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'One boy latched on to a horse as he said they both had nowhere else to go'

Catherine Macrae finds out about the remarkable charity for retired racehorses

Amy Vigar-Smith grooms former racehorse Mahlervous at Greatwood charity
Amy Vigar-Smith grooms former racehorse Mahlervous at Greatwood charityCredit: Edward Whitaker

Fox Norton has a new career – not that you would know it seeing him relax among a herd of horses. In a sea of bays and fly rugs, to the untrained eye the Melling Chase winner is hard to spot. Yet Helen Yeadon has no difficulty picking out the 12-year-old from the crowd.

Yeadon knows every horse who lives at Greatwood, the charity she founded alongside her husband Michael to serve people and horses in need.

Next year, Greatwood celebrates its 30th anniversary. While much may have changed at the Wiltshire farm near Marlborough, the charity's core message remains the same.

"We're here for those horses with nowhere else to go," Yeadon says. "We've stayed true to the cause. It doesn't matter their age, soundness or whether there's money involved, we haven't got a criteria for entry. The most important thing is that we're a charity and working for public benefit."

While Fox Norton, 2015 Stayers' Hurdle winner Cole Harden and Newbury ambassador Ouzbeck may be among the flagbearers for Greatwood, more than 30 former racehorses live at Rainscombe Hill Farm. For many of them, the journey after racing has been far from smooth.

Yeadon says: "People realise we're consistent in our belief there's an umbrella for life for the horses who come here, even if they've gone from pillar to post and ended up in a pickle somewhere. We're absolutely committed about looking after them.

"I've unloaded horses for the first time and when the ones in the barn shout to them you can see the newcomer instantly calm down. It's a relaxing place to be."

Helen Yeadon: founded Greatwood with her husband Michael
Helen Yeadon: founded Greatwood with her husband MichaelCredit: Edward Whitaker

The charity began in 1993 and was registered five years later, after Yeadon's involvement in racing led her and her husband to recognise the lack of support for horses slipping through the cracks. Something needed to change.

"The more we became aware the more we realised there was nothing in place for them at all," she recalls. "It was a wilderness.

"We lobbied the racing industry and became fairly unpopular at the time, but we had to shake up the system. There was no safety net. The majority of owners and trainers love their runners, but there wasn't a system to help those horses in a downward spiral, and that's where we come in."

In the early years of the charity, around 90 per cent of horses were rehomed but the figure has dropped dramatically due to the rise in commercial retraining yards, after taking on retired racehorses became a profitable and popular enterprise.

The recent exploits of Tiger Roll, Thistlecrack and Douvan indicate a flourishing landscape for former racehorses to find new careers, but not all are suited for the show ring.

Instead, those at Greatwood have taken on a vital new role. The charity became the first to see the potential in using former racehorses to teach young people with special education needs, after Yeadon saw the benefits of such a connection with her own eyes.

"Our yard was formerly based in Devon and there was a girl who visited who was a selective mute," she says. "After coming to us for a while, helping pick up chicken eggs and look after poorly horses, she just started speaking again, and my husband said if we can do it with one child we should do it with many.

"We moved to Wiltshire and set up our first educational programme in 2006. I believe if you're going to make any impact on a child's life, you've got to make sure that you're properly trained and qualified, so the first thing we did was a pilot programme called horse power, and much to our surprise all the local schools actually wanted to try us. It still runs to this day."

One of Greatwood's current teachers is Marianna Baschiera, who joined the charity from London qualified in teaching, yoga and mindfulness. Alongside education lead Alex Shaw, Baschiera oversees around 170 students who pass through Greatwood each year, ranging from the age of four to adulthood. Many of those who arrive for the initial six-week course have no experience with animals but the former racehorses are perfect candidates to encourage confidence and wellbeing.

"We've designed our courses based on approaching horses in a mindful way," Baschiera explains. "The environment brings a natural sense of peace and makes people open to learning long-lasting skills to take back to their everyday lives.

"The first day of the course we always start with a tour and when the young people enter the main barn there's this gravitational pull of people towards the horses. Thoroughbreds are so sensitive and it makes them much more open for communication with the people who come here. They're curious and when they approach all the barriers seem to completely disappear. There's this very gentle and genuine meeting between person and horse. It's the most incredible thing."

During the next six weeks, the children slowly build up their interactions and confidence around the horses, including time spent grooming, picking out feet and leading around the yard. The farm is designed to be as welcoming as possible, with classrooms and gates brightened by purple paint in honour of the colour at Yeadon's wedding.

Charlie Vigar-Smith (9) looks on as Fox Norton and Fast Or Free are led down from the paddock
Charlie Vigar-Smith (9) looks on as Fox Norton and Fast Or Free are led down from the paddockCredit: Edward Whitaker

Horses roam lazily in herds during the summer months and the calm atmosphere is enjoyed by Greatwood's other animals. Chickens, peacocks, goats and dogs are all happy to be part of the teaching programme, while miniature ponies act as a physical bridge between chicken and racehorse.

Once the connection is established, the results can be remarkable. Bashiera says: "One girl who comes here is a selective mute and was very disengaged with extremely low self-confidence. She's autistic as well, so she's very sensitive to textures. I soon realised she loves art, so we started to bring a lot more art into her sessions.

"We would take pictures of the horses and add markings or draw different animals. To see her painting was great but it was even better when she started stroking the horses, which was unheard of in the three years she'd been there. It was groundbreaking, but we had to keep our excitement hidden to not scare her.

"One day I was grooming Aaman, a grey former hurdler who's her favourite, and she was standing outside stroking him. I gave her a brush and turned away to take the pressure off, but I was watching out of the corner of my eye and she started brushing his face. It was the first time it had ever happened. It's small moments like that which are so momentous."

More than 4,000 students have passed through Greatwood since the founding of the educational programme. For those with difficult backgrounds, the charity is a crucial refuge. Some have even made the leap into racing, aided by visits to local yards and guidance for interviews with racing colleges.

"Racing is a great big family and for some of the young people that's what they really crave," Yeadon says. "Everyone who comes through here has been given a snapshot of racing and we've developed to enable people to keep coming back after the initial six-week period right into a racing career if they wish.

"Above all, we want students to always have something to look forward to and know we aren't closing the door on them. There will always be that purple place in their life for as long as they need it and we can sustain it."

More than £500,000 a year is needed to maintain operations at Greatwood and on September 1 the petitioning for funds began anew.

There is a sense of trepidation from fundraising head Sasha Thorbek. Payment for children's programmes are matched by schools in Wiltshire and the surrounding counties but for those past the age of 16, funds come entirely from the charity and finding that money is becoming challenging.

A £5 monthly membership is the "bread and butter" of Greatwood's income but support from organisations including Godolphin and Al Basti Equiworld is essential. Thorbek is always on the hunt for new sources of funding amid a troubling financial landscape.

"We've always been supported by racing, but that support has risen and fallen depending on what's going on," she said. "They haven't stopped backing us, even with the rise of commercial retrainers, but they supply around £50,000 and the rest we have to raise ourselves.

"The kind of help we get from places like Godolphin is not always guaranteed. Being an established and trusted organisation helps so much but we also need to show what we do works.

"Our projects are called animal-assisted intervention and we can compare it to other scientific research. My job is to show there's something measurable going on and we do that by collecting hard and soft data both with education and wellbeing. We know how effective our programmes are but to get funding it's so important to prove it. It's all about finding people and charitable trusts who want to support us, and that's become harder."

Even Greatwood's charity raceday at Newbury, a well-established cornerstone of the organisation's fundraising, is starting to feel the strain of rising costs. Held in June this year, the raceday is just one of the ways the charity has impacted the racing calendar, with the Grade 3 Greatwood Hurdle and Greatwood Gold Cup also named in support of Yeadon's work.

Paint The Dream wins this year's Greatwood Gold Cup at the charity's local course Newbury
Paint The Dream wins this year's Greatwood Gold Cup at the charity's local course NewburyCredit: Alan Crowhurst (Getty Images)

She says: "The Newbury charity raceday has been fantastic but it's going to be a hard thing to keep going because things have changed so much. We only just covered this year's fixture, and it's much more difficult to find sponsorship for races after the pandemic, as people are being very careful with their money now.

"We run Greatwood like a business, because people have to trust our finances. The most important thing is never feel like you need to look over your shoulder. People have lost faith in charities because they haven't been run efficiently and we have to maintain our integrity, so being established is so important for us. I'm not sure I would feel confident starting all over from scratch."

A new bungalow development for overnight accommodation and pilot schemes visiting care homes and welcoming refugees with Swindon's The Harbour Project show the charity is still ready to open its doors to anyone in need. For horses and people alike, Greatwood is a sanctuary where comfort and second chances can always be found.

"We don't mind the circumstances which bring someone to us because we just want to help them," Yeadon says. "There's a sense the pressure from the outside world is relieved and they have a safe place here.

"We had one horse called Nigel, a former racehorse who we were the last port of call for. One little boy came through our programme and just latched on to him. He said, 'I want to be with Nigel because he has nowhere else to go and neither do I'. That's who we do it for."

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Published on 13 September 2022inFeatures

Last updated 10:55, 14 September 2022