Competent Grooms Make Competent Trainers


We have heard the phrase “not competent to stand trial” and I suspect most of us have referred to someone as an “incompetent” horseperson.  The first entry under competent in an Encarta dictionary is “Able – having enough skill or ability to do something”.  A competency is “the ability to do something…to a required standard”.  To be “certified” in a field means that a person has demonstrated that they can perform the necessary skills to the “required standard” of a licensing (or certifying) agency.  Racehorse trainers and assistant trainers must pass a ‘barn test” in which they demonstrate their abilities in the daily hands-on skills required of a trainer.  They then take a written test in which they demonstrate they have a minimum knowledge of the rules of racing, daily training protocols and the skill to enter a horse in an appropriate race with the correct impost (weight). 


In March I was hired by the Kentucky Community and Technical College System (KCTCS) to write the curriculum for the North American Racing Academy, the resulting outgrowth of Chris McCarron’s Jockey School. (see sidebar). This curriculum must pass review by departmental, college and system wide curriculum committees and then get final approval from the KCTCS board of regents.  One of the main portions of the program proposal is the “Course Competencies” section.  The approval form’s instructions provide the “header” phrase, “At the conclusion of this class the student will be able to:” 


At our weekly meeting on July 20, I presented the first rough draft of the program’s competencies as derived from the classes being offered for each of three pathways (Jockey, Horseman and Racing Administration).   When the associate dean for academic affairs of Bluegrass Community and Technical College (BCTC) looked at his copy of the horsemen’s pathway he said, “ONE-HUNDRED-THIRTY FOUR!  You mean there are 134 things a groom is supposed to know to be able to groom a horse?”  I told him to remember this is a rough draft and that another 50 or so will be added to that list.  No, a groom can “do the job” without knowing 12 bones of the front leg or the name of the long muscle in the neck (brachiocephalicus muscle).  But those that do have that ability can do a better job of providing care for their horses and assisting the trainer in recognizing potential problems early enough to prevent them from becoming more serious and perhaps career ending. 


On Friday July 21 I graduated the second class of grooms from the Second Chances Elite program at the Wateree Correctional Institute in Rembert, South Carolina.  I told those in attendance that those graduates demonstrated at least 200 competencies throughout the six months of study.  On assessment day they demonstrated their knowledge on a written exam and their skills level in at least 25 hands-on competencies working in a stall with a racehorse.  Twelve grooms at Churchill Downs and 18 at Canterbury Park took the same competency tests at the conclusion of Groom Elite 101 classes at their respective tracks this summer and received their Groom Elite 101 certifications. 


How can you apply competency based education on a daily basis?  Consider something your grooms are not currently doing “your” way.  Or, maybe you have just hired some new grooms.  You can have them doing it your way in one simple lesson.

Take time to prepare a brief and simple “lesson plan” as follows;

  1. Write down the subject.  Keep it specific such as “washing feed tubs and water buckets”.  You can add more depending on how much time you want to spend.  (For a new groom or group of grooms you would probably want to cover the most important activities in the first class.  For grooms that have been with you a while there is probably one specific area where they may be falling short of your expectations and that would be your only topic for discussion.) 
  2. Write down the competencies by completing this statement:  “When I get through with this session my grooms will be able to ___________________________.
    1. Avoid using words such as “know” or “understand”.  They may “know how to wash a bucket” but not be able to demonstrate that knowledge in accordance with your guidelines.
    2. Identify the “minimum” acceptable standard and write the competencies to encompass all standards being as specific as necessary.
    3. Write the competencies so it will be easy for you to evaluate how they are measuring up to your standard.   


Example of competencies for washing feed tubs and water buckets

            At the end of this session my grooms will be able to:

                                                                     i.      Pull feed tubs and water buckets upon first arriving at barn.

                                                                   ii.      Organize tubs and buckets in designated area near wash rack.

                                                                  iii.      Use one ounce each of of dishwashing liquid and bleach in each tub and bucket.

                                                                 iv.      Scrub tubs and buckets using designated scrub brush(es).

                                                                   v.      Rinse tubs and buckets clean of all soap and bleach.

                                                                 vi.      Return tubs to designated place on stall wall.

                                                                vii.      Return water bucket to stall and fill bucket with water..


  1. Write a simple evaluation method.  Spelling out specific step-by-step competencies as above makes evaluation easier.  You can give them a score of 0 to 5 for each step.  Zero means failure to follow a step and 5 is followed procedure precisely and did job effectively and efficiently
    1. This gives you a way of combining thoroughness and speed.  One groom may be really fast, but shortcuts the scrubbing and rinsing.  On the other hand you don’t want a groom taking a hour to scrub four feed tubs and water buckets, regardless of how clean they are. 
    2. Evaluations can be used as incentives for bonuses and/or raises.  In this way every groom scoring 30 or better (out of 35 in our example) each week would get a $5.00 gift card to a favorite fast food eatery. 


Obviously our example is simplistic.  No it’s not necessary to go through all that just to tell grooms how you want something done.  But, the time you spend “educating” your grooms pay dividends in time you don’t have to spend goine over and over the same routine things week after week.  You can have more competent grooms in your barn and they can help you maintain your reputation as a competent trainer. 


The Elite Program’s Groom Elite classes provides competency based instruction for grooms working in the stable areas of racetracks and on training farms around the country.  The Elite Program is a 501 (c) 3 corporation that depends on support of owners, trainers and the racing industry.  For more information or to ask how you can help provide classes for hotwalkers, beginning grooms, experienced grooms, owners and trainers contact Dr. McLellan at 4063 Iron Works Parkway, Lexington, Ky. 40511 or visit The Elite Program website at