As we all wait and see how Charlotte and Valegro fare in Vegas (all hooves firmly crossed), spare a thought for Alan who recently made the gruelling journey over the pond with the world’s most famous horse.
We caught up with Alan and Blueberry in December…
Ahead of the London International Horse Show, Sarah Heseltine travelled to Gloucestershire to meet Alan Davies, the super groom who looks after Carl and Charlotte’s famous charges and who has recently been nominated for the FEI Best Groom award, to find out what is involved in moving these equine gods from A to B for competitions and to see the prep that was underway ahead of Olympia.
Having arrived a bit early, I set off to Newent for a quick cuppa and found Charlotte’s gold post box. I love that this was done for our gold medalists and was pleased to see that it was still shiny and hadn’t been damaged in any way. Back en route to the yard and I have to admit to a few butterflies. Driving through the gates felt very special and I was excited to meet Alan, having heard so much about him from Anna Levy, who had kindly arranged this for The Gaitpost.
Apart from this being a huge privilege, it also gave me the opportunity to have a polite nose around the yard, which has 18 horses currently in situ. Alan was a bit tied up when I arrived and so having said a quick hello to Carl who was rushing to teach but kindly warned me about his parrot Snowqueen’s dislike of blonde females (note taken), I was kindly made a cup of tea by Jake in the tack room (more about that later) and watched a bit of Carl teaching Kiwi eventer, Lucy Jackson. His voice was always in ear shot wherever we went in the yard and was only interrupted by the quacks of the resident wildfowl that seemed to rule the roost.
It wasn’t long before Alan arrived and I could give him the little present that PMD (pony mad daughter) had made for Valegro. Polos in hand and with the timely arrival of Nico, our photographer, we left the warmth of the tack room and headed to the courtyard to meet Blueberry, who loved his minty gift. It was only later that I realised in our excitement of meeting this living legend, that Nico and I had walked straight past Uthopia. We would rectify that later.
I wasn’t sure what to expect but the smiley face looking out of his stable was definitely so much more chilled than I had imagined he would be. No diva tendencies here. As we fussed and cooed at the megastar before us, it was apparent that others also wanted some attention. Nip Tuck, who stables next to Blueberry, definitely wanted in on the action and the Polos were duly shared out. I asked Alan if Carl had chosen Blueberry’s stable name and can only imagine how things may have been very different if, when Carl was on a fruit and veg naming spree, the horse before me may have ended up called Parsnip!
Carl’s yard is every equestrian’s dream with its clock tower and courtyard layout, and I can fully see why Jenny Rudall, in her interview with us, said it was her favourite yard, and she has seen a few. As Alan told us Blueberry’s weekly routine, which consists of regular turn-out, hacking by Alan, schooling with Charlotte, one day-off a week and weekly trips to Hartpury’s water treadmill for muscle work, a cacophony of wildfowl waddled through the yard, practically in between Blueberry’s legs whilst various dogs scampered around the place. This was business as usual for Blueberry and nothing fazed him. It was lovely to see that these superstars get to experience real life and aren’t wrapped up in cotton wool as they may have been in European yards.
Alan had already started packing for Olympia and it is an art he has perfected with military precision. Whilst I had assumed there would be a huge amount of kit involved, it was hard not to be impressed with the competition tack room. Boxes and boxes of named kit, shelves of grooming products, an eye watering stash of Le Mieux numnahs, Bucas rugs and a mountain of travelling boots all made for noises akin to a kid in a candy store. And then there were the piles of prize-giving rugs, which Alan has to fight to hang on to as Charlotte likes giving them away! He said he gets quite emotional about keeping them at the yard and who wouldn’t when you saw the array of London 2012 rugs sandwiched between all the other top competition rugs they have won. At some events, it has been known for there to not be enough prize rugs to go around and various officials have swiftly asked for them back for other classes – can you imagine ! It can also on occasion be a headache for Alan to make sure the right sponsors rugs are on at the right time and there were a few stories about this.
Many of the pots and potions were from sponsors, mainly Nettex and Absorbine, but they have all had to be tried and tested and must have achieved the level of excellence that Alan demands for show perfection. It was interesting to hear that Blueberry has sensitive skin and had had a bad reaction to a fly spray a few years ago and the scars are still there.
What became more and more apparent was how caring for the horses was such an incredible honour for Alan. It was a symbiotic relationship and a lovely one to watch. He admitted it was what got him out of bed every morning.
Next we visited the every day tack room and the bridle plaques read like a Hall of Fame: Blueberry, Barney, Golly, Uti, they were all there, just like any other tack room, but with the collection of photos hanging above, you could see this was no ordinary tack room. I can be quite territorial about my own tack room at home and am constantly rearranging the debris the children leave lying around, but for Alan, this room was not to be messed with. He told us about the time Charlotte played a trick on him and changed a browband to one full of bling , leaving him hyperventilating at the loss of the correct item. Whilst he laughed as he regaled the story, I can imagine the panic this would cause him as he turned the place upside down looking for it. Alan supervises all vet and farrier appointments – what would happen if they needed to come on his day off, I asked? They wouldn’t come was the swift reply.
Every part of these superstars’ life is overseen by Alan and it is a slick operation. It was then that my eye caught some very sparkly bling and Alan groaned as Nico lifted his camera – bling within his reason is his take on the do you don’t you bling up, but everyone loves a bit of sparkle. The wall of saddles was very impressive as was Carl’s new PDS saddle that he helped develop and then I clocked the boots – the most gorgeous pair of brown König dressage boots I have ever seen. Alan informed me they were ‘just’ for home riding as were the neat stack of hats too, Casco for Carl and Charles Owen for Charlotte.
It was now time to delve into Alan’s amazing box of tricks that goes everywhere with him and which he found in America. It was good to see some old favourites in there and hear about what he uses them for. We use Sudacrem at home for a multitude of situations but Alan explained that it is on the FEI banned list so he uses zinc and castor oil cream instead for rubs or grazes. A tub of all-important sugar cubes for presentation bribery were juxtaposed between a pot of bands (Alan revealed he doesn’t sew the plaits in, which was so reassuring), his lucky rosette that Blueberry won at Olympia for his world record in the music and goes everywhere with him, a much needed radio plus some red, white and blue loom band bracelets that had been made for Alan by Anky van Grunsven’s son. Seeing the bracelets and knowing the pride PMD had taken in making a Christmas card for Blueberry, I asked Alan about fan mail and loved hearing how Valegro received more than Charlotte although he had to be careful what treats could be fed ensuring nothing accidental was in there that would affect the strict doping rules.
What was Alan’s top tip for grooming? “Simple”, he said, “I use Baby Oil every time”. As Alan led Blueberry out of his stable for a quick demo, he explained that this simple product worked brilliantly in a number of ways. Firstly, he always rubs it over plaits to give them a lovely shine when competing under the lights. Then, it can be used over quarter marks to make them stand out, and his most favourite use, is a quick rub over Valegro’s nose for a really clean and shiny effect.
Back to packing for Olympia and Alan talked us through the 3 big trunks that would take all the competition gear up to London, including all of Charlotte and Carl’s competition clothes, tail coats and endless spares, just in case. Alan certainly had the knack of getting everything in the smallest number of boxes due to having to cart everything around single-handedly. Herculanean energy was required to get everything in and unpacked at Olympia and this was definitely the less glamorous side to life as a super groom. There are no designated time slots to do this. Alan would have to queue up in the lorry, unload the horses first and get them to their stables, then get the trunks, feed and hay off the lorry and in to the stables, return to the lorry whilst being hurried up by the parking officials, drive it to the lorry park over half an hour away (assuming Kensington traffic isn’t gridlocked by Christmas shoppers) and return to the stables to unpack everything. It is a far cry from being based in a field with hook-up for three days at an event.
The glory of being in the ‘kiss and cry’ box (the place at top events where we see the support team hugging and crying when their rider has competed) equates to 1% of the picture , the 99% balance is pure hard graft and I guess what makes the magic moments so special. And it doesn’t end there. As soon as the event finishes on Wednesday night, Alan will be back in sherpa mode, packing everything up, going to get the lorry, and leaving after midnight as the stables are needed for the show jumpers the next day. He will crawl in to bed at about 4am having arrived on the Sunday, done the trot up on the Monday (he prefers to do them as he handles the horses more than Carl and Charlotte and there can be some fizzy stallions around and he likes to keep everyone calm). He will have prepared two horses and two riders for two days of elite Grand Prix and Freestyle competition and hopefully collected some new lucky rosettes for his kit box.
Our time was up and we had seen more than we could ever have wished. It was wonderful to say hello to Uthopia, Carl’s London 2012 horse, whose importance to their success story needs its own write-up (a return visit?) as well as the other horses. Many were youngsters being bought on by Carl and Charlotte to keep the medal stream flowing in future years and it is this training of the next generation that they all so enjoy.
It was incredibly inspiring to meet Alan – he talked passionately about the role of grooms and how he would like to see them better recognised for their hard work and dedication that they give both the riders and the horses in their care. His superior knowledge on anatomy, veterinary, farrier and nutrition issues was seriously impressive, but it was the relationship with Blueberry that was so very special to witness.
When I asked Alan what he was doing for Christmas, he said he was staying at home with Blueberry. I can’t think of a better place to be. I drove home with a much deeper appreciation that having a good groom behind you, is one of the most important jobs in the sport.
Photo credit: Nico Morgan and Sarah Heseltine. All images copyrighted to The Gaitpost
Check out Nico’s equestrian photography galleries at www.nicomorgan.com
If you are a groom, you may be interested in the British Grooms Association, which is the professional membership organisation for grooms of all levels across all disciplines. It brings together all who work hands on with horses offering support, dedicated career advice and promotes professionalism and good horsemanship. www.britishgrooms.org.uk