Racehorses are prized assets, but what happens once they pass the finishing post for the last time? Sarah Lally-Marley goes behind the scenes of one organisation hoping to prove there is life after retirement.
Nestled amongst the rolling hills of the Yorkshire Wolds in a little-known place called Hanging Grimston is New Beginnings, a charitable company that rehabilitates and re-homes ex racehorses. It is the first of its kind in Yorkshire and is run by Kevin Atkinson and his partner Pam Hollingworth, who have chosen to dedicate their lives to providing a more secure future for those horses leaving the racing industry.
“Our aim is to provide a safe and supportive environment for ex-racehorses where they will have the opportunity to enjoy a ‘life past the post’,” says Kevin, who believes that with 25 per cent of the country’s racehorses trained in Yorkshire, there is a real need for an organisation like theirs to support the county’s owners and trainers.
“Every year thousands of racehorses come out of training and for many that can mean an uncertain future, with some ending up at the local sales and ultimately in the meat trade, a sad fact that has dominated the national headlines recently.”
The organisation opened its doors in February, 2010, but it has come a long way in the last three years. Having quickly outgrown their original yard at Pocklington where Pam and Kevin had six acres, they now have a sprawling 37 acre site, which boasts both fenced paddocks and an outdoor arena.
The couple currently have 16 horses in their care, some who have enjoyed an illustrious career such as the Sue Smith trained Cheltenham Festival winner Mister McGoldrick, who arrived on their yard at the beginning of last year, shortly after he was officially retired at Wetherby racecourse.
“Sue and his owner felt that ‘Mac’ had earned his right to an easier way of life and he has certainly taken to his more sedate lifestyle very well,” says Pam, who clearly has a soft spot for the gentle thoroughbred whose sensible nature has proven to be useful with encouraging the younger, greener horses on the yard.
“We are very proud to be looking after such a Yorkshire legend and although he has a good head on his shoulders he can still be a bit of a diva and loves his audience when he parades at Yorkshire racecourses as an ambassador for us.”
Mac is a permanent resident and will now see out his days at New Beginnings, where he will continue to represent the organisation and promote the positive aspects of life after racing.
While it’s the star names and famous faces that inevitably attract the most attention, many in the care of New Beginnings have never have gone through the starting stalls or won a race, but with the right care and training they still have the potential to excel in a different arena.
“We work with the horses to build their confidence and to allow them to develop physically and mentally and find their personal strengths. Our ultimate aim is to produce horses that can easily move into new disciplines and be suitably and successfully re-homed,” says Pam, who is keen to stress that they are not a sanctuary and in order to help as many horses as they can it is essential that they are suitably and successfully re-homed where possible.
One of their success stories is a horse called Sheerwind, or “Windy” as he is generally referred to. The couple were approached by the horse’s owner who was suffering with a terminal illness. He had been unable to find a home for his beloved horse, but did not have the heart to have him put down.
“He was very relieved when we agreed to take Windy, giving him the security he needed for the rest of his life, and we have since found a loving new owner who has adopted the cheeky character, who at twenty six years old remains full of life and still thinks he can show the youngsters a thing or two,” says Pam, who clearly sees all the horses in their care as an extension of their family.
Listening to Pam talking about each horse’s little quirks and personality traits – such as Red Wine, a reject from the Northern Racing College who Pam describes as a “grumpy devil with a softer side that is slowly coming out” – it is clear that she has no regrets about leaving the comfort of an office job to spend her days mucking out and lugging bales of hay around muddy fields. She walked away from her previous life as a manager at a medical practice, in order to focus her efforts managing the day to day running of the yard and raising funds.
“Giving up the day job has certainly been a leap of faith for me, but it was something I felt I had to do if we wanted to be able to grow and offer more horses the opportunity of a fresh new start.”
Building such strong attachments with the horses in their care should make re-homing a difficult process for the couple, but New Beginnings has a firm commitment to look after every horse in their care for the rest of their natural life, so horses are “loaned” to long term loving homes but will always return to them if circumstances change, ensuring that they will never be sold on and they can continue to follow each horse’s progress once they are re-homed.
“We realise that people’s lives can change unexpectedly, but the welfare of these horses is our main priority and it is the only way that we can guarantee a secure future for them,” says Kevin, who has been working closely with a number of Yorkshire based owners, trainers and racecourses who have supported their fundraising efforts.
“Trainers do the best they can but ultimately they have a business to run, which is why we understand that it is important for us to work together to ensure a better outcome for horses that have to leave the industry.”
While the rehabilitation of ex-racehorses is the couple’s main priority, having spent most of their lives with thoroughbreds they also understand the emotional and psychological benefits that being around them can bring, which is why they are keen that the horses at New Beginnings are also able to give something back, by providing “on the ground” therapy for children and adults with complex special needs. They are currently developing a “Hands High” programme which they believe will provide a unique form of equine therapy.
“There is growing evidence that contact with horses can help children to grow, develop and look forward to a positive and happy future, which is something that we are keen to embrace and develop here,” says Pam, who adds that contrary to what people may think, racehorses make ideal therapy horses as they are handled constantly from birth and are used to dealing with busy public race meetings from a young age, so tend to be very relaxed amongst people.
Keen to dispel the common myth that racehorses are all “highly-strung and difficult to deal with”, she explains that often all they need is a break and some “chill out time” and most settle very easily into a new way of life. Certainly for those horses lucky enough to make the move to the Yorkshire Wolds and the quiet sanctuary offered by New Beginnings, the opportunities are endless.
“There is so much that these horses have to offer, whether it’s as a riding horse, companion or by providing valuable therapy, so as well as giving them a secure future, our aim is to showcase the potential that ex-racehorses have, beyond the racetrack.”
Days at the races
New Beginnings has been chosen as one of the Go Racing In Yorkshire charitable organisations for 2013 and will be attending eight Yorkshire race meetings in nine days during July.
Kevin and Pam welcome visitors to the yard and appointments can be made by contacting the office on 01759 369810 or email firstname.lastname@example.org