These are the first Championships for Bardolina’s groom, Stefanie Walchuk, who has been grooming for Mario Deslauriers for the last two years. She was bitterly disappointed to have missed Tokyo because of a paperwork issue.
“She means the world to me,” said Stefanie of her charge. “She’s my number one, so it’s really nice to get to come here and experience this with her.”
Stefanie grew up in Victoria, BC where she spent her childhood riding hunters, equitation and jumpers at Thunderbird. She moved to Alberta to attend the University of Calgary but continued to work part-time in a barn doing chores, teaching lessons, and training some horses. She ended up leaving school when she was offered a riding job for a Grand Prix rider based in Calgary, where she then became the lead FEI groom.
“I had never groomed at the level before and just kind of got thrown straight into it,” recalls Stefanie of her first experience attending an FEI show at Spruce Meadows. “The day before the show they told me I needed to do a body clip and hook up the truck and trailer and drive the horses to the show. I had never driven a truck and trailer so I YouTubed how to hook them up. I taught myself how to body clip, and I taught myself how to braid.”
After a serious injury when young horse collapsed on her in a trailer, Stefanie tried working outside the horse industry.
“I worked for a payroll agency as a payroll specialist for a year and hated every minute of it. I hated sitting at a desk, and being on the phone and computer all day ‒ I couldn’t do it and I left. I didn’t really have a plan, but I knew I didn’t want to do that.”
Through her network of friends, she quickly found work for an American amateur who needed a freelance groom to help for a couple of weeks in Thunderbird. She ended up staying with the farm for three years, travelling between California and Florida before moving on to work for Daniel Bluman. She had been looking for a different opportunity when she learned of the job with Mario, where she now cares for three of his horses.
Her days start early and include typical barn chores and coordinating ride times with Mario.
“For Bardolina, a big thing for her is I like her out to walk a lot. She gets bored so she’s got toys and I get her out for hand walks and grass,” Stefanie said of Mario’s team horse. “I find that helps with legs and muscles so they don’t stand so long,” adding that she also uses magnetic blankets and ice to keep Bardolina 2 in top shape.
To those looking for a career as an FEI groom, Stefanie recommends working from the bottom up.
“We all start somewhere. There is no job too small. A lot of people that start grooming want to start at the top, but there are so many building blocks to get there.” she commented. “Every job I’ve worked at I’ve learned things and taken those to the next job and built on that. You learn something everywhere you go. Everybody does something a little bit differently.”
Stefanie also encourages people to ask questions and learn from those you work with.
“Be open to learning. It’s easy to think that because you’ve been doing the job for so long that you know what you’re doing, but there may be a different way. If you see somebody doing something differently, ask the question and maybe do it their way if they have a reason that would really work for you. That’s been a big thing ‒ surrounding myself with very knowledgeable people.”
Those who are looking to move up should make use of the connections around them.
“Chat with the person next to you in the barn. Maybe they know somebody looking for a job. You get to know someone and they recommend you somewhere. Word of mouth and meeting people is really helpful.”
As the travelling reserve, Bardolina went home on Wednesday when she wasn’t needed ‒ but what does the future hold for Stefanie?
“Horses will always be in my life. I have no plans of leaving grooming any time soon. I’m really happy where I am now, I love my job, I love horses, I love working for Mario.”