worked for Burto we would go from the UK to events in Ireland and around Europe. With Shane I’ve been to several Trans-Tasmans in New Zealand, the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, Scotland, Burleigh and then across to Europe, WEG at Tryon in the US, and to Tokyo for the Olympic Games.
Q: Is there still class distinction with overseas riders when it comes to grooms?
A: It’s improved a lot. If you look at the recent Olympics riders, they’ve publicly thanked their grooms and acknowledged them in media reports and on social media.
Q: When overseas have you learnt any tricks of the trade?
A: Heaps. Every time you go on a trip you learn something which makes your work easier. The same would apply if those people came to my yard – they’d learn a heap from me.
Q: Your biggest concern when flying OS with horses?
A: Travel sickness upon arrival. And when on the plane not putting their heads down once the bars in front of them have been removed, as they can develop lung infections.
Shane and Rachel at the 2019 Equestrian NSW Awards Night (Image by Allira Fontana Photography).
Q: The greatest highlight?
A: There are two. At Aachen in 2016, CP Qualified was only one behind Michael Jung. The Australians took out the Nation Cup and it was the first time the Germans had been beaten on their home soil. And, of course, you can’t look past winning a silver medal at Tokyo.
Q: Greatest disappointment?
A: When Shanghai Joe died in 2017 at Badminton. Nugget, as we called him, was our homebred Thoroughbred, we still have his parents on the property. Shane had a fall from him and he bolted to the stables, slipping on the concrete and breaking his shoulder. He had to be euthanized. I’d known him since he was three months old. He was the sweetest guy with the biggest heart.
Q: Any close shaves?
A: A freak accident in 2012. I was kicked in the face breaking my eye socket, cheekbone and nose which had to be reconstructed. I was out of action for a bit.
Q: What’s essential when preparing for an event?
A: Apart from the obvious tack three major things: a watch, timetable and my full grooming kit.
Q: Do you have time for a social life?
A: Yes and no. I catch up with friends at events and we have family dinners on Friday nights. No partner at the moment.
Q: Favourite horse at Bimbadeen?
A: Virgil. Also Easy Turn, a beautiful mare who is lovely to deal with.
Q: Is there one with whom you haven’t been able to establish a rapport?
Olympic silver’s great, but sunflowers taste better (Image courtesy Rachel Watts).
A: Virgil! He and Shane have a very special bond. And Burto had Tempranillo, an opinionated mare but really sweet once you got to know her. Virgil has his own opinions about everything.
Q: Any changes to the sport since you’ve been involved?
A: No longer are only Adelaide, Sydney and Melbourne 5*. Now more eventing organisations are trying to make their shows international and therefore relevant to what our riders can expect at the elite level overseas.
Q: What qualities should a school leaver wanting to become a groom have?
A: Attention to detail, a desire to be the best at what they’re doing, open to new suggestions, and to learning about every aspect of horse health, management and schooling.
Feature Image: Rachel and Virgil at Wallaby Hill in 2020 (Image by Ashley Grant, The Blachat).
Extended 20 Questions with Rachel Watts
Q: You’ve been at Bimbadeen for quite some time, what makes Shane so good to work with?
A: He is very fair and leads by example. He works later and harder than anyone else. He’s a great horseman, a very good businessman and has a great relationship with his clients. Because he trusts me to do the right thing by him and his horses I am able to get on with my job.
Q: What makes your favourite horses at the stables so special?
A: Their will to want to compete, together with their athleticism and training ability.
Q: Why do you think it’s hard to establish a rapport with some horses?
A: Some have been badly treated and distrust people. Some are simply independent types which dislike fuss and attention. It is up to you to assess each horse individually and treat them accordingly. CP Qualified loves attention and is really affectionate but on cross country mornings he prefers to stay in the back of his box so you know to leave him alone.
Q: What’s your response to a school leaver wanting to become a groom?
A: Go for it.