Groom Spotlight: Vard Embraces The Highs And Lows Of Being An International Show Jumping Groom
In April of 2018, Martin Fuchs and his groom Sean Vard were faced with a decision. Fuchs’ top horse Clooney 51 was at a show in Italy, but on Wednesday morning, the gelding developed severe colic. There was no question that he needed veterinary attention, but they needed to decide which clinic.
“That show is about a four-hour drive for us from our home base, over the mountains,” said Vard. “We had to make the decision whether to bring him to a clinic in Milan, through the heavily congested city, or to drive him home to Zurich. So, Martin and our vets made the decision that I would drive him home while he was in a colic, which was obviously pretty stressful.
“We sedated him a bit to take the edge off, and I managed to get him home in record time (with minimum speeding tickets!),” Vard continued. “He had colic surgery that evening, 4 ½ hours after he originally colicked, which is incredible; he started over 300 kilometers away in a different country. My goal was just to get him home safely, and the next morning he was standing and eating again. This, for me, keeping him alive and then working through the recovery—with the first goal being to jump a small show again, and then he went back to Aachen [Germany], and then went on to [the 2018 FEI World Equestrian Games (North Carolina)] and won a silver medal. The way the team and Martin planned it with the vets and myself, everything we did for him—from hand walking for an hour, two or three times per day in the mountains, to building the fitness back up—and then competing and doing so well at WEG, this is my biggest accomplishment.”
For Vard, horse sense comes naturally. Raised under two prominent equestrian parents, he got his first taste of the equestrian world and the sport of show jumping at an early age. “My father was riding a lot of international shows, and he’s now one of the chef d’equipes of the Irish team—he’s one of Rodrigo’s [Pessoa] assistants, and he’s prominent in the Irish Federation,” Vard said. “My mother is an FEI steward.”
Grooming wasn’t a profession Vard originally planned to pursue; after he finished school, the Irish native moved to the Netherlands to pursue a riding career.
“I did that for four years, and I did some international shows but also did a lot of national shows while riding young horses and stallions in the Dutch breeding system,” he said. “After a while I just kind of fell away from riding at a higher level and got stuck doing smaller classes. I wasn’t really comfortable with that, and my confidence took a turn for the worse under saddle after a few not-so-great experiences. I kind of got pushed into grooming after that. Because I had my truck driving license it was kind of effortless; I could help everyone out and drive them here and there and groom the horses for the week. That’s sort of how it all came to be.”
As Vard began searching for a more permanent position, he stumbled upon a job that took him to Norway, where he managed a stable and doubled as the farm handyman. “My story is actually a bit weird; I’m only 28, but I’ve done so much,” he said. “After that, I went to Bertram Allen’s. That’s where I got more exposed to the higher level of the sport.”
In 2016, right after the Rio Olympics, Vard began his current position with Fuchs. “So I’m coming into my third year,” he said. “I started on a Tuesday, right before the FEI World Cup in Verona [Italy], and on Wednesday I was on the road with his horses, headed straight there. It’s been non-stop ever since.”
For Vard, the invigorating whirlwind continues. Since taking the job, Fuchs and Clooney have placed fourth and second in the Longines FEI World Cup Final in 2017 and 2019 respectively and just earned the individual European title in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.
Vard has developed a strong bond with the 13-year-old Westphalian stallion (Cornet Obolensky—Fraulein Vom Moor, Ferragamo).
“Is Clooney my favorite? I think he kind of has to be,” said Vard. “We have a group of very funny horses in our barn, all with great characters. For example, there is Chaplin, who is a true stallion; we have Chica, who is moving up in the sport and is a little princess; she’s hilarious. We have Silver Shine and The Sinner; they’re almost comedians. I really believe that I have the funniest horses on the circuit. Clooney is just a little pig, but he’s incredible. There isn’t really one horse that I don’t have a connection with, but Clooney is always my No. 1.”
When asked about his opinions on horse management practices, Vard pressed the importance of letting his horses simply be horses.
“We’re quite a natural stable in the sense that our horses are allowed to really be horses,” he said. “This is a pet peeve of mine, when horses are always tied up in their boxes and never get to get out and enjoy things. At the end of the day, that’s the most important thing. These horses need to be horses. I also really hate shows with no grass. I think that’s awful. I really love when they can have a life, get fresh air. It’s hard enough when they have to be in stalls so much. It’s nice for them to come out, get some grass, maintain some of their character and personality, not stifle it.”
While top care is always at the forefront of his mind, Vard also explained the “hands-off” lessons he’s learned about himself and his career over the last few years. Vard joked, “First lesson: Don’t get your truck license!”
He went on, “The biggest lesson I’ve learned through all of this is that it’s absolutely no walk in the park. This is heavy. People joke about how tiring it is, but you could lose two nights of sleep per week driving to the venues. I’m 800 kilometers from home this week. I have a one day turn-around after this show to go another 1,200 kilometers the other way. It’s absolutely not easy. If you aren’t 100 percent motivated and committed, it’s not going to work. It may last a while, but you will break down. You need to be so mentally and physically strong for this. Mostly mentally. I never thought it would be so difficult.
“When I was grooming at the lower levels I always dreamed of being a five-star groom. But at the end of the day, it’s heavy. And the rewards are huge, but you can always have bad days, and you shouldn’t be too quick to forget that. At the end of the day, there is still the drive home left to digest everything.”
Vard continues to greet each day with enthusiasm for future goals. “Obviously, there is one big goal,” he continued, “and that is the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. Clooney is a championship horse, and it’s a dream to have the Olympics next year and have him in such great shape. We also have a lot of incredible young horses, so keeping them moving up, happy and healthy is also a priority.”
Vard concluded: “It can be difficult, but anything can be. I love to be with the horses, and it’s absolutely worth it.”