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

The Daily Telegraph - Sport - - Final Whistle -

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

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