How Yorkshire members of the Shire Horse Society are taking on charity challenge to raise awareness of mental health in farming

They’re used to being on board Shire horses, or working with them, but for a number of countrywomen from all around the county their saddle will be much smaller soon as they embark on a 320-mile charity coast to coast bike ride from Barmouth to Great Yarmouth, as they seek to raise awareness of mental health in agriculture.

Abigail Wagstaff of Sutton-on-the-Forest; Bradford-born Victoria Clayton; Ruth Burgess from Cannon Hall Farm, Cawthorne and Jo-Ann Clubley from Bewholme in East Yorkshire will all be donning their spandex for a five-day route from the West Wales seaside resort along with several other Shire Horse Society members from across the UK.

Victoria is the society’s secretary and chief executive. Her father has Westfield Shire Stud and a stallion they bred has recently won at the National Shire Horse Show, but it is the cycle ride that will take precedence shortly, commencing on Monday 13 May.

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“Last year we undertook a charity ride for one of our members’ granddaughters who had been living with bone cancer,” says Victoria. “We were on a high after completing it and we all rather stupidly said let’s do another one, but make it bigger, so this time it is 320 miles. The route from Dolgellau to Welshpool looks as though it will be very painful.

Abigail Wagstaff, Westfield Farm Sutton on the Forest, York with Vicki Clayton and dog PixxieAbigail Wagstaff, Westfield Farm Sutton on the Forest, York with Vicki Clayton and dog Pixxie
Abigail Wagstaff, Westfield Farm Sutton on the Forest, York with Vicki Clayton and dog Pixxie

“Mental health problems are very prevalent in agriculture. Farming has the highest suicide rate of any profession and we wanted to do something to help. We could have picked a much bigger charity but thought our efforts would then just but be a drop in the ocean for them whereas what we could raise in both awareness and funds for The DPJ Foundation would hopefully make a real difference. If we can help one person in overcoming that feeling of taking their own life, then we’ve won the Olympic Gold.

Abigail missed the first charity ride and was determined to take part this time as she sees the mental stress placed on farmers at first hand.

“I feel so strongly about mental health and wellbeing on farms, the pressures of farming. My husband Russell has got to keep expanding. At times farming almost seems impossible. It is even harder the way our Government is with everything. I don’t know how Russell does it, and that stress can have an immense and damaging effect on everybody.

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“That’s why I want to try to put my bit in to making a greater awareness of The DPJ Foundation. We are a big family community and we should look after each other.

Abigail Wagstaff is pictured preparing shire horse Ellie,  with her son ReubenAbigail Wagstaff is pictured preparing shire horse Ellie,  with her son Reuben
Abigail Wagstaff is pictured preparing shire horse Ellie, with her son Reuben

Kate Miles of The DPJ Foundation based in Pembrokeshire where it started eight years ago by the widow of Daniel Picton Jones, an agricultural contractor who took his own life, says the charity performs a vital role and although primarily based in and for people in Wales, has helped in Yorkshire and other areas too.

“The DPJ Foundation was set up by Emma Picton Jones in July 2016. It followed Daniel Picton Jones taking his own life and Emma wanted to do something to help people like herself, but also people like Daniel. Dan had struggled with his mental health for some time. He’d had ups and downs at home. From the outside it looked like life was great. He had a lovely young family, had a good marriage, a thriving little business as an agricultural contractor, and they’d bought a new house, but inside he felt life wasn’t good.

“Emma discovered that Daniel had been thinking of suicide but she didn’t know how to help him. She had tried to carry the weight, the pressure, so that he wasn’t the one carrying the strain in domestic arrangements, that kind of thing. What she says that she didn’t do was ask him directly if he was thinking of killing himself.

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“After Daniel died Emma did research and training and discovered that asking someone directly whether they were considering suicide was one of the more effective ways of trying to support someone, helping them to get their thoughts out. Emma started providing mental health first aid training, that then became mental health awareness that we now deliver.

“We now deliver training to people like Emma, but also vets, feed reps, government officials, everyone who visits farmers and farming families and who might be able to spot the signs of people struggling with mental health.

“In 2018 we established our 24/7 confidential call and text line called Share the Load. It is volunteer run. We don’t ask for lots of personal information. We ask what is going on in their life and what has brought them to us. We are there to listen and then we are able to provide professional counselling.

“While much of our work is in Wales we have had a call from Yorkshire to our helpline from somebody and were able to connect them with a local counselling service for agriculture in that area.

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“Emma is our chair of trustees, is actively involved in strategy and direction and also volunteers. We are really grateful for the support being given by the Shire Horse Society ladies in Yorkshire this year.

Abigail and Victoria admit they’re fitness may be tested in a fortnight’s time.

“I do go to the gym,” says Victoria. “But the bike has to be one of my least favourite pieces of kit in the world. Last year we did 190 miles from Liverpool Docks to Flamborough. This year we’ve nearly doubled our mileage!

“I’ve not cycled since I was 8,” says Abigail. “I did 20 miles the other Sunday and ended up in the middle of a charity tractor run in Easingwold.

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“I’m borrowing my mum’s really nice road bike. As a bit of a joke, I rode an upright bike with a shopping basket on. I put it on social media and people probably wondered what planet I was on. I think I’m pretty fit and strong but ask me when we finish on Friday 17 May. and

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