It’s probably no surprise that groom Lydia Beales is inspired by a horse first and foremost . . . Balmoral Sensation no less.
The lass from West Yorkshire has been right beside Clarke Johnstone’s magnificent grey for many of their fantastic wins and milestones as his number one groom. She may not have come from a horsey background, but Lydia is well respected as one of the best in the business. She feels it’s also a job that is often misunderstood.
“Most people seem to think our job is to clean the horse and muck out its stable, but the reality is that we are not just constantly cleaning and grooming the horse,” she says. “I was once referred to as ‘the horse brusher lady’ in Wanaka and was quite offended!”
Grooms have a far wider responsibility which includes being PA for both the horse and rider, organising vets, farriers, competitions, exercise programmes, nutrition plans, travel, clean sport, social events, accommodation, treatment therapy, paperwork, riding and more. “It is a highly skilled job,” says Lydia.
While it is not something she grew up knowing about, she’s become the go-to for many in her new-found homeland. “I like to think I am loyal, hardworking and a good team player and while I am ambitious, I don’t strive to be the best myself. I enjoy working with elite athletes like Clarke and his horses because I believe in them and want them to succeed.”
Lydia grew up as the only child of her mum Christine in a non-horsey family. Her dad died suddenly when she was a baby. Her love of horses came when she had riding lessons while at primary school. At 11 she got her first job at the local riding school. It came with a free lease of a pony.
“I spent every weekend at the stables and evenings after school too,” she said. “I was mucking out, feeding and riding as many horses and ponies as I could.” She was paid just £5.50 a day and fed beans or spaghetti on toast for lunch – but the big bonus was that it also included a lesson. “I loved it!” She continued riding, competing in equitation and showing, and teaching horse riding until she finished school.
At 18 she headed off on a round-the-world trip with a good friend and discovered New Zealand. It would change her life. Three years later she returned to the country that had captured her heart.
While living in the South Island she was riding horses for Amanda Taylor who was pregnant and ended up at a Vaughn Jefferis clinic being hosted by the Johnstone family. “I mentioned to Vaughn that I would like the opportunity to do some work experience.” While he had no vacancy word soon reached the Johnstones and Jean – Clarke’s mum – called not long after to offer her a job grooming at the Horse of the Year Show. “I was on the plane the next day,” remembers 33-year-old Lydia. “I didn’t even know how to put studs in!”
However, her hard work ethic shone through and at the end of a busy week she was offered the job as head girl. “And I was told that in six weeks we would be moving to the UK with five horses to campaign for the London Olympic Games. My life has never been the same since.”
Since then, she and Clarke have ridden the highs and lows of the horse world, winning Adelaide CCI5*-L, campaigned for both the London and Rio Olympic Games, placing sixth at Rio as New Zealand’s highest placed individual, winning a team gold at Aachen and so much more. The lows have been tough and include an injury putting them out of the running for the 2018 FEI World Equestrian Games. “The three of us have remained such a team along the way.”
Clarke has plenty of good things to say about her too. “She is undoubtedly one of the best eventing grooms in the world,” he says. “Her passion for the horse and the sport, attention to detail and work ethic are just a few things that make Lydia exceptional at her job.”
There are many people who have helped shape Lydia into the person she is today, but naturally her list starts with her mum who encouraged her to chase her dreams. Her horsey world started with Seonaid and Kay McCart but then there is her New Zealand ‘family’. “Clarke and the Johnstone family have really paved the whole way for me,” she says. “I have been incredibly lucky with my opportunities.”
That includes the New Zealand evening grooms, vets, farriers, coaches and riders who had welcomed her into the team and taught her so much. She’s inspired by them all, but in particular Ritchie, Clarke and Clarke’s grandmother Shona. “I love so much of what I have done.” It’s the people who make the difference alongside some amazing horses. “Sir Mark Todd for never being too cool to let me ride on his shoulders too! The whole team are incredible. I feel lucky with every team experience I had.”
She’s now settled in Wanaka with her partner Mike, their two dogs, his two children and two horses, and she’s had a slight change in tack. Animals remain the centre of her world. “I live for them,” she says. “It is interesting that I am now working full time as a veterinary nurse with companion animals in Wanaka. We’ll see what the future holds.”
It may be a new page in the adventures of Lydia Beales, but it still comes with the same driven, motivation and energy that have made her a stand-out since she was tiny.
Lydia’s five top tips . . .
- Keep it fun! This sport is tough enough without laughter.
- Always treat your groom with respect and give thanks when you appreciate them.
- Exercise outside of riding. You are both athletes and need to be fit.
- Interact with your horses when you are not riding. There needs to be a bond.
- Go hacking – horses love it.