A baptism of fire: Entering into the hard graft of working with horses *H&H Plus*

  • Working with horses is hard graft, so it’s no surprise that the equestrian industry demands some of the toughest initiations. Madeleine Silver talks to those who have taken the plunge

    If a horse came out of one of the late Badminton-winner Sheila Wilcox’s boxes with straw in its tail, 10 pence had to go in a box; stable floors had to be clean enough to eat off; summer sheets were ironed and her honesty was startlingly refreshing – she had no qualms in telling a working pupil that her hair was greasy. But two years spent on Sheila’s Cotswold yard was, says Olympian Mary King, the making of her.

    “[She] was a perfectionist,” the now 58-year-old remembers in her autobiography. “The awful thing was that if she was critical of someone else, you couldn’t help but be relieved that you were getting a break.”

    Fast forward more than 40 years, and the road to the top is often no smoother for those with their hearts set on a life working with horses; eye-wateringly early starts, bruised muscles and equally battered egos are par for the course.

    Trooper Laura Angus, soldier

    Camaraderie and physical resilience are vital to surviving the Household Cavalry’s 12-week riding course for new recruits. Laura Angus had a childhood spent riding on her side when she embarked on the course last year – but that didn’t ease the pain of the first four weeks spent in the indoor school without stirrups.

    “Having ridden before, I didn’t know if it was going to be a bit tedious [at the beginning]. But because they took everything back to basics, it got rid of any bad habits,” she says. While others who’d never sat on a horse might have taken more tumbles than Laura, it was the grooming regime that was her steepest learning curve.

    “It was like you were going to a show every single day,” she says. “Before you ride in civvy street you flick your horse off, pick its feet out, make sure there’s nothing where the girth goes and that’s about it. [Here] you have to be able to run your hands through the horse’s mane and tail with ease. But it’s amazing how quickly it becomes second nature.”

    Now in situ at Hyde Park Barracks in London on ceremonial duties, cleaning the reams of tack can be done in just an hour – two hours shaved off the three-hour slog that ensued on starting out.

    “It’s only looking back that you realise how fast you have become at things,” she says, reminiscing about a schedule that included everything from bandaging to feeding, with regular night guards on the yard adding a dose of sleep deprivation. “For the people who had never been around horses I think it probably was a lot more full-on, because they didn’t realise just how time-consuming horses are. Everything that civilians might learn in a couple of years of being on a yard get thrown into that 12 weeks. But it doesn’t matter how long your day is, you learn to push through.”

    Kieran King, racing yard exercise rider and groom

    When Kieran King embarked on the British Racing School’s (BRS) foundation course last winter – an apprenticeship programme designed to open the doors of the racing industry – he’d never been on a horse.

    “I couldn’t even tell you where you were meant to sit,” he says. “My mate had come off the horse that I was about to ride on that first day, and I remember laughing at him thinking that that couldn’t happen to me. But I got knocked clean out. Once I was back on my feet, I got back on the horse, but I couldn’t tell you what direction we went in.”

    A year earlier, the 21-year-old had his heart set on a career playing football, when an injury scuppered his plans.

    “The BRS popped up on Instagram one day and I happened to click on it,” says Kieran, whose equestrian experience until then extended to watching racing on TV. His initiation into Newmarket life was on the BRS’s ground-based yard staff course – six weeks of gruelling 4.30am starts, mastering mucking out, feeding, horse health and handling. But having lost weight and caught a glimmer of life on the track, he set his sights on becoming a jockey, signing up for the 14-week foundation course, which coaches non-riders from the safety of the indoor school to navigating the gallops.

    “For the first few weeks I thought to myself: ‘No, I’m not putting up with this every day’,” he says, wincing at the recollection of his sore legs. “I thought I was out of breath after football, but this was on another level.”

    Now on the other side, working for Flat trainer Chris Wall – and pinching himself each morning as he heads out on the hallowed turf of Newmarket Heath – he’s realised the value of the friendships he formed on the course.

    “My roommate and I will always stay in contact,” he says. “When you have a bad day, you look to those people [for support], and vice versa.”

    Rosie Heath, equine veterinary nurse

    For others it is emotional reserves, rather than physical robustness, that are called upon to carve out their chosen path. Newly qualified equine veterinary nurse Rosie Heath admits that she’s found foals to be the toughest stumbling block.

    “Everybody loves a foal, but they take huge amounts of nursing care and time. You get really fond of them and when they are very poorly, that is hard to deal with,” she says.

    Six years spent grooming before making the leap, aged 24, to veterinary nursing stood her in good stead; a demanding medley of preparing horses for surgery, cleaning surgical instruments, dressing wounds and carrying out diagnostic tests. But balancing training on the job as an apprentice had its challenges.

    “It was full-on. I was working as a nurse full time, including doing my share of the out of hours rota, and also going to Hartpury one day a week to complete the degree,” she says.

    Now working as a clinic nurse at Liphook Equine Hospital in Hampshire, her busiest day to date involved three elective surgeries with a colic surgery thrown in the middle.

    “You can’t be squeamish to do this job, for sure,” she says. “And you have to be empathetic with the owners, but honest too. It’s about being prepared and learning to adjust, whether it’s an elective joint surgery during the day or an emergency c-section in the middle of the night. But put the work in and you’ll definitely reap the rewards.”

    Claire Gordon, welfare charity field officer

    A decade working for World Horse Welfare hasn’t diminished the intensity of being faced with horses living in implausibly difficult situations for Claire Gordon, the charity’s chief field officer. When she decided to move into the sector, first working for the RSPCA as an inspector, an intensive training course beckoned; Claire found herself abseiling off cliffs to rescue sheep, working in a slaughterhouse, navigating her way to animals stuck in remote locations and handling snakes.

    “Give me a horse any day of the week!” she laughs. Her experience might have meant that when she started at World Horse Welfare “it was easier to hit the ground running”, but her days are still wildly unpredictable.

    “I recently had a call at midday asking if I could come and help with a situation, and I was out that night until 9pm,” she says. “But it’s really rewarding. For me it’s about being able to help horses, and we’re often also able to help people at their worst moment. Taking people’s animals is always a last resort; charities are there to help people help their animals, and work out a way that they can keep them.”

    Working alone on cases is one of the toughest aspects of the job, says Claire. “You can find yourself in the middle of nowhere, at the wrong time of day to draft in the help you need, while trying to figure out what the right course of action is. It can be anything from one right up to 100-plus horses. You have to be a problem-solver, with a cool head and lots of patience and determination.”

    And there are cases that she won’t forget; the lice-ridden mare who made a remarkable recovery and was the muse for the first World Horse Welfare sculpture trail around Badminton, or the time when police dramatically descended on a case in Kent to help with hostile owners.

    As well as the high-octane rescue cases, visiting rehabilitated horses in their new homes is also in Claire’s remit.

    “Remembering where a horse came from and then seeing it being adored in its new home is amazing,” she says. “It really helps put things in perspective. A lot of people say: ‘Oh I could never do your job. I would be so angry.’ But I manage to keep a cool head because I always have the bigger picture in mind. And we’re not judging people; people don’t set out to be cruel. There’s always a human story behind every situation.”

    Ref Horse & Hound; 10 September 2020