Children from tough city backgrounds take to the Ascot turf during pony racing initiative

Young jockeys and their mini mounts took to the hallowed Ascot Racecourse turf on Monday, 8 April, during a pony-racing day organised by the Lord Leconfield branch of the Pony Club.

For many of the youngsters, racing is in their blood and they have become established jockeys in the racing saddle at a young age, but for five children on Monday, the day’s experience was a far cry from their home-life in the City.

The children from Ebony Horse Club in Brixton, London, have been trained up by coach Natalie O’Rourke at her Park Lane Stables in Teddington over a period of six months — enjoying two training sessions a month culminating in the Ascot raceday.

“I did a total of 12 sessions with the children, who are all from disadvantaged backgrounds without their own ponies to ride,” said Natalie. “They were all so committed to the training and I gave them fitness targets to work on at home, including some running and squat exercises.”

The training started in the sand school at Park Lane Stables on the riding school’s ponies, building the children’s balance and confidence, before they headed out on hacks in the parkland surrounding the yard.

During the final countdown to the raceday at Ascot, Natalie took the children and ponies to the point-to-point yard of Phil York in Effingham, Surrey, to use his gallops on Sundays.

“This helped the children become more competent going fast on the ponies and, although there were some tumbles along the way, all the children did brilliantly,” Natalie added.

“They had all had lessons at Ebony previously, but had never ridden at the standard of their fellow competitors at Ascot. My role as their coach was to build their confidence and teach them vital racing skills such as bridging their reins — they all worked so hard and I am very proud of them.

“All of their mounts were riding-school ponies from Park Lane Stables, which shows how versatile ponies can be.”

The icing on the cake came in the maiden 148cm race, when one of Natalie’s students, 12-year-old O’Shane Marsh (pictured, below), won on his debut aboard “the best all-rounder you could ever meet”, Dougie.

“All the children did so well on the day, but to get a winner was a fairytale,” added Natalie, who has been involved in the Pony Racing Authority (PRA) initiative for three years. “O’Shane was really chuffed with his achievement and his family was there to watch him, they were over the moon too. I think the cheer he received was louder than the one for Tiger Roll at Aintree on Saturday!

“The goal now for O’Shane is to pursue his dream of being a jockey and he will head to the British Racing School when he is old enough.”

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Natalie’s Park Lane Stables works collaboratively with Ebony Horse Club in an initiative funded by the PRA. Following the raceday at Ascot, there is a graduate scheme put in place by the PRA, which is designed to help young jockeys climb the ladder and progress onto faster ponies.

“The initiative is a great way for children, who have grown up in difficult circumstances and don’t have a pony, to channel their energy in a positive way,” she added. “For many who struggle at school, it is also a path into a career within the racing industry.

“It is brilliant to be involved in the scheme, after all everyone has to start somewhere. I will now start training another five children for a pony-racing day at Lingfield in October.”

The selection process for the young Ebony jockeys includes them writing a letter to the PRA explaining their wish to be on the pony-racing scheme.

“It is such a great opportunity for these children,” concluded Natalie. “Seeing them gallop past the finishing post at Ascot is always very special.”

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