What’s the quickest way to win Natalie Varcoe-Cocks’  heart? Compliment her on her superior organizational skills.
The perfect groom has an abundance of affection for horses and a healthy sense of humor, with a dash of obsessive compulsive tendencies sprinkled on top—that description fits Varcoe-Cocks to a T.
“I have been laughed at for folding all the towels the same. Everything’s done very particularly, which sometimes drives people crazy, but I love for people to notice it,” Varcoe-Cocks said. “Who doesn’t love a little positive affirmation?”
Better known in eventing circles as “just Nat V-C,” Varcoe-Cocks has stood anxiously at the cross-country finish lines of events all over the world. She’s known for her irreverent humor, vintage Aussie accent and matter-of-fact candor. (And for her shadbelly dancing skills. )
Varcoe-Cocks now works for Will Faudree at his Gavilan Farm  in Hoffman, N.C., but she’s also done time at Jan Byyny’s Virginia farm  and at British rider David Green’s farm in England. Varcoe-Cocks is at her best figuring out quirky horses, and she’s had to call on that expertise in understanding Faudree’s Pawlow .
“I don’t want to say something cliché like 'she’s the backbone of the organization,' because we’re such a team, and we work really well together,” Faudree said. “But I have total trust in her, and she’s such a strong person that I can rely on for whatever situation is being dealt with, whether it’s positive or negative. She’s a great friend.
“I don’t ever have to wonder if things are getting done the way I want them done because she takes as much pride in these horses as I and [owner] Jennifer Mosing do," he added. "She takes incredible pride in their turn-out, in their health and their performances.”
Many Turns On The Path
Even at age 38, Varcoe-Cocks claims she isn’t quite sure she’s found what she wants to do when she grows up, but she’s pretty content for the moment. She’s not a big fan of planning well into the future, and she’s lived an interesting life by jumping at opportunities that came her way.
Her first ride on a horse came at age 6 when her mother took her on a birthday trail ride near their Melbourne, Australia, home. “I cried for the entire hour. I hated it,” she said. “But a year later, for my seventh birthday, I said I wanted to go riding again, and I haven't stopped since.”
By the time she was 10, Varcoe-Cocks had her first pony. “We kept my pony at a huge place, and the Pony Club was pretty much based out of there. We’d go for the weekend, get the ponies out of the field and ride them in from the field bareback. I could only ride on weekends, so I’d ride Saturday morning, Saturday afternoon, Sunday morning and Sunday afternoon. And then I wouldn’t see my pony again for another week,” she said.
After a few years, Varcoe-Cocks started taking her riding a bit more seriously. She competed in the Australian young riders championships for her state of Victoria and rode up to the equivalent of the preliminary and intermediate levels. But by the time she turned 20, she knew real life had to take precedence. She sold her horses and moved to the big city—Sydney. Horses were put on the back burner for a few years while Varcoe-Cocks pursued a career with Blockbuster Video, working her way up from store clerk to area manager.
“But I realized I wasn’t quite cut out for that kind of career,” she said. “I figured I could always come back to it; it was on my résumé. But I wanted to travel.”
A Whole New Level
In 1998, Varcoe-Cocks booked a flight to England and took up working with horses again to support herself. She groomed for various people, including an old Pony Club friend from Australia, Amanda Ross, who had qualified for the 1998 World Equestrian Games. Varcoe-Cocks traveled to Italy with Ross’ horse on the truck.
“We were on the lorry for three days. Unfortunately, her horse got travel sick. If I knew then what I know now, we might have been a bit more ahead of the game,” she said.
On the same truck was Colby Saddington, who was Phillip Dutton’s groom. “We couldn’t stand each other when we first met; then we spent three days on a lorry together and became best friends,” Varcoe-Cocks recalled.
That trip also landed Varcoe-Cocks a new job—grooming for British eventer David Green. It was, as she puts it, “a real eye-opener!”
“When I left Australia, I’d hardly done a standing wrap," she said. "The only two drugs I knew of were penicillin and bute. I’d never heard of a joint being injected, foot packing, poulticing, anything like that. I was heading toward the professional level in Australia, but it just wasn't quite at that same level.
"I learned a heck of a lot," she continued. "David’s wife at the time, Jackie, was an incredible horsewoman, and she taught me a lot. I was always interested in nutrition and what we fed them, and I was always a very organized person. So that side of it, packing for shows and stuff, was fine. But when I first got over to England I’d never stitched in braids; in Australia, I had avoided braiding at all costs and had friends do it for me in exchange for packing their trailers.”
Varcoe-Cocks spent 3½ years working for Green, and it was a baptism of fire, of sorts. “We did about 14 three-days a year, and that was when it was all long-format. I was fortunate that I got to travel all over Europe and the circuit, meeting so many great people,” she said.
Along the way, Varcoe-Cocks’ adventuresome nature and fondness for a good time has afforded her many great stories to tell. “I once went to Portugal with a rider for the British young rider team. We were based on a champion bull fighter's property,” she recalled. “So, on the Saturday night, we got to fight with the baby bulls. It was awesome, until I realized I'd probably had one beer too many and got horned in the thigh. I just got pushed over, so I was fine, but there have been so many experiences I got to have.”
When she was ready for a change, she gave her friend Saddington a call and came to the United States to work for Dutton for six months. “That’s how I initially met Will; he and I lived in a basement at Phillip’s together,” she said. “I freelance groomed and worked for him for a while, then I went back to England. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I worked for Devoucoux for a while selling their saddles, but I didn’t enjoy it that much.”
On To The States
When U.S. rider Jan Byyny traveled to England in 2004 for the Burghley CCI****, Varcoe-Cocks signed on to groom for her. And after Burghley, Byyny invited her to return to the United States for a job. Varcoe-Cocks worked for her for three years and in that time got back in the saddle. She’d continued to ride while grooming, doing flatwork and fitness work, but she’d lost a bit of confidence over fences. Byyny gave her the opportunity to compete a horse named Allail up to training level.
In her time at Byyny’s, Varcoe-Cocks experienced yet another eye-opener. “I remember taking a horse to the vet clinic to get injected," she said. "I literally had no idea. I felt stupid, but I was very lucky because we did a lot of work with [Virginia Equine Imaging] in Virginia, and those guys, Dr. Christiana Ober and Dr. Susan Johns, were all amazing. They took their time to explain to me what was going on and what they were doing. They never told me anything was a stupid question. I got a huge education from those guys,” said Varcoe-Cocks.
“What I love about the States is how willing people are to teach you and to help you achieve whatever your goal is, small or large,” she continued. “I still to this day am not afraid to ask.”
Varcoe-Cocks is part of a close network of top event grooms, including Emma Ford, who works for Dutton, and Max Corcoran, who works for Karen O’Connor. They all share their knowledge and experience and give each other advice.
After three years with Byyny, Varcoe-Cocks wanted to slow down her traveling, so she settled in Aiken, S.C., for two years, just grooming on a freelance basis and conducting some grooming clinics. But when Faudree called last year, looking for help, she was ready to get back into the action. “After about two months, we both realized we were a really good team together and worked really well together. We both had a very similar idea about the horses’ management, and we discuss everything together. It all works,” she said.
Varcoe-Cocks runs Faudree’s barn and acts as his eyes on the ground when he rides. They also started a joint venture in bringing off-the-track Thoroughbreds from the CANTER organization along as sales prospects. Faudree buys one or two, and then Varcoe-Cocks trains them and competes them at the beginner novice and novice levels. When they sell, they share the profits.
Watch Natalie Varcoe-Cocks discuss packing for the cross-country vet box at a three-day.
This is the first article in a four-week series featuring grooms and barn managers. Check back next Wednesday, July 13, for the next installment in the series.