Becoming an army groom: begin with the horse, end up with so much more.
“Every minute was beautiful” says Joshua Carey of his time with the horses as an Army Equitation School groom, as we chat in the immaculate red brick yard nestled within Phoenix Park.
Just before I arrived, the Equitation School lorry rolled out of McKee Barracks on the road to The Netherlands with the horses, riders and grooms who will fulfil the Army Equitation School mission ‘to promote the Irish competition horse through participation in international events at the highest level’.
Carey joined the army at 22 years old having grown up around horses and been involved with carriage driving at home. Not all recruits into the equitation school have a background in horses however, and some, like Darren Cummins or ‘Farmer’ as he’s known, has been in the equitation school for 19 years, despite never having even ridden a horse before he joined up.
There are two routes into the army equitation school, as a recruit or as a cadet: cadet is the route to becoming a riding officer and recruit is if you want a professional career as an army groom.
Once you join the army, the basic training is only two blocks of 12 weeks. This training allows you to become competent and capable and to graduate with the rank of Private. While the physical and psychometric testing is challenging (though by all accounts nothing like it’s portrayed to be on TV!), it is also a time to build friendships and comradery that can last a lifetime.
For those recruits who want to follow the path into a role as an army groom, initial training is followed by a six-week groom’s course which includes riding, horse care and equine management, once that’s complete recruits learn hands-on on the job. There are no formal educational requirements to join the army as a recruit, however once joined up, you can achieve a level seven-degree equivalent, or any number of civilian qualifications, all paid for by the army. The groom’s course is fully accredited by South East Technological University; the Irish Defence Forces were the first in the world to secure external accreditation.
The positive thing about the army if you’re an equestrian is that once you’re there, as well as the job security, there is also the chance to travel internationally with the horses and to learn any number of equestrian skills including course building and getting your lorry licence. You can even train to become a driving instructor and teach others to drive the lorry!
The opportunities without horses appear to be endless too, whether you want to do apprenticeships, go overseas or train to be a sports tutor, become a vehicle fleet manager, study logistics or even reconnaissance photography are all on offer. There’s another bonus too, in the eyes of the army, equitation is classed as a technical capability and that means the addition of an extra monetary allowance to your salary.
For anyone who wants a professional career as a groom, as well as the day-to-day opportunities in the army there are also the wider securities that come with a decision to join up; a salary, a pension, health and dental care - all the things that you don’t think about in your younger years and which aren’t always offered in a groom’s job elsewhere.
In the groom’s day-to-day routine, work starts at 8.30 in the morning and finishes at 4.30 in the afternoon, or in the competition off-season at 3.30. You get Wednesday afternoons off too. During our tour of the barracks, Commanding Officer Lt Col Tom Freyne and Commandant Sharon Crean talk at length about the importance of a healthy work life balance, and just like for anyone who works with horses - the relentless nature of the work is best counteracted with fair hours and proper time off, but as a civilian groom, this isn’t always on offer like it is here. The army also understands the changes life throws up like starting a family and there is allowance and support made for that.
The show jumping circuit is a year-round endeavour but if you are working as an army groom, you are not asked to be a slave to the horse, or to the many shows. There is a work time directive and all recruits get their share of holidays and weekends off.
Although the professional competitive riding is done by the dedicated riding officers, the highly-respected grooms also get the chance to ride if they want to, including as part of the mounted escorts at Punchestown and the Curragh leading in the winners on race days. Hacking out in Phoenix Park, the biggest enclosed park in any European city, also seems to be a firm favourite no matter what rank you are.
The Army Equitation School is made up of just 39 people across all ranks, and 34 horses. There is certainly an air of a ‘family’ on the yard as I chat to the grooms and take a look at the wonderful Irish horses in their care. Grooms get to know the horses incredibly well and usually stay with the horses they are assigned for the long haul.
Interestingly, although any horse that is bought for the equitation school must be born in Ireland, the same does not apply for the recruits. There is no stipulation to be Irish and the school welcomes recruits from anywhere in the world.
You can tell a lot from the horses by walking around any yard, to the experienced eye, horses’ physicality and expression always offers a measure of the true atmosphere. It must be said that all the horses at McKee Barracks were relaxed and happy going about their work, and there were plenty of moments I got a glimpse of a soft hand on a horse’s neck or a gentle rub of a wither. I also happened upon Heike Holstein teaching a flatwork lesson in one of the school’s arenas, just one of the civilian experts who visit regularly to share their skills.
Over the last number of years, the army has spent over €4 million on Irish horses. Supporting Irish breeders is high on the agenda and to be applauded. Each horse has a bespoke development pathway with its own individual plan.
Horses are often bought at four and five years old and more often than not from the smaller Irish breeder or producer as opposed to the larger commercial operations. The Army Equitation School prides itself in taking life-long care of any horse that joins its ranks. Where circumstances allow, some mares are offered back to the breeder free of charge, a nod to the work it takes to build up a bloodline.
The stables are large and roomy and Lt Col Freyne has put in a number of new turn-out paddocks for the horses to have downtime. Often, retired army horses can go to live at the Department of Agriculture Farm in Clane, some even spend time grazing in front of Áras an Uachtaráin – the President’s residence in Phoenix Park.
There is certainly a parallel to be acknowledged of ‘life-long’ care for both horse and groom in the army. You are supported through your career but there is also support when you leave. If you become an army groom there comes with it the honour of not only travelling the world to shows and working alongside a dedicated team, but you not only become an ambassador of the equitation school and the defence forces but of Irish-bred horses and that’s perhaps the biggest honour of all.