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Madeleine Broek: “I always put the horses first and myself second”

Wednesday, 19 February 2020
Interview

Photo © Jenny Abrahamsson for World of Showjumping “She is the best groom in the world,” Marc Houtzager says about Madeleine Broek, who has worked with him for the last fifteen years. Photo © Jenny Abrahamsson for World of Showjumping.

 

Text © World of Showjumping

 


 

Grooms are without a doubt one of the most important ingredients in any success story, and there are some long-lasting partnerships illustrating just this. When the Netherland’s Marc Houtzager won the Longines FEI World Cup at Jumping Amsterdam at the end of January, he was asked about his groom Madeleine Broek. “She is the best groom in the world,” Marc smiled. “All the grooms behind all of us riders are so important, the work of our teams behind the scenes is a huge part of our success.”

Fifteen years ago, Madeleine was riding in the US but was planning a return to the Netherlands. “My parents gave me two opportunities; school or work. I chose work,” Madeleine – now 35 – tells. “I remember thinking I would take the job with Marc, so that I at least had work to come back to – and then just see.”

“In the beginning, I did not know so much about the job – about really taking care of the horses,” Madeleine continues. “At first, my job was to ride the horses at home while Marc was away at shows. But then I went to a show with Marc… And when you go once, then you go again, and again… and so it started,” she laughs. “Along the way, I think we have learned from each other. Marc gives me freedom to do my job, he trusts me.”  

Madeleine’s biggest motivation are her horses. “I really like to take care of them,” Madeleine says when asked what she enjoys most about her job. “Marc gets the horses when they are young, so we can all grow together and that is something I really like. You build the horses up together, from the bottom until the Olympic Games or where ever the journey finishes. Tamino for example, he came to us when he was only four and ended up winning the team silver at the Olympic Games in London. He was a really special horse to take care of, and when he jumped clear in London with that whole journey behind us it was an incredible feeling.”

Photo © World of Showjumping
"As a groom, if you really love your job, you can experience a lot,” Madeleine says. Photo © World of Showjumping.

Over the years, Madeleine has been lucky enough to care for some true legends. If she would have to mention the one that she has had the most special bond with, it would be Opium. “In the beginning I was really afraid of him, but then at one point we started to respect each other,” Madeleine recalls. “We went through a lot with him. With Opium we did the European Championships at Windsor and the Olympics in Hong Kong. The World Equestrian Games in Kentucky and the Olympics in London we did with Tamino and the European Championships in Rotterdam with Calimero.”

“There have been so many great moments,” Madeleine tells. “Opium’s retirement ceremony in Amsterdam in 2015 was also special. On that Saturday night he jumped clear in the big class, and went on to be retired on Sunday. I think it was one of the best retirements a horse can get, he was still so fit. He is now at his owners, Stoeterij Sterrehof, while Tamino is still with us enjoying his retirement.”

While some of her four-legged friends have stayed with her after their careers have come to an end, some have also left early – and that has been one of the hardest parts of the job for Madeleine. “Sometimes Marc has to sell,” she explains. “When Baccarat left, that was a difficult moment for me. When you develop that special connection with a horse, it is quite sad to see them go. But then afterwards, when you hear how happy the new riders are with them, that makes it easier.”

The two animal activists storming the ring while Marc and Calimero were jumping in the final of European Championships in Rotterdam last August, was another tough moment. However, they could possibly not have picked stronger opponents. After Marc had kept his cool to pilot Calimero to a clear round, Madeleine went in the ring to confront the two activists that by then had been caught by security. “At that moment… I did not feel anything,” Madeleine recalls. “I was filming, and after the second fence people started to scream. I could not understand what was happening. After jumping clear, Marc crossed the finish line and I just saw black – I saw nothing, I just went into the arena and there were two people who tried to stop me. I was so angry,” she says. “I think the hardest part is that those people say we don’t give the horses any love. I think I speak for all grooms, when I say that we take care of our horses like they were our kids. If our horses don’t have a five-star life, I don’t know who does.”

Photo © Jenny Abrahamsson for World of Showjumping "I think I speak for all grooms, when I say that we take care of our horses like they were our kids," Madeleine says. Photo © Jenny Abrahamsson for World of Showjumping.

Over the years, Madeleine has witnessed the change the sport has gone through. A noticeable difference is the increase in the number of events, which has put a whole new pressure on everyone involved. “There are so many shows now and you can win so much money. There is so much pressure on the riders. That also reflects on us grooms, especially in terms of travelling and working hours. These days it is not possible to be on the top of the sport with only one traveling groom. All the long distances and the high pace of the events, require that most riders have more than one show groom. This is also a reason for how freelancing became so in demand, and why you see so many grooms change jobs a lot. The hours are insane and the hardest part of the job.”

“If you have to travel far to a show, you first drive 700km to get there at the beginning of the week, then you do the show until Sunday, then you drive home again and repeat this nearly every week – it is tough. I think that as a groom, you have to be aware of your own responsibility and know when to stop. There is no point to put yourself and your horses in danger, just to hurry home. You have to get home, but you have to think about not only yourself, but also the horses and put their safety first.”

“I think most people are not aware of how long the days are, and what we grooms do for our horses. They don’t know the sacrifices we make for them. It’s all behind the scenes, and what most people see is the few minutes the riders are in the ring. However, I feel like the situation is getting better, and that the grooms get more recognition – but the life behind the scenes should be shared a bit more so that there is a better understanding of what this sport requires. It is not a nine to five job and you cannot count hours. If you do, you get really disappointed,” Madeleine laughs. “You have to be a little bit crazy to do this. And you really have to love horses, otherwise you cannot manage.”

Photo © Jenny Abrahamsson for World of Showjumping "I feel like the situation is getting better, and that the grooms get more recognition – but the life behind the scenes should be shared a bit more so that there is a better understanding of what this sport requires," Madeleine says - here with Sterrehof's Calimero. Photo © Jenny Abrahamsson for World of Showjumping.

When asked what keeps her going, Madeleine laughs and answers: “It is a good question, I get asked that a lot! The days are long and it is hard work, but for me it is a way of living – not a job. For as long as I like it and can do it physically, I will keep on going. I always put the horses first and myself second. It is a way of thinking.”

At the end of 2019, Madeleine was awarded as FEI Cavalor Groom of the Year. “I was really impressed,” Madeleine tells about the award that caught her by surprise. “I had no idea about it, and when I got an email about being nominated, I thought it was a joke. I think an award like this is important; not just for me personally, but for all the grooms. I think it is good for everyone to see that our work is being recognized and appreciated. For me, it was really cool to win this.”

A part of the award was based on a vote, and many of Madeleine’s colleagues showed their support. “It is almost like a family,” Madeleine explains about the tight-knit group of grooms at the highest level. “You always see the same faces, and you connect because they too know how this job works. And you can always count on getting advice or help when you need it. When there is something I don’t know, I ask other grooms. I believe that you can always learn, and everyone has a different opinion. What I like to do, is to ask a few people and then think for myself. When you look around, everyone has their own system. That is also how I learned; by looking and listening.”

“I have been all over the world already,” Madeleine answers when asked if there are any events left that she would still like to experience. “Right now, we are aiming for Tokyo. For the future, the only thing I have promised to myself is that when I stop working with Marc, I won’t go to another rider. I don’t know if I can even work for someone else,” she laughs. “To be honest, I didn’t know what I was getting into when I first started; but I can only say that I have learned a lot and I have seen a lot. I have travelled around the world and did not pay one euro! As a groom, if you really love your job, you can experience a lot.”

 

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