Second careers for racehorses can bring life-changing rewards for the humans who meet them

  SECOND CAREERS FOR RACEHORSES CAN BRING LIFE-CHANGING REWARDS FOR THE HUMANS WHO MEET THEM.   Festival was a horse brave enough to conquer the obstacles and emerge victorious in the fearsome Velka Pardubicka steeplechase. Peopleton Brook was so hardy, he contested 93 races for Grand National-winning jockey-turned-trainer, Brendan Powell, winning nine of them and being placed a further 17 times. What do these hardened racehorses have in common? They have both given valuable service in the young, fascinating and increasingly widespread endeavour of Equine Assisted Activities such as Hippotherapy.  Owners, as well as the public at large, would appear to be ever more concerned with what should become of their racehorses once they have retired from the track. And these activities, which are held to bring profound benefits to people in many different circumstances, could increasingly provide an answer – and one as rewarding for the erstwhile owner as for the clients or patients with which their horse interacts.  What, exactly, are ‘Equine Assisted Activities (EAAs)’? Look, and you will find a myriad of similar terms in use: Equine Facilitated Learning, Equine Assisted Psychotherapy, Therapeutic Riding…the list goes on. Each defined differently – and sometimes conflictingly – by different authors: the hallmark, of course, of an emerging and youthful field.  Hippotherapy, despite the breadth of its literal meaning – ‘treatment with the horse’ – has come to refer to a very specific strand of EAA. In Hippotherapy, the treatment involves the horse being ridden. The Oxford English Living Dictionary defines the term thus:  The use of horse riding as a therapeutic or rehabilitative treatment, especially as a means of improving coordination, balance, and strength.  The predominant focus is on those with physical disabilities, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, etc..  But many manifestations of EAA are geared primarily to helping with non-physical issues and these typically involve little or no riding. Interaction with the horse can take many forms, including handling, grooming and lungeing. So, too, the methodologies employed. Some are one-to-one and focus on personal issues; most are group-based and look at more general concepts, such as trust, assertiveness, self-confidence and self-esteem. Many involve trained professionals such as psychotherapists.  But all are based on the core belief that, for many reasons which the Counselling Directory sets out well, the horse is especially suited to this type of work. Its very size can initially be daunting, so, for many, to overcome this and establish a relationship of trust and control is a profound achievement. As a prey animal, it is quick to interpret body language and to mirror behaviour, responding positively to a calm, confident approach. As a herd animal, it will frequently want to be led and to create bonds – the bonds between man and horse can be exceptionally powerful.  And the range of claimed benefits and beneficiaries is broad indeed. Prisoners, ex-servicemen and -women with PTSD, those on the autistic spectrum, children with ADHD, those deemed ‘at risk’, schizophrenics and those exhibiting a number of other behavioural and psychiatric disorders.  What is striking is that programmes of one sort or another are going on in many, many countries across Europe and beyond. In Prague, for example, the Czech State Psychiatric Hospital boasts a hippotherapy department called BOHNICE. Milan’s principal Hospital has had a hippotherapy unit for over 30 years.  On occasion, there is some involvement of the racing industry. For example, the Moroccan racing authority, SOREC (Société Royale d'Encouragement du Cheval) co-founded a hippotherapy programme aimed at people with special needs. In Scandinavia, betting companies, through the Swedish-Norwegian Foundation for Equine Research to which they contribute, funded a study of the efficacy of Equine-Assisted Therapy on patients with substance abuse patients.  A most impressive example of racing involvement is from Turkey. Here, Equine-Assisted Therapy Centres can be found, courtesy of the Turkish Jockey Club, at their seven racetracks, each offering entirely free courses to children with physical disabilities or mental and emotional disorders. To date, over 3,500 children have benefitted from the scheme, described as ‘one of the most important social responsibility projects of the Jockey Club of Turkey’.  And one wonderful example sees benefit from such programmes flowing back to racing. Horseback UK is a Scottish-based centre which offers programmes for several different target groups but with a focus on ex-servicemen and -women. However, their three-week course has recently been taken up by groups of racing staff, organised through the British racing charity Racing Welfare. The initiative was deemed a great success. Horseback UK co-founder, Emma Hutchison noted a surprising number of similarities between the racing groups and the ex-service personnel. For one thing, the reasons underlying their attendance were split roughly equally between physical (many had had serious falls) and mental.  “The similarities between our course attendees from the racing industry and those from the military showed themselves in many ways”, explained Hutchison. “Most people who join the racing industry join at a young age, sometimes it is a bit of an escape as most jobs include accommodation. They quickly become part of a new family at the yard and have many highs and lows within the job. When suddenly, for whatever reason, this is taken away from them -through, perhaps a possible injury - then the feeling of isolation is extreme. This is so similar to our military. We have also found that bringing individuals together from the same industry, i.e. racing, works brilliantly as they have such a lot in common, they all know the same trainers, horses etc., which instantly puts people at ease, in the same way that guys from the military respond to each other.  “We are currently working with Retraining of Racehorses to develop a programme down in Newmarket using ex-racehorses and racing staff. Very exciting”.     A critical question, however, is: ‘are thoroughbreds suitable for EEA work?’ It would doubtless be fair to say that thoroughbreds would not be at the front of the minds of many people when organising EEAs. However, it is the case that thoroughbreds have been used to good effect in many EEA programmes across the continent.  Take, for example, the programme in Bollate Prison, Milan, where a stable of horses, including ex-racehorses, are used in the provision of groom’s courses, giving inmates the chance to leave jail with a diploma and possible job opportunity. In Ireland, a similar scheme - the realisation of a long-held dream of ex-Goffs supremo, Jonathan Irwin – is soon to be launched at Castlerea Prison, not far from Roscommon, with a distinctly vocational flavour. It is planned that the on-site stable of horses will be used in courses on a range of disciplines such as farriery, which will prepare inmates for employment upon release. Racehorses are expected to play a significant part in the mix, and celebrated figures from the racing world will make appearances to add appeal to the courses, which are expected to be heavily oversubscribed.  Hippolysis is a centre offering equine assisted psychotherapy in Greece. Hippolysis’s Sabina Serpieri explains: “We have had very good experience with racehorses in the past. Thoroughbreds are amazing, they are very expressive and they engage and draw people in and keep their focus. Different people find it easier to identify with different breeds. Thoroughbreds have quick responses and are extremely sensitive to non-verbal communication: therefore people have a quick and constant feedback during sessions.”  “We currently have a 9yo ex-racehorse thoroughbred mare, Exasteri, who has been with us for the past three years. She is an excellent example as she was a very fractious, spooky filly without many alternatives for her future use, which is why she was taken in by Hippolysis, but has transformed wonderfully into her new role as she has an exceptionally high emotional intelligence. She is extremely effective.”  Horseback UK is home to, among many others, the aforementioned Peopleton Brook, and Emma Hutchison has a similar message. “Racehorses can play a major part in these activities, which provide a suitable second career for ‘high-mileage’ animals, since the physical pressures of this work are not great – it is much more mental for the horse. This is provided they have been given the ‘space’ and training to re-adjust from their previous career”.  Hana Hermannová of BOHNICE lists among the advantages of thoroughbreds their excellent movement from the biomechanical standpoint, and the narrowness and flexibility of their backs. She considers them the perfect breed for working with children and notes that they can work in this field until their old age. One of the current team is Cech, an equable and manageable thoroughbred used for work with children. Cech is 28 years old, no less.  So what is the nature of the re-training which must typically be done with ex-racehorses to prepare them for their new role? Sabina Serpieri again: “The retraining - or “untraining” as we call it - depends on the personality of the horse and previous experiences with humans. A minimum of six months is needed in liberty with other horses, to adjust to the new reality, to cool down, become a member of the herd and understand that no submission is required from them from now on. Respect for each horse’s personality is important, so that they can feel dignified again and get in touch with their natural instincts.”  “In Exasteri’s case, the ‘untraining’ was mostly for her to mature, trust, bond with the other horses and have less explosive reactions in response to people’s feelings and actions (basically for her to be more safe and reliable). She is still not - and may never be - suitable for all circumstances, but that is what makes her an exceptional fit for others! That is the amazing thing about working the (Hipploysis) model: each horse’s character gives the team the ability to provide a unique connection for each individual.”  It is both valid and necessary to ask whether EEA’s really work. The body of literature on the subject can be distilled down to a single word: ‘probably’. One recent study, which aimed to pull together the available evidence, concluded thus: “Much research attests to the beneficial effects of equine interventions on physical development and ability. However, less is known about the possible psychological benefits of horse activities…it is an under-researched area and conclusions are largely based on anecdotal data…. Equine-assisted interventions hold much promise, particularly in terms of child/adolescent social and behavioural issues, and perhaps adult affective disorders. However, well-designed randomised controlled trials are greatly needed in this area.”  Some helpful and supportive work has been undertaken since, and, indeed, the US Jockey Club is funding the ‘Man o’ War Project’ at the Columbia University Irving Medical Centre. USJC President Jim Gagliano recently explained the project to the Asian Racing Conference: “Although anecdotal evidence suggests that equine-assisted therapy benefits people with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, there is no clinical evidence to prove this. The Man O’ War Project is the first university-led research trial to determine the effectiveness of equine-assisted therapy and to establish guidelines for the application of equine-assisted therapy for veterans with PTSD….Many people believe thoroughbreds are ideal candidates for therapy programmes, and these programmes are the perfect second career for many of our retired equine athletes.”  One might confidently predict that more and more studies will progressively add to the academic validation of EEAs, in turn unlocking greater opportunities for funding, whether charitable or governmental.  But maybe the racing world can accelerate the process of acceptance of thoroughbreds in these programmes. Perhaps a fitting future project for the International Forum for the Aftercare of Racehorses (IFAR) would be to collate examples from around the world of racehorses being successfully used for in EAT, summarise best practice in their re-training, and then spread the word to sometimes sceptical providers of these services.  If indeed it is correct that owners and trainers are increasingly concerned to find the horses they have loved a rewarding second career after retirement, how much more fulfilling if the chosen career could bring life-enhancing change to disadvantaged humans?          TRINIDAD & TOBAGO ADMINISTRATOR TAKES ADVANTAGE OF EMHF OFFICIALS’ DEVELOPMENT SCHEME      When, two years ago, the EMHF launched its Clearing House initiative - which matches Raceday Officials who want to gain some professional development with Racing Authorities willing to provide the time of their experienced staff - it would be fair to say that interest from Trinidad and Tobago was not top of our list of expectations. But it was from these islands that David Loregnard, secretary to their Racing Authority, made contact.  Back in 2000, Loregnard, who is also a board member of the Association of Racing Commissioners International (the umbrella body for racing’s rule-makers in the USA and the Caribbean) and is advising on the ambitious project for a new racecourse in St Lucia, had undertaken a self-designed on-the-job training programme in the United States and was captivated by the prospect of comparing the working methods of stewards and other raceday officials there with those on this side of the Atlantic.  The EMHF’s scheme is designed – naturally - for officials from EMHF member countries, but Loregnard readily agreed to square this circle by paying a modest sum which will be made available to help fund the travel and accommodation costs of an official from an impecunious EMHF member country next year. (The training itself is provided free by the host Racing Authority).  Loregnard’s first choice for his study tour was Britain, and the BHA quickly stepped forward with a comprehensive programme, taking in Kempton, two days at Newmarket and two at Epsom and involving the stipendiary steward, veterinary officer, starter, judge, clerk of the scales, and clerk of the course roles.  Loregnard said of his visit: “I can attest with the greatest degree of confidence that this type of training is more easily assimilated in an “on the job” atmosphere as offered here, rather than in a classroom. The main reason for this is that you are experiencing the duties and responsibilities of the stewards and other racing officials in real time all while engaged in the actual race day atmosphere. There is no substitute for that and the experience remains with you forever.  “I believe this type of training should be mandatory for those wanting to gain experience, the more so as the global stewarding community is moving ahead with plans to standardise some of its rules and protocols. Events in the Racing Industry are now seen in real time and not delayed as they were twenty years ago and so in many cases we have a more educated public.  “While in most countries policies have been defined by culture - by which I mean the way things have been processed since one got into the industry - the essence of this type of training is to learn each other’s methods and policies, from which we can compare to what exists in ours and formulate best practices, all for the betterment of our individual racing industries.”      PARDUBICE AND PRAGUE – VENUES FOR EMHF’s 2018 EXECUTIVE COUNCIL MEETING   A year after Dr Martina Krejci, alongside Sweden’s Helena Gartner, became one of the first two females to be elected to our Executive Council, her employers, the Jockey Club of the Czech Republic, hosted its annual meeting at the Hotel Paris in Prague.  Festival, Zeleznik and all the other Czech-based winners of the Velka Pardubicka have had first to successfully complete one of four trials for the big race, and our delegates were lucky enough to gather at Pardubice racecourse to witness the favourite Ange Guardian (GER) hold on to win the fourth and final such trial before 2018’s renewal. A popular winner, since he is trained by the legendary Josef Vana, eight times winner of the big race as a rider, and trainer of last year’s victor No Time To Lose.  For those unfamiliar with Pardubice, it is a verdant track – easy on the eye – some 90 minutes east of Prague. It packs a startling array of obstacles (including the infamous Taxis, which is only jumped the one time each year) into a relatively compact area, making the viewing excellent.  Cross-country steeplechases made up most of the card, with each race tracing a different and somewhat baffling, course. Perhaps the best advice to a first-time visiting jockey would be – don’t make the running. Children of all ages are kept involved and amused: there’s even a ‘mini-Pardubicka’ course for the smaller ones to jump round. Throughout the day, horse-drawn carriages take spectators up close to the fences on leisurely tours of the track – something that could surely be adopted by many other tracks across Europe. The stabling area is spacious and relaxed, and between races jockeys can take advantage of a pleasant decked terrace area outside their changing rooms. Facilities generally are impressive, given that Czech racing does not benefit from a return from betting.  The scrum that characterises the parade-rings of so many courses these days was noticeably absent: those close connections of the runners who were admitted tended to congregate on the far side of the circling horses, rather than in the centre, giving paddock spectators an uninterrupted view. And, while a Pardubice raceday is an occasion for many in the crowd to dress up, and hats are much in evidence, it is unequivocally the horses and the racing that the people are there to see. The fields are rewarded with warm applause as they set off, and each time they pass the grandstands, and from as far away as the final bend as each of the races reaches its crescendo. Any of those who - minutes later - trail in having tailed off, are also applauded, but seemingly not with an ironic jeer – rather, as an appreciation of their unrewarded efforts. It all made for a thoroughly heart-warming day.

By Paull Khan

Festival was a horse brave enough to conquer the obstacles and emerge victorious in the fearsome Velka Pardubicka steeplechase. Peopleton Brook was so hardy, he contested 93 races for Grand National-winning jockey-turned-trainer, Brendan Powell, winning nine of them and being placed a further 17 times. What do these hardened racehorses have in common? They have both given valuable service in the young, fascinating and increasingly widespread endeavour of Equine Assisted Activities such as Hippotherapy.  

Owners, as well as the public at large, would appear to be ever more concerned with what should become of their racehorses once they have retired from the track. And these activities, which are held to bring profound benefits to people in many different circumstances, could increasingly provide an answer – and one as rewarding for the erstwhile owner as for the clients or patients with which their horse interacts.

What, exactly, are ‘Equine Assisted Activities (EAAs)’? Look, and you will find a myriad of similar terms in use: Equine Facilitated Learning, Equine Assisted Psychotherapy, Therapeutic Riding…the list goes on. Each defined differently – and sometimes conflictingly – by different authors: the hallmark, of course, of an emerging and youthful field.

Hippotherapy, despite the breadth of its literal meaning – ‘treatment with the horse’ – has come to refer to a very specific strand of EAA. In Hippotherapy, the treatment involves the horse being ridden. The Oxford English Living Dictionary defines the term thus: The use of horse riding as a therapeutic or rehabilitative treatment, especially as a means of improving coordination, balance, and strength. The predominant focus is on those with physical disabilities, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, etc..

But many manifestations of EAA are geared primarily to helping with non-physical issues and these typically involve little or no riding. Interaction with the horse can take many forms, including handling, grooming and lungeing. So, too, the methodologies employed. Some are one-to-one and focus on personal issues; most are group-based and look at more general concepts, such as trust, assertiveness, self-confidence and self-esteem. Many involve trained professionals such as psychotherapists.

But all are based on the core belief that, for many reasons which the Counselling Directory sets out well, the horse is especially suited to this type of work. Its very size can initially be daunting, so, for many, to overcome this and establish a relationship of trust and control is a profound achievement. As a prey animal, it is quick to interpret body language and to mirror behaviour, responding positively to a calm, confident approach. As a herd animal, it will frequently want to be led and to create bonds – the bonds between man and horse can be exceptionally powerful.

And the range of claimed benefits and beneficiaries is broad indeed. Prisoners, ex-servicemen and -women with PTSD, those on the autistic spectrum, children with ADHD, those deemed ‘at risk’, schizophrenics and those exhibiting a number of other behavioural and psychiatric disorders.

What is striking is that programmes of one sort or another are going on in many, many countries across Europe and beyond. In Prague, for example, the Czech State Psychiatric Hospital boasts a hippotherapy department called BOHNICE. Milan’s principal Hospital has had a hippotherapy unit for over 30 years.

On occasion, there is some involvement of the racing industry. For example, the Moroccan racing authority, SOREC (Société Royale d'Encouragement du Cheval) co-founded a hippotherapy programme aimed at people with special needs. In Scandinavia, betting companies, through the Swedish-Norwegian Foundation for Equine Research to which they contribute, funded a study of the efficacy of Equine-Assisted Therapy on patients with substance abuse patients.

A most impressive example of racing involvement is from Turkey. Here, Equine-Assisted Therapy Centres can be found, courtesy of the Turkish Jockey Club, at their seven racetracks, each offering entirely free courses to children with physical disabilities or mental and emotional disorders. To date, over 3,500 children have benefitted from the scheme, described as ‘one of the most important social responsibility projects of the Jockey Club of Turkey’.


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