Rolex Grand Slam of Show Jumping

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INTERVIEW WITH DERREN LAKE

Photo : Rolex / Thomas Lovelock Photo : Rolex / Thomas Lovelock

Could you introduce yourself and tell us about your job?

I am the travelling groom for Ben Maher. I travel with his top horses across the world – from national to international competitions – but most of the big shows are abroad nowadays. Wherever they go, I go.  This process starts at the stables at home from when we get them ready and put them on the lorry. If we are flying somewhere we will go via Liège or Amsterdam to get to our final destination. My job is to look after the horses and to make sure that they are as happy and healthy as possible. 

 

How did you begin your career in the industry?

My career with horses did not begin until I was 17-years-old. I have always had a love for animals, and at the time that I started looking for a job, the type of job I originally wanted was not available for my age so I found something to do with horses, and I have never looked back. 

I started with the basics with young horses at the smaller national shows and I worked my way up eventually to working with 5* Grand Prix horses over the past 37 years – it has been a long but rewarding journey. 

 

If you could go back in time to the beginning of your career, what advice would you give yourself?

I am not sure that there is much advice that I could give myself as I am still learning. With horses, you learn something new every day, even now after working in the industry for over thirty years, and I think it is what makes our job as a groom so special. 

When I first started my career aged 17, I truly started from scratch. Of course, it would have been easier to start in another way, but it has been an incredible journey. To be honest, when I first started I knew nothing about horses – I could tell the difference between a donkey and a horse. Growing up I always loved animals, and I remember my sister had a book on horses, which really interested me. When I got the opportunity to work with horses I took it and I have never looked back. At the beginning of my career, I learned to ride on the younger horses, and we were at national shows a lot of the time.

It has been a hard journey, but if I could go back I would do it all again because I have had so many opportunities, from working with foals to stallions and everything in between. For me, I have always been focused on working within show jumping. I have always done it for the love of the horses.

 

You often make long journeys to events; how do you ensure that the horses are still fit for competition after the trip? Do you have any top advice for ensuring their welfare?

My main priority is to make sure the horses are stress-free. There is a lot going on during a flight, but I think that if you know your horses well you should not have too many issues. You need to make sure that the horses are as calm as possible. If you have a good relationship with your horses you will know them inside and out and they will trust you – I think this is very important to make sure that they travel well. 

I always make sure they have a hay net and that I always have ‘sweets’ with me – these can help calm a horse down if needed. When you know your horses well you should be able to know how they act before they react, and therefore you can be ready for this. Ultimately, the horse should trust you and it is your responsibility to make sure that they feel confident. 

Young horses are like children, they learn very fast, and when they get older they are more experienced, and so it is important to make sure that a young horse feels safe and happy – and that is our job as a groom.

 

Do you have any superstitions or a certain routine that you do at an important competition?

I am very superstitious! I always talk to my horses before a big class and say ‘Come on it is a big day’ or ‘We have a challenge – let's do this’. It is a very little thing but it makes you feel more confident. I always think and hope that we can win, but you have to have a bit of luck in a big Grand Prix like a Major. Ultimately, if the horse gives its best that is all that matters. You need luck, and that is the same in every sport be that Formula 1 or football. The horse and rider have to perform at their very best, and the groom also has to give 150% to ensure the horse is feeling good and is happy going into that class. 

Our team is incredible, and as a groom, I would give everything for the success of Ben and the horses. At the end of the day, it is all about the team, and it starts with the team at home. The horses are like our babies – we are with them most of the time. When one of your horses wins a Grand Prix or even jumps clear it is a lovely feeling. Of course, it is nice to win a big Grand Prix, like at the CHIO Aachen, that is what it is all about, but if the horse jumps well and gives its best then that is also great. We all do this for the love of the horses – to take care of them for the riders so that they can be the best that they can – that is what it is all about.

 

Could you tell us about the string of horses that you look after and some of their characteristics?

Each horse has their own unique set of characteristics. For instance, Point Break is a stallion and he has a lot of personality. He is now coming into his own and I feel like this year is his year – he goes into the ring now and wants to show his best. Dallas Vegas Batilly is a mare, and she has a very special character. Sometimes it can be a fine line with her but she is adorable and will do anything for you. Ginger-Blue is another super lovely and talented mare, and there is Enjeu De Grisien who is also lovely. Explosion W is, of course, the number one in the yard. What he has done for Ben is just incredible. 

To be honest I haven’t got one bad thing to say about any of his horses. They are all soft, and of course, they have their moments but that is the same with humans. The rider and groom must understand each of the different horses’ unique qualities. For example, Exit Remo is like a professional he just goes in and does his job. You have to adapt to each horse – that is the job of a groom. 

 

How do you ensure that they are able to peak at the most important moments during the year?

It is a team effort! Of course, I am at the shows with the horses. But the people who ride the horses at home when Ben and I are away are crucial to the success of the team. Ben trusts us all and that is what makes our team so strong. 

We have a manager at home who will hold the fort whilst we are away, and this allows Ben to focus on competing and doing well, as he does not have to worry about what is happening. It is important that he has a clear head and can concentrate on the show. 

 

Ben has had some incredible results in the Rolex Grand of Show Jumping Majors – what is it about them that makes them such special events?

They are four of the best shows in the world. For example the atmosphere at the CHIO Aachen or the CSIO Spruce Meadows ‘Masters’ Tournament – you really are not going to get better in the sport. It is the same for The Dutch Masters and the CHI Geneva, they are all incredible shows.  It is what the sport needs – full stadiums so that people can see what the sport is like at the top level, and the Rolex Grand Slam of Show Jumping is the sport at its top level. All of the best horses and riders are there, and therefore you get the best sport, with a super jump-off. These venues have the best facilities there for the horses and incredible arenas.

The Majors are an occasion to rise to. I always get chills as I walk down the tunnel to jump in the Rolex Grand Prix at the CHIO Aachen, it is an incredible feeling. It does not get any bigger than that class – the Majors are the top level and that is what they should be. 

 

What qualities do you think a horse and rider must have to win a Major?

To win a Major both the horse and rider, as well as the groom, have to be at their very best. There is no room for errors – it all has to be spot on. It starts in the stable and finishes with the jump-off at the end. 

You have to have a bit of luck – like any sport in the world. You have the best of the best at each of the Majors trying to win – all the riders bring their top horses so you have to go there and give your best, and hope that it is enough for that day. You could go and give your best and it could only be good enough for third place that day. 

 

How important do you think sporting Majors, such as the CHIO Aachen, or The Championships, Wimbledon are in sport?

They are so important – they bring the best sport! You have all of the top riders there trying to beat the best. In Formula1, the very best at the moment is Max Verstappen, and all the other drivers are trying to beat him, and the same with tennis everyone wanted to beat Nadal when he was World No.1. In show jumping at the moment the best is either Ben or Henrik [von Eckermann], and the other riders have to do better than them. Ben is always chasing Henrik – it is not easy to be better than the best in the world, but that is the motivation and the drive in sport. This is what raises the level of the sport. 

 

If you could pass one thing on to an aspiring groom, what would it be?

Set your goals in life and try to live and push for that dream. I have a dream and everyone has a dream in life – you have to try to make it a reality to your best ability. I also think you need to learn from your mistakes – everyone makes mistakes but you have to carry on and get better. If you are devoted to this sport then you will get better and achieve your goals.  Don’t give up, it is important to keep going. I have been doing this job for 37 years and I am as motivated as I was when I was 17-years-old. 

As a team we are still pushing, Ben has his goals and so do I, so we are pushing 150%. Our whole team is like that and that is why we are in the sport – to help Ben achieve his goals. The motivation for the job has to be there and you have to want to do it for the love of the animals – you are there to give them comfort and to make them happy at the end of the day. 

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