Horse sense helps youngsters who were heading for a fall

The Northern Racing College in Doncaster teaches teenagers more than just how to ride horses.
The Northern Racing College in Doncaster teaches teenagers more than just how to ride horses.
Have your say

Can learning to ride a racehorse turn the lives of troubled teens around? Sarah Freeman reports on the Yorkshire school for jockeys hoping to do just that.

Tyler Stafford was typical of the students who file into Northern Racing College.

Expelled from school at 14, he could barely read or write but masked any feelings of inadequacy with bluff arrogance. Coming from a family of Durham travellers, horses had always been part of his life. He rode most days and thought he knew best.

“We’ve seen it all before,” says Dawn Goodfellow, chief executive of the Doncaster college which is the focus of a new Channel 4 programme Jockey School. “Our students come from a wide variety of backgrounds, but many of them have had a troubled past. That may be because of bullying, it may be because they’ve grown up in a family where no one has ever worked, but the one thing that unites them all is a desire to work with horses.”

Only one in every 100 students who complete the course will end up becoming a jockey, but the college has always seen itself as more than just a breeding ground for horse-racing’s next stars.

Many of those who enrol have few formal qualifications and alongside the chance to ride the gallops and lessons in horse management, those that need to, also attend classes in basic maths and English.

“For the vast majority this is the first time they have been away from home for any significant amount of time and a lot of the parents say that they come to us as children, but leave as adults,” says Dawn. “The change from their first day to the last can be huge.”

Jockey School follows the fortunes of Tyler along with Shona Rush from Scunthorpe who stopped riding two years earlier after a nasty fall and Cumbria’s Stacey Turner who tended to meet most problems in life with her fist.

The ultimate prize at the end of the 10 week course is a placement with a racehorse trainer. Not all will make the cut, but just staying the course is an achievement for some of the youngsters whose life so far has been a series of missed opportunities.

“They often arrive here from chaotic backgrounds and two things we are very strict on are routine and discipline,” says Dawn. “We run a briefing session for parents and when we say that their sons and daughters will be expected to get up at 6am there’s a few sniggers. Of course there is some whingeing in those first days and week, but they get over it.

“A lot of the teenagers are very unfit when they enrol on the course and that’s one key thing we have to address. Initially they’ll say, ‘I can’t do that’... ‘my knee hurts’... ‘I’m exhausted’, but we will always push them beyond what they think they can achieve. We don’t tolerate anyone who doesn’t pull their weight or who seems intent on causing trouble.”

Tyler’s own bubble was burst when he was told he was not yet ready to progress from the indoor school. Forced to watch others experience the adrenalin rush of riding on the gallops for the first time, he suddenly realised that he might not be quite as good as he thought he was.

“Not everyone can become a jockey but of the 60 to 70 per cent who graduate from each course, 90 per cent will successfully complete an apprenticeship,” says Dawn. “Once you give these kids the skills and show them the rewards you can gain from knuckling down, then they do tend to respond. A lot of their behaviour problems come down to a lack of confidence and feeling of worthlessness.”

As the end of the course nears, there is always a nervous wait to see who has secured a placement, but Tyler is already clear about his own achievement. “I didn’t think I would pass my maths and English, but I have. I didn’t think I would get this far, but I have. I am king of the saddle.”

Jockey School is on Channel 4 tonight at 10pm.