Debbie Devlin disagrees with her friends when they call her a horse whisperer.
‘‘I just understand horses better than humans, because humans can lie and horses can’t. If it doesn’t like you in its space it will show you straight away,’’ she said.
The manager of a horse rehabilitation centre, located temporarily on a leased farm in Waharoa, will be attending a session by a real horse whisperer, Buck Brannaman, though.
The centre, which moved down from Auckland in January of this year, will move to a bigger farm with more grazing in the Matamata area at some stage.
She is always learning new skills to help supposed ‘‘dangerous’’ retired racehorses relearn some simple things.
A number of international horses have to be taught how to eat grass because in Hong Kong horses are kept in multi-storied stables with no natural light and no grass in their diet. Those same horses have to learn to be in paddocks again too.
Some of the ponies on the farm are weed eaters as they have laminitis, which is like diabetes in horses, and makes them allergic to the sugar in grass.
Diet was often the reason why a lot of ex-racehorses get the stigma of being dangerous because inexperienced pony club riders take them on and can’t cope with them. ‘‘99 per cent of these horses have ulcers which are reflected in biting and attacking when you are doing the girth up. Once you have their guts sorted out you pretty much have a good horse again.’’
She said riders had to respect that racehorses were used to being fuelled to be athletes.
‘‘That’s the trouble. People fill them with grass and then get on them and try to contain them which is the worse thing to try to do to a thoroughbred.’’
Diet issues were behind one of the centre’s most famous horses Magic Cape’s behavioural problems. Devlin said the group one winner was initially considered a dangerous horse as the sugar in his diet ‘‘went to his head’’. Devlin now has fiveyear-olds riding the horse.
Military Move is another group one winner in the stable. He retired from track work five months ago because of ligament damage. Devlin is training him to be Alison Ritchie’s riding horse.
‘‘She steals all the pretty ones,’’ Devlin laughed about one of the centre’s main backers. The stables are funded mostly by Ritchie, who is the wife of Cambridge trainer Shaune Ritchie. It is also funded by donations from the owners of the retired racehorses which the stables look after.
Devlin is is looking for volunteers to help with the 25 horses.
‘‘They could do anything from banging in nails in fences, grooming, mucking out paddocks. If you can name it you can do it.’’
There are suitable pacers the volunteers can ride too.
The racehorses don’t lose their racing habits. The harness racers are trained to get in front of the pack and then block the other horses. Devlin said when they let groups of four pacers out on the on-farm track they still try and do this. The other racers, without any halters or jockeys, also still enjoy running around on the track too.
She said the centre was quickly finding its niche.
‘‘Everyone wants with no issues. ‘‘We take all the ones with issues.’’ The centre’s unofficial motto was stolen
racehorse from the film about the race horse Seabiscuit: ‘ You don’t wreck your whole life cos it’s a little banged up’.
Devlin, a professional groom, who learnt the majority of her skills through working in the racing industry, has no negative feelings towards the horse racing industry. She got started in the industry by lying about her age and ‘‘scabbing’’ rides on racehorses when they were training at Takanini.
‘‘I’d ride down to the track at four in the morning on my bike as a 10 or 11 year old.’’
By the time she was 13 she was breaking in race horses to pay to compete in one day and three day eventing, show jumping, dressage and cross country at Manurewa Pony Club.
She was the youngest qualified instructor at the club at the age of 15.
She met her mentor, paralympian rider Jane Craig, when Craig’s artificial leg fell off at the instructor course.
Devlin flipped a horse when she was 14 or 15 and didn’t realise she had broken her neck until about five years later when she was being x- rayed after an adventure riding accident.
Having strong muscles from being part of the New Zealand power lifting team and being involved in body building was attributed to Devlin not suffering more damage when she flipped the horse. She is getting back into those sports and hopes to run the Rotorua marathon.
Devlin is not just motivated to help horses. She wants to give back to her community. She envisions the rehab centre becoming a place where local at- risk teenagers can gain qualifications in horse care. The centre will eventually have a riding school, which will fund the free training course.
The racehorse rehab centre is ‘‘desperate’’ for hay, baleage and sawdust along with horse blankets and rugs.
Ring Devlin on 021 0838 1824 or visit their facebook page at facebook.com/goldenphoenix.equestrian.
Debbie Devlin and two of the retired race horses, Magic Cape, left, and Green Supreme, that she is rehabilitating in Waharoa.