Racehorse finds a new life in retirement

Liz Kettle at home with Frenchie.
Liz Kettle at home with Frenchie.
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Liz Kettle is rebuilding her life after triple disasters with the help of a thoroughbred who had passed the post. Chris Berry reports.

What happens to a racehorse that doesn’t make the grade?

Thoroughbreds are costly to keep and at about six years old – if they haven’t been successful – they are generally reined in and sold on by their owners.

But their futures are not all about glue factories and pet foods.

Liz Kettle purchased Coeur de Lion, a sprinter, 10 years ago and retrained her for eventing. Together, she and Frenchie, as her horse is now known, are making a name for themselves in the world of side saddle.

Having suffered breast cancer, the death of her husband and the tragic loss of her elder brother Robin who broke his neck in a fall competing in a horse trials at Beckwithshaw last year, Liz and Frenchie are finding that life can go on in the face of tragedy.

“My horse and my riding have kept me going through the traumas I’ve had in recent years,” says Liz of Mickleby, near Whitby.

“I have ridden since I was four years-old. My mother pushed us to ride as she thought it was a good, healthy sport and we were members of Cleveland Pony Club. I chose Leeds University for my studies first and foremost because it had a good riding club. I’d always had a horse and when my previous one was getting older and had gone lame I wanted a thoroughbred, a quality animal. They are usually very expensive, but the way you can purchase one for a little less is if you buy a racehorse that is being sold because it is too slow.”

Frenchie had raced half a dozen times under her racing name of Coeur de Lion from the Dandy Nicholls stable at Sessay, near Thirsk, with her best placing being a fourth at Musselburgh.

Liz bought her to event with, but did not get very far with that either. Frenchie was successful at a low level in dressage and eventing, but the more recent move to side saddle competition has proved a winner. It seems that the ex-racehorse has finally found a sport at which she can excel.

Side saddle was adopted in the Middle Ages for women in skirts to ride a horse in modest fashion. Side saddle classes are based on style and norms of the hunt field a century ago. Dress, appointments, riding style, the type of horse used are all judged against a formalised standard for an ideal appearance.

So how difficult is it to retrain a racehorse to the nuances of either dressage or what seems the lop-sided sport of side saddle?

“It’s a bit of a myth that you need a certain type of horse for these kind of disciplines and that there’s some kind of mystique to it, but really it’s quite straightforward. If you’re careful over how you teach them and they are sensible, well-schooled horses I believe you can make things work.

“Frenchie had never had a side saddle on her and I had never done it before so we learned together. I wanted something different to learn. It was a new challenge for both of us.

“My good friend, Susan Perkins, and I had seen side saddle at the Great Yorkshire Show and other big shows in the ladies hunter classes. It looked really elegant and suitable for the more mature woman so we both thought we would give it a try.

“You are supposed to be as square on the horse as if you were riding normally, it’s just that your legs are turned to the left. I don’t find it a problem and I actually find it a lot easier on my back than the regular riding position.

“We didn’t want to invest in all the gear straight away so we managed to borrow a saddle. We now know that it didn’t fit either of us but it was okay to learn on.

“We taught ourselves and Frenchie adapted quickly. We watched people and asked questions of those competing at side saddle shows. We also found there was a National Side Saddle Association and now attend their training camp each year.”

Their time and dedication is already paying off more than Coeur de Lion’s racing career ever did. At the Festival Association Championships at the Great Yorkshire showground Frenchie won the championship for best former racehorse; and the pair took a fistful of awards at this year’s National Side Saddle Finals.

“We’re not winning in the high-powered classes just yet, but we have been to the national finals three years in a row.

“We did quite well the first year and in the second year we won the trophy for what is effectively best newcomer. This year has been our most successful yet as Frenchie was placed in six out of our seven classes. We’ve certainly got our foot in the door.”

Whereas Frenchie’s racing career would have been over long ago, whether she had been successful or not, her active competitive career in side saddle still has years ahead.

“She’s 15 years old now, and a well-bred horse like she is, with no injuries or conformation problems, could go on until she is 20.”

Liz is an experienced town planner and has her own consultancy business. She is regularly called upon to work on getting tricky planning applications through.

In her working life she has been very successful and now she is replicating that success in side saddle competitions, with a horse that appears to have had a change of heart.

An expensive life after work

The industry estimates that a racehorse costs £5,000 in its first year of retirement and this can lead to neglect, slaughter for pet food or, in one case, being beaten to death.

The hard fact of life is that unless an ex-racehorse is found a home it is slaughtered.

More than 5,000 racehorses leave the industry every year.