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Behind the Scenes: Grooming at the Paralympics

Some of you may have met Shae Herwig in her role as manager of The Saddle Hub. But did you know she recently groomed for Victoria Davies at the 2020 Paralympics?

When Shae Herwig announced that Victoria Davies had asked her to groom at the 2020 Paralympics, we were very excited for her. What an honour, what an adventure … and what an opportunity for a behind the scenes glimpse into the world’s most prestigious sporting event! So we waved Shae goodbye with instructions to have a great time, take photos (lots of them) and prepare to be interrogated on her return.

When we next spoke to her she was in quarantine in a Sydney hotel, with time on her hands to talk to us about her experience:

How did you get the job as groom?

Vic and I have known each other for around five years. I actually bought a horse from her, and that’s how we met. While I was there to see the horse, she had a competition on with Celere*, one of her stallions. I went along and Vic got me to do a few things. We realised we got on really well and she asked whether I’d be interested in grooming for her at the bigger comps. So from there I groomed at any of the major league championships she needed me for – and when she qualified for the 2020 Paralympics, she asked me to go with her.

*Celere is the magnificent 14-y-o buckskin Lusitano stallion who partnered Victoria at the Paralympics.

We heard the Australian team organisers gave you a comprehensively equipped kit bag.

I could have taken just the bag and nothing else! The only things I needed to add were my pyjamas and clothes for the quarantine week with the horses and riders in Sydney.

What was involved in that week?

It was during the Sydney lockdown which made it a bit difficult for the organisers. The horses were kept at SIEC and our vet and one of the grooms stayed with them. The rest of the team, around 13 of us – the riders, grooms, coaches and the manager – stayed at a hotel. We went from the hotel to SIAC each day in our own little bubble, not seeing anyone else, or going anywhere else, and having our meals delivered to us.

What was the horses’ routine during quarantine week?

We treated it like a training camp and got them used to a routine that suited conditions in Tokyo. Because of the heat their competitions were scheduled at night, so we did a lot of training under lights in the evening.

Shae in her formal groom uniform at the pre-competition day trot up (Image by Victoria Davies).

How was the horse’s equipment managed?

Each rider gets a beautiful big tack box with drawers, and saddle and bridle hooks. So while we were in Sydney we packed everything into that and the heavy duty plastic boxes that Vic had brought. We had to make an itemised list of every single thing that was in each box – from scissors and plaiting bands to sprays and brushes – and all the boxes were collected the day before the horses left.

When did you leave for Tokyo?

Myself, the team manager and one of the other grooms left early on Monday morning so we’d be there to meet the horses when they arrived. The horses left at midday on Monday with the other groom and the vet. The riders didn’t leave until Tuesday night so they were there to help load the horses onto the truck, and by the time they arrived in Tokyo we had everything set up for them.

So what was the routine once the riders arrived?

They flew in on Wednesday morning. After they settled into the village they got to the venue at around midday. They all rode that afternoon because the horses had already had a 24 hour rest and we wanted to get them into the swing of things.

What did a day at the Paralympics look like for you?

I usually fed Celere around 6:30 in the morning before cleaning out the stable, which was a bit of a funny thing because in Japan you have to put all the manure into plastic bags, tie the tops, and then put them in the manure bin. Very, very clean but lots of plastic which I hope was biodegradable. Then I’d take Celere to a large grazing area with a gallop track around the outside. We’d walk three or four laps to get his legs moving before I let him have a pick for an hour or so, and then back to the stables.

We weren’t allowed to have the horses out of the stables between eleven and three due to the heat. So depending on the day we’d clean tack, have lunch, and go back to our rooms for a break. Then around three o’clock I’d take Celere for another walk. Depending on what time had been booked for us, we’d usually ride between four and seven. Then I’d wash him down, feed up, and go and have dinner.

 

Celere’s morning routine – a chance to pick before the heat of the day (Image by Shae Herwig).

Did you have a chance to meet other grooms?

Because of COVID they didn’t want us to mix much, although we were supplied with maybe 20 badges – some were the Australian flag, some were Koalas. It’s a tradition at the Olympics and Paralympics to swop badges with other countries, and there’s a little competition to see who gets the most. The idea is to pin the badges onto your accreditation card lanyard. Mine was quite heavy towards the end.

Celere’s certainly stunning, what’s he like?

He’s a total dude! He’s very laid back, but he’s also got this cheeky little side to him. When you get to know him he quite likes to communicate with you. So when I’m cleaning out the stable and putting in new sawdust I’ll leave it in the centre because he loves to roll on it and spread it for me. If I leave the broom in the stable he’ll get hold of it in his mouth and won’t give it back, just that cheeky side that comes out when he’s really comfortable. He loves attention. A bit of a showman, he knows when people are looking at him. He knows he’s good looking and is happy to pose for the camera.

Celere keeps a watchful eye on team vet Janine Dwyer as she prepares something to eat – we noticed a jar of Vegemite on the table.

Tell us about the cooling tents.

They were all over the place. There was one in the grazing area so as part of our morning walk we’d go by the cooling tent just so Celere could get used to it. They provided ice cold water to put into the fans and when you turned the fan on cold water misted out. He loved it – it was one of his favourite parts of our morning ritual! And when Vic rode him he was quite happy to go in there with her on him so they could both cool down.

Shae and Celere chill in the cooling tent (Image by team vet Janine Dwyer).

What was the atmosphere like when the competition started?

It didn’t feel too different to the training days because not everybody was competing on the same day. So you still had other riders doing their daily training and we tried to keep our horses’ routine much the same anyway. Prior to competition days there were arena familiarisations when they explained what time you needed to go into the last warm up area and how many minutes you’d got there before going out into the main arena – so we did have a bit of a practice. But it was exciting with the big TV screens and the cameras in your face as you were standing in the little ‘Kiss and Cry’ area! That was quite cool!

Surrounded by sawdust and ready to work (Image by Shae Herwig).

Did you travel with the horses on the way home?

No. The horses were flying from Japan to Germany to quarantine there for three weeks before coming home to Australia. One of the Australian team, Amelia White, is based in Germany and her groom flew with them. We helped load them and then we had a day off before we left. So we went out to the village for the day and had a look around because we weren’t allowed to do that during the competition.

Did you enjoy the whole experience?

I did. I’d love one day to do it again. I definitely learned a lot and it was really interesting to see how other countries train, and the different styles of horses. And just meeting new people like FEI officials and the Olympics vets was really nice.

We’re happy to report that Shae is now out of quarantine, safely home, and ready to give you expert advice on choosing your next saddle. 

Feature Image: Team Australia – Shae, Celere and Victoria Davies (Image by Rozzie Ryan, Sharon Jarvis’ personal coach).

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