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Johanna Burtsoff: “Maybe we don’t need to go back to the old normal where we flew over three continents in one month”

Tuesday, 17 November 2020
Interview

Photo © Jenny Abrahamsson for World of Showjumping.
Johanna Burtsoff used to travel the world with Laura Kraut’s equine super stars, won an Olympic gold medal with Team USA and witnessed first-hand what it takes to become the best. Photo © Seb Boulanger.

 

Text © World of Showjumping

 


 

Johanna Burtsoff used to travel the world with Laura Kraut’s equine super stars, won an Olympic gold medal with Team USA and witnessed first-hand what it takes to become the best. World of Showjumping met the 43-year-old to speak about the importance of a good groom, and how the fast-paced life at the highest level of the sport can take its toll.

Johanna, originally from Finland, started up at a local riding school. “I wanted to ride, and my mom took me to a pony class,” she recalls. “There, we got to do much more than just ride. We also got to take care of the ponies, which was nice.”

One thing led to another, and Johanna was soon totally smitten with the horses. “Once I got to go with to shows as a groom, horses just took all my time – and school started to suffer,” she tells. “When I was seventeen, I decided to work with horses full-time and started to work at a riding school. I learned everything by doing – from mucking out to taking care of horses’ teeth.”

After five years of working with horses in Finland, Johanna felt it was time to go abroad – and ended up at Castershoeve in Belgium. “This was at the end of the 90s”, Johanna tells. “It was a whole new world opening for me; at the yard, we worked with everything from foals to Grand Prix horses and I rode a lot. When you are twenty, riding 15 horses on top of all the other yard duties does not feel bad at all,” she laughs. “I had such a good time and I learned a lot. However, I did return to Finland after three years.”

Photo © Jenny Abrahamsson for World of Showjumping
"The knowledge grooms have – after spending all their time with their horses – is the biggest asset there is," Johanna says. Photo © Jenny Abrahamsson for World of Showjumping.

Later on, Johanna spent five years in Italy working with young horses, before returning to Finland again. “Then a friend of mine called and asked if I wanted to come with her to Florida and work for Laura Kraut,” Johanna tells about a phone call that changed her life. “And that one winter turned into 12 years…”

Johanna’s years working alongside Laura were full of memorable moments. However, the 2008 Beijing Olympics were an experience that she believes cannot be topped. “The best moment came in the beginning really, at our first Olympic Games we won team gold, Cedric was double clear on the last day and clear in the jump-off,” she tells. “At that moment, I did not even truly realize how huge it all was. I don’t think this will happen again during my career!”

Another highlight was seeing Zeremonie, that came to Laura as a young horse, develop into the star she is today. “Even though I did not work for Laura anymore during the 2018 World Equestrian Games in Tryon, it was amazing to see Zeremonie jump home that gold,” Johanna explains. “Seeing horses progress like that is one of the best things in this line of work.”

“With horses, things are bound to go wrong every now and then,” Johanna continues to speak about the lows that come with the highs. “With the amount of travelling and work, you are constantly tired – and when the horses get injured or sick on top of that, those are hard times to get through. But, with age I have learned that when you just keep going, everything will turn out ok.”

Photo © Jenny Abrahamsson for World of Showjumping
Johanna with Cedric and Laura Kraut – who she worked with for twelve years. Photo © Jenny Abrahamsson for World of Showjumping.

Today, Johanna works for Clara Hallundbaek – one of Denmark’s rising stars. “I guess I just grew old,” Johanna explains her switch of jobs. “I am no longer 20 – I just became too tired. I wanted to have more time for myself and focus better on what I am doing. Nowadays, at the highest level, you no longer have five to six horses that you know well and travel with. Today, one groom can have a stable full of horses. If the grooms make it home in between the shows, they just switch horses. This way, you don’t really have the time to get to know them even. It is no longer about everything being perfect and going to an event to show how well you have prepared and trained. The sport has changed so much, there are so many shows now – in the long run it gets very tiring, for everyone. I think that at the highest level, the grooms’ lives have become a constant battle for survival.”

“Personally, I believe that a huge motivation for any groom is seeing your horse jump great – but if you don’t really know the horse, you are not really a part of the success, are you?” Johanna reflects.

The fast-paced life on the top might be one of the reasons why so many in the industry seem to be struggling with finding good staff members. “I think there are a lot of young grooms coming in, but the problem is that they are asked so much. They need to drive, ride, be everywhere,” Johanna says. “It takes a few years to gain enough horsemanship to actually be able to take care of your horses so that they can perform on a high level. But today, by the time you’ve learned enough, you are so tired that you don’t want to do it anymore. I believe this is the reason that many people change jobs so often; they want to work with horses, but get too tired and believe that grass is greener on the other side. A few years in a new place, and they are burned out again. It should be possible for people to stay in this job for a long time without burning out. In general, simple things – such as days off and having a few weeks of holiday each year without having to stress about the horses’ wellbeing – make a huge difference. Riders should make sure that they have enough staff, so that they can develop a system where all of the responsibility is not on the shoulders of one single person. At the end of the day, it is so important the horses are well looked after!”

Photo © Jenny Abrahamsson for World of Showjumping
"Seeing horses progress is one of the best things in this line of work," Johanna tells. Photo © Jenny Abrahamsson for World of Showjumping.

“Most top riders have enough horsemanship skills to take good care of their horses. However, these days there are a lot of amateurs competing and for them it is essential to have a groom who really knows what they are doing,” Johanna explains. “The knowledge grooms have – after spending all their time with their horses – is the biggest asset there is.”  

When asked which qualities she thinks a good groom should have, Johanna smiles. “You need strong nerves and you have to be able to cope with stress,” Johanna smiles. “You need patience – stressing and running around does not help. There is a lot of travelling and waiting involved in this job. You have to be able to relax in short periods of time, so that once you are working, you are ready for it. And you must really love horses, that is the whole point of it.”

Though extremely demanding, a groom’s job is also hugely rewarding. “It goes back to seeing how horses progress; getting a young horse or a problematic horse, and being able to help them overcome their challenges, go into the ring and jump and enjoy their job,” Johanna tells about the things that bring her the most joy. Travelling around the world is another advantage she mentions. “It is great to see so many new places, it is very educational,” she continues. “We are not tourists; we see the reality in each place. It gives you so many experiences of different people and places.

“That being said, perhaps this is a good chance to think about whether or not we should possibly restrict the amount of shows a horse can do,” Johanna says as we move on to speak about the Covid-19 pandemic’s impact on the sport – with far less shows globally. “Maybe we don’t need to go back to the old normal where we flew over three continents in one month.”

As demanding as it is, Johanna could not imagine doing anything else than working with horses. “At the end of the day, seeing my horses happy in their stables makes me happy. As a groom, you have really done something during the day: something has improved, maybe you have resolved a problem… and then you get up the day after and do it all over again.”

 

No reproduction without written permission, copyright © World of Showjumping

 



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