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'I got bullied and didn't have any friends, but coming here built my confidence' - the ex-racehorses finding work as therapists

Peter Thomas visits Greatwood to discover the 'education' that relies on equine teachers

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Peter ThomasSenior features writer
Nine-year-old Charlie Vigar-Smith looks on as Fox Norton (Isabelle Copping-French) and Fast Or Free (Isabelle Thorbek-Green) are led down from the paddock at Greatwood
Nine-year-old Charlie Vigar-Smith looks on as Fox Norton (Isabelle Copping-French) and Fast Or Free (Isabelle Thorbek-Green) are led down from the paddock at GreatwoodCredit: Edward Whitaker

Esther is 16 years old, chatty, confident and personable – all things she wasn't when she first came to Greatwood.

"Employable as well," chips in Helen Yeadon, keen that we shouldn't underplay the achievements of the charity she founded 25 years ago and which has since progressed from a simple 'racehorse rescue' centre to a champion of wellbeing, mindfulness and inclusion – not to mention a pioneer of EAT, or 'equine-assisted therapy'.

With the help of a team of amenable and sensitive former equine athletes, Yeadon and her staff are managing to restore the confidence of young people like Esther, showing them a 'pathway' back to normal relations with the rest of the world and finding them a place in the job market along the way.

"When she first came here, she wouldn't have agreed to come and talk to a journalist," says Alex Shaw – education and wellbeing lead at the centre, formerly a teacher in animal science in south-east London – although in fairness that doesn't really differentiate Esther from the rest of the population. 

"She was very nice and never any trouble, but very shy and quiet and you wanted her to come out of her shell."

Now, having been referred to Greatwood, near Marlborough, by Wiltshire Council as a NEET ('not in education, employment or training') and just completed her second, totally voluntary, course as part of what Greatwood calls its 'animal-assisted intervention' programme, Esther is anything but in her shell: a model product of the system, who rode in her formative years and would make, so I'm told, a very good addition to racing's workforce.

Except . . . "I want to be a tattoo artist," says Esther, who has joined us having successfully completed her latest assessment. It is an ambition she realises has precious little to do with the horse skills she's learned, but nobody is upset to hear that she's identified a way forward for herself.

"The percentage here that go into racing is small," smiles Yeadon, "but for the NEETs, it's about steering them into the employment market and serving the wider community, and Esther, who came here having not been able to do anything, is now thinking about the job she'd like to do."

It's a success story that warms everybody's cockles, as Esther recounts the circumstances that brought her to Greatwood in the first place: "I left school at the end of Year 8. I got bullied, I didn't have any friends for ages and I got social anxiety, so coming here has built my confidence around horses and people."

She did a 14-week course and enjoyed it so much that when she was asked if she'd like to come back for a second bite, she had no hesitation. "The education has been great," she says – especially the chance to get to know her favourite horse, the youthful 21-year-old ten-time winner Ouzbeck, formerly trained by Emma Lavelle – but there's more to it than that.

"I learned how to clean tack, tack up horses and groom them, had great fun and the horses are just nice to be around, calm and relaxing," she explains. "For me, though, it's about getting out of the house and meeting new people. Outside of here I don't speak to many people, but I've spoken to everyone here and they're all really nice, so I'm happier and more outgoing than I've ever been."

Helen Yeadon: founder of the Greatwood charity
Helen Yeadon: founder of the Greatwood charityCredit: Edward Whitaker

Yeadon hasn't entirely given up on Esther changing her mind in the year and a bit before she's allowed to start her tattooing apprenticeship, but more importantly she's happy that the EAT programme at Greatwood is a case not only of "the racing industry helping other people" but also of keeping former racehorses in meaningful employment.

It may be unfashionable with some animal rights organisations, but a horse who can be trained to work willingly with humans is a precious commodity, and in tandem with the sport's own Retraining of Racehorses organisation, Greatwood is proving the point. 

"RoR have created so many further careers for racehorses and they've given them a price, made them valuable," enthuses Yeadon. "Without RoR it would have been a struggle for these horses to have had a career, but they give us funding for five horses that are used for the educational programmes and that means so much to a lot of people."

Much-needed cash also comes from the Sir Peter O'Sullevan Trust, whose passionate trustee Nigel Payne not only backs EAT to the hilt but also believes it should receive proactive backing from the BHA and be recognised by the medical profession as a bona fide means of helping those suffering from all manner of mental health problems. It was, after all, originally created to treat US war veterans afflicted by post-traumatic stress disorder, so has a pedigree that is hard to dispute.

"Social anxiety has increased massively since the pandemic, even in primary school children, and the impact that the horses have on the children is quite incredible," stresses Shaw. "We use former racehorses exclusively, and while some people think of them as highly strung and difficult to look after, what we see is animals that are so gentle and easy-going.

"They'll have a knee-high five-year-old standing next to them, grooming them, and they'll practically go to sleep and let them get on with it."

The potential for good work is enormous and the benefits to disadvantaged 'pupils' plain to see.

"They are young people and adults who didn't thrive in mainstream education and need that confidence-boost, a pathway back," explains Yeadon. "If they come here with low self-esteem, you find that if they learn to lead up a jolly big, half-ton racehorse, that's confidence-building in itself.

"Maybe they've come from a very troubled and challenging background, and they've missed a lot of school and fallen behind their peers, but our teachers can help them develop their functional skills so they leave here thinking, 'I can do something, I can be good at something'."

Given the evident success of EAT at Greatwood, it is unsurprising Payne has led the way in establishing HEIR, the Human Equine Interaction Register, designed for the purpose of quality control in an emerging sector seeking widespread acceptance.

The Princess Royal is a supporter and the racing industry is playing its part, although Payne believes the BHA could do more to spread the word. 

Inner-city riding schools have become a notable success story and Greatwood welcomes its role as part of a broader network of partner schools and council departments, from youth-offending teams to Early Help and special educational needs, which ensures that racing's loss, as in Esther's case, can become society's gain rather than a wasted opportunity.

Pupils can be referred by schools or parents, in groups or on a one-to-one basis. They may end up preferring to work in the Greatwood garden rather than its stables, but if they stick with the horses they can leave with an entry-level qualification accredited by First for Sport, along with a different outlook on life.

Mahlervous enjoys being groomed at Greatwood
Mahlervous enjoys being groomed at GreatwoodCredit: Edward Whitaker

"Some of the younger students are struggling after lockdown because they were on their own for so long, but they'll end up chatting to everyone, chatting to the horses, having not been able to get out of the house to go to school," says Shaw.

"Through our Horse Power programme, they'll learn about animal welfare needs, diet, shelter, health checking, fear and distress and natural behaviours. We ask them questions they can often relate to. 'Why are the horses in a group, not on their own? How do you think they feel if they're left on their own? How do you feel when you're not with your friends?'

"We give them the support they can't always get at school and you can see their confidence building. Even tiny things that we might think are insignificant can make such a difference to them, and the qualification is an achievement that can be built on to give them a first step back into the world."

To watch these disadvantaged youngsters working assuredly is an education in itself, and the credit reflected on our sport a bonus. Some will end up in racing, with financial help from Sir Peter's trust, Godolphin and others, but more than anything this is a project that's about kids and horses.

"Racing pulls its weight and always has done," says Yeadon. "The trainers, jockeys, everybody have always been very supportive, so the learners get a taste of racing, they see that the horses are treated like kings, they're happy to do something good for the horses and the horses love the mental interaction.

"They're a brilliant tool for allowing the students to tell us what they're feeling without talking to us. They'll come in and groom the horses and we can hear what they're saying. Then they'll go back to their teachers and tell them they've just had a chat with Ouzbeck, and the teachers see there's something happening."

Grooms or jockeys or tattoo artists, these are young people with chances in life that they might not have had without the help of former racehorses.

Read more of our features here: 

Franny Norton: ‘I thought racing was a posh sport and they only wanted people whose dad had a boat’  

The remarkable story of daredevil Prince Charles's riding career - including a close-up of Derek Thompson's rear end  

'It doesn't feel to me that people know who I am' - meet the weighing-room heart-throb determined to lose his anonymity  

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Published on 7 May 2023inFeatures

Last updated 18:00, 7 May 2023