While not often talked about, burnout is one of the biggest concerns for both grooms working in the industry and employers looking to fill vital positions during a nation-wide shortage of skilled equestrian workers.

Top FEI groom Anne-Marie Duarte speaks from O’Hanlon Eventing in Schomberg, Ontario about what big and small changes need to be made to help retain valuable, skilled employees for the long-term, and what she personally does to keep doing her best at the job she loves.

The Causes of Burnout

“Currently, there’s all sorts of issues in the industry,” says Duarte, when asked why she thinks burnout and labour shortage is an industry-wide problem. “We lose a lot of good people. …the horse industry is desperately looking for qualified staff. [Grooms] can’t find a way to stay in the industry long term. It’s a very demanding lifestyle with long hours and burnout is definitely a problem.”

Career grooms like Duarte, who has been working at O’Hanlon Eventing since 2008, are rare. Many grooms are forced to leave their preferred careers due to circumstances beyond their control including finances, health [both physical and mental], the inability to find gainful employment, and similar factors that lead to burnout over the long and short term.

“There are some big-picture changes that need to happen,” says Duarte, “because there really is a problem with many grooms struggling to make a living, but I don’t pretend to have all the answers. There needs to be systemic remodeling of the industry so that barns are profitable and staff are paid a living wage. It’s a real challenge facing the equine industry in general right now. You can sometimes make more money working at Wal-Mart.”

Duarte feels it’s difficult to pinpoint the nature of the financial difficulties in a national economy that’s making financial stability more difficult for everyone.

“I don’t think it’s necessarily a problem of barn owners sitting on money. So many boarding barns are just barely scraping by, and people are struggling all around. It’s a very privileged sport and we’re very lucky to do the things we do, but we have to find a way that’s better for everyone.”

It’s also difficult to attract skilled labour to positions where the work is fast-paced and physically and mentally strenuous. “Florida can be very intense,” says Duarte. “By the end, most people are overwhelmed.”

While there used to be a regular off-season for international competitors starting in November, “Now the season never stops,” Duarte says. “I used to notice that I could power wash and put away the trailer at the end of the season, but in the last few years I’ve found it hard to find the time to put the trailer away. You can event year-round in the U.S., which is great, but it’s hard on the staff and the horses. And there’s so much travel… it’s a lot of driving.”

Filling the Void

Brian Tropea of the Ontario Equine Education and Employment Program (OEEEP), a service offered in conjunction with Equine Guelph that provides education and job placements for people seeking equestrian jobs in Ontario, believes that a changing workforce demographic is another main reason fuelling the labour shortage and overtaxing existing grooms.

“We’re not seeing an influx of new people into the industry, and this causes a labour shortage that puts stress on employees and employers. Sometimes employees are asked to do more because [employers] don’t have enough existing staff. When you’re dealing with living, breathing animals, someone has to pick up the slack …so employees end up doing their normal roles and also having to fill in, but people who work with horses and love horses don’t want to see the horses do without, so it’s natural to just do what needs to be done.”

To add to the problem, good grooms aren’t made overnight. Top-level grooms require years of training to develop specific skillsets within highly specialized disciplines.

“[Employers] are looking for qualified grooms, but there’s a barrier because there’s no place for people to get the experience required,” says Tropea. “So we have A-level jobs but we can’t fill the vacancies. In terms of on-the-ground-training, there’s not a lot.”

The OEEEP attempts to fill this gap with its intensive, free, six-week online introduction to equestrian work. “The program we are offering gives people time to get the groundwork they need to get the basics of working with horses and to eventually work their way up the hierarchy. There are so many opportunities, but without basic knowledge the opportunities aren’t available to those people.”

Maintaining a Work-Life Balance

“I actually felt a little hypocritical speaking on this topic because I’m working on it in my own personal life,” says Duarte, noting the vital importance of maintaining work-life balance in such a physically demanding, time-consuming job. “I’ve been lucky enough to work in the industry for a long time and I would like to find ways to do this forever, so that’s how I view this for myself.”

Duarte says planning for balance can sometimes be difficult because there’s no such thing as a “typical” day — especially when working abroad. “I had a funny interaction with someone where they asked me to describe a typical day in Florida, and I said it can be difficult because every day is so different.”

“We start at seven a.m. every morning with hay and grain.” Then turnout and blanketing, depending on the weather. “We take a break at nine a.m. for 20-30 minutes, and then we get into the bulk of the riding. This takes the vast majority of the day, and involves tacking up and riding horses, doing aftercare as needed, and any additional care like leg care. Sometimes I help clients with vet appointments or shipping. Especially in Florida, we spend a lot of time going off-property for lessons and schooling, so there’s a lot of getting the trailer ready. I’ve got a really good packing system, so I’m able to transition really quickly and get shipped out somewhere.”

“Around three or four p.m. we do another round of chores, more hay, water, and grain. Then we end up cleaning tack at the end of the day. An ideal day ends at four p.m., but there are many days we start earlier [than 7 a.m.] and finish later. Then I try to come back around eight or eight-thirty p.m. for night check. We rotate doing late-night because it can be really difficult to work around if you’re doing normal people things. And then we do it all again the next day.”

On the weekends, of course, there’s travelling and shows. “We show most weekends in Florida. It’s a very demanding three to four months because we also spend a lot of time showing horses for sale to clients. I also manage bookings and advertisements on social media, so clients can try horses.”

With such an intense schedule, Duarte says doing things for herself is vital. Part of her work-life balance is making sure she’s able to follow her passion on her own terms and take steps towards building her current skills for the future. This includes founding her own equine business that capitalizes on her skills and industry knowledge while allowing her to take on a different kind of role in the horse world.

“I started The Oracle Equestrian Administration in 2023,” Duarte says. The Oracle focuses on providing administrative support to riders competing at home and abroad.

“On one end of the spectrum, I provide support to international professionals by doing things like show entries, membership renewals, and passport applications. On the other end of the spectrum, my services are targeted towards people who have shown within Canada and are now starting FEI, but aren’t familiar with how to do entries at top-level shows. And I’ve started to branch out into a broader spectrum of administrative, digital marketing, and consulting services.”

Work-life balance for Duarte also involves making sure she gets time to progress with her own riding and showing. “I’m lucky enough to have one of O’Hanlon Eventing’s homebred horses that I’ve been working with. I would really like to continue to focus on improving my show jumping this summer.”

But taking time off, Duarte says, is just as important as taking satisfaction from work you love.

“Consistent time off is absolutely necessary. Long hours are inevitable, and they’re going to be part of the job for sure, but making sure you have at least one consistent day off each week is necessary, so grooms can plan and get ready for the next week. This makes a big difference.”

Find a Workplace that Works for You

If good grooms are worth their weight in gold, so are healthy, safe, and productive work environments where these skilled employees can thrive. Duarte feels lucky to have found just such a workplace at O’Hanlon Eventing, an FEI-level facility run by Olympian Selena O’Hanlon and her mother and business partner Morag.

A woman leading a bay horse with a rider walking beside.

Anne-Marie and Selena O’Hanlon at the 2018 World Equestrian Games. (CET/Betty Cooper)

To maintain a sustainable workplace, Duarte believes it’s incredibly important for employers to know and understand the kind of work employees are doing a daily basis. This means being directly involved. “[Selena and Morag’s] niche is working with the staff,” says Duarte.

Although not all FEI riders are able or willing to help with barn chores, it’s a part of daily life at O’Hanlon Eventing for the entire team to collectively do barn chores together in the mornings, allowing for a flexible schedule in the afternoons.

“Selena and Morag are very hands-on with staff, so that makes people feel appreciated. They work alongside staff so they know all the demands that are being made and exactly what’s being asked of [their employees]. O’Hanlon Eventing is a lot less hierarchical, whereas in lots of other places the muckers muck-out, the grooms only groom, and the riders only ride. Here, everyone does a little bit of everything.”

Learn to “Self-Resource”

Duarte says one of the biggest secrets to her success over the long-term is finding the correct support to ensure she continues to function at her highest level. “I work with a sports psychologist who is very experienced in the equine industry. She was a rider and groom herself, and works with athletes of all varieties. One of the things that she teaches is looking for ways to ‘resource’ yourself.”

A woman galloping on an event horse.

Anne-Marie and Riley in their happy place; grooms must carve out ‘me time’ to pursue their own dreams.

For example, as typical wellness advice, Duarte has often heard people say, “‘Remember to get a good night’s sleep and eat well,’ but the horses leave at five a.m., so this doesn’t necessarily work for my life. Sometimes on a busy day you don’t find time to eat at all. So [my psychologist] has taught me a greater understanding of what it means to ‘resource’ myself.”

For Duarte, ‘self-resourcing,’ or finding a way to get the most from your own capabilities and circumstances, involves finding those pockets of calm within her fast-paced schedule. “I love a good Monday. The horses aren’t being ridden, so I can do laundry or find other small things that recharge me. I also enjoy galloping the upper-level event horses every four days on an interval schedule. I do a lot of organizing who is doing what the next day, or things like ordering hay, bedding, or barn necessities.”

Self-resourcing is a process that involves constantly “Looking for things in your day that really refill your cup,” says Duarte. “Looking for things that really rejuvenate and inspire you. I enjoy going to the big away shows, so they rejuvenate me. But it’s also important to find your personal reset button both within the workday and during the work week.”

“Sometimes on my day off, I want to do things with my friends, other times I need time to recharge. Finding what sets you up for success…what resources you on an individual level…is a personal thing. Look for those little glimmers within the day that recharge you. Even just hand-grazing a horse or grooming a horse for a little longer, or tacking up a little slower and taking a minute to enjoy the horses themselves.”

Taking Steps Forward

In order to adapt a changing industry to the national financial climate and demographics going forward, Brian Tropea urges a hard look at best practices.

“Employers needs to review what has been done in the past with their businesses,” says Tropea. For example, “[Business owners] need to judge if it’s better to have one full-time, exhausted groom, or two part-time people who are excited to be at the barn and looking forward to working with the horses. A lot of [employers] have done things the same and never re-evaluated different ways of doing things… but grooms are taking care of our prize possessions, and so we need to make sure we are taking care of them.”

A big help would involve more programs and funding geared to realizing the viability of an industry that provides jobs on a national scale, but is often under-resourced.

“[Employees] who have experience can get a job tomorrow,” says Tropea. “There’s enough work around the province for newcomers, for people who have always dreamed about working outside around animals. We have a lot of new immigrants, so [the OEEEP] works with immigration companies, trying to create career pathways for people.”

“I saw a job advertised the other day offering great pay and benefits,” says Duarte, “But those jobs are not common in the industry, and they need to be if we want the industry to be taken seriously. People will do this for several years, and would be amazing long-term contributors to the sport, but for some reason, right now grooming as a profession is sometimes incompatible with living a real life.

“I was talking to my brother, who works in a financial field, about how I was never going to make money, and he was like, ‘Why not? Why are you doing something that doesn’t make money?’” Duarte says, laughing. “But grooming is a labour of love.”


Are you a groom suffering burnout? There are agencies that can help. The FEI has created an online Reporting Mechanism to centralize the feedback from grooms attending international equestrian events and to provide deeper insights into the needs and priorities of the community.  There is also an International Grooms Association whose mandate is to provide support, advice, education, employment guidance and mental health resources. And the Canadian Mental Health Association runs many programs including Workplace Mental Health for people suffering from stress, anxiety and depression.