Troubled pupils given the chance of stable life
Academy is using world of horses to help turn around the lives of young people, writes Marcus Armytage
It was Winston Churchill who said “there’s something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man”. He was not wrong.
A project on the Berkshire-oxfordshire border teaching troubled and delinquent teenagers to work in a race-yard environment is up and running and if it turns the life around of just one of its troubled pupils by giving them a life and gainful employment then, in my eyes, it will have been a success.
The founder of the Heros Equestrian Academy, Grace Muir, a straight-talking force of nature, is a bit more ambitious than that, though. If anyone can pull it off, it is Muir, who is part-teacher, part-boss, part-foster parent to
many of her “pupils”, although they also include the academically challenged and those who just want a different route into racing other than the sport’s established racing schools.
In 2006, she founded her own charity, Heros (Homing Ex-racehorses Organisation Scheme) on the family stud farm, which has subsequently rehomed 800 retired racehorses and those horses are central to the academy, so she is effectively killing two birds with one stone.
Muir’s late father, Ian, ran the stud, which had a reputation for handling difficult horses.
One of those was the famously ferocious stallion Supreme Sovereign.
When the horse arrived from Ireland, having hospitalised numerous staff, he had been kept in a bridle for two years because no one was brave enough to go into the stable to remove it.
But Muir liked problem-solving – something his daughter, who was eventually able to hand-feed Supreme Sovereign Jelly Babies as a child, inherited – built a stable big enough for him to live happily and cover mares and devised a system for delivering his feed down a tube to his manger to minimise human contact.
When there was a two-page spread in a national newspaper on how they handled the “savage” stallion, a lot of old ladies wrote to Muir saying what he was doing was cruel. Of course, the alternative for Supreme Sovereign, whom Muir loved dearly, was far worse. Muir wrote back to them all saying he would willingly hold open the door to the horse’s stable for them. There were no takers.
My ears pricked up about this project, funded by the Racing Foundation (proceeds from the sale of the Tote), when I heard that one of its star pupils had been in the same class as my son at primary school.
Subsequently expelled from three schools, not surprisingly he had been written off by the education system. He had been in a care home, was into drugs and smoking, but he enrolled at what even he knows is the last-chance saloon in January.
In horses, he found a passion, he has learnt to ride well and, while the wagon he rides has a few more potholes to negotiate yet, there is a quality and assurance about him that does not make it hard to see him as someone’s head lad in due time.
He now spends seven days a week at the academy. One of his colleague has Asperger’s. “He was on benefits,” pointed out Muir “but we’ve taken him off them and he’s now on a wage and living as an independent adult. He got an award from West Berkshire Council for most progressive student in the area. He’s the best tack cleaner in the business.”
If the funding can be found, Muir is hoping to increase the intake of pupils, some of whom come direct from school once or twice a week, from this year’s 30.
“We’re not trying to make jockeys out of them, we’re trying to make stable staff out of them,” she explained. “We find them work experience in local yards and, a bit like rehoming the horses, it is important they go to the right trainer for them and my hope is that they stay in the same place for years.”
The Heros Equestrian Academy is not going to solve the staffing crisis in horse racing and it may be only a drop in the ocean drowning the nation’s social services, but it is a start and giving a chance to those who society has given up on, which means, if nothing else, its founder’s place in heaven looks assured.
‘He got an award from the council and is the best tack cleaner in the business’
Watching brief: Heros Equestrian Academy founder Grace Muir views one of her charges