Commentary: Who Cares?

By Dr. C. Reid McLellan

Education? We don’t need no stinkin’ education!” Few horsemen actually use that paraphrase of Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles movie quote in public, but many practice that mantra, even if they don’t preach it.

When first approached about the possibility of having a groom training class, managers and trainers often retort: 

“Grooms don’t need to know that.”  

“Grooms won’t go to class on their own time.” 

“Grooms don’t really want to learn about their horses.”  

“Grooms are just going to class for the free lunch.”

However, as Bob Dylan wrote many years ago, “The times they are a-changin’.”

The Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summit concluded that the industry should “make education programs like the Groom Elite program available to more grooms and equine care workers.”  

Groom Elite started when Sue O’Hara, a Texas Thoroughbred owner and Texas Horsemen’s Partnership board member, was surprised to learn that grooms did not have to meet minimum standards to be licensed, and that there were no training programs available to grooms. 

The first Groom Elite class was presented at Lone Star Park in spring 2001.  

Six years later, with more than 700 grooms certified from 48 classes in 15 states and a class in South Africa, we have answers to those objections. 

Do they need to know about their job? Trainer Donnie Von Hemel had eight experienced grooms take that first class at Lone Star Park and commented, “After two weeks I could see a difference in the quality of their work.”  

Do they want to learn about their horses? The veterinarian who was to teach GE 101 at Remington Park was skeptical the first day, but changed his mind the next day when a groom called him over to a stall, pointed to the back of his horse’s ankle, and said, “Doc, do you know this is where the sesamoids are?” 

Are they willing to go to class to learn? More than 100 grooms showed up for the 60 spots available at Santa Anita. At most GE 101 classes the number of students is limited only by the size of the classroom. GE 101 graduates asked for more information and were the driving force behind the addition of a Groom Elite 201 certification class and a Trainer Elite 301 trainers’ exam prep class that are part of our extensive course offering.

Is it important to the racing industry? The National Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, 3M Corporation, American Quarter Horse Association, and The Jockey Club are industry corporate contributors. Thoroughbred Charities of America, Oak Tree Racing Association, Keeneland Association, Racetrack Chaplaincy of America, Virginia HBPA, and Florida HBPA are charitable foundation contributors.

This support provided expenses and basic needs of a mostly volunteer staff that made those 49 Groom Elite classes available.

It’s time to make this education available to even more equine-care workers.

With significant financial commitment from the racing industry, we can meet the increasing demand at racetracks, expand to include grooms at farms, and provide second chances for horses and people at Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation prison programs.

Many racing industry individuals and organizations understand the need to donate to and support nonprofit organizations that directly benefit equine research, injured horses, and injured track workers.

An investment in The Elite Program could reduce the amount needed for injured horses and workers because better-educated and better-trained workers help prevent injuries, reduce the amount of lost training time, and increase the opportunities for owners to realize more income.

Does it mean more than a free lunch? A 52-year-old groom dropped out of a Mexico school after the sixth grade to work on the racetrack. Even with limited reading and writing skills, he successfully completed Groom Elite 101 at Sam Houston Race Park and received GE 101 certification.

At graduation he held up his Groom Elite 101 certificate and said, “I have six children. All six of them graduated high school. Four of them graduated college and the other two are in college now. The racetrack helped me pay for all that. This is the first diploma that I have ever received, and it is going to hang on the wall right in the middle of all of their diplomas.”

Dr. C. Reid McLellan is executive director of The Elite Program.