ON a soft-weather day in May in Northern Ireland, industry stakeholders, equine assisted services (EAS) and aftercare professionals of the Thoroughbred and wider equine industry came together from across Ireland and the UK, to see first-hand the ground-breaking work being undertaken by the Thoroughbred Assisted Pilot Programme at its base at Horses for People, Ballygraffan.
The pilot programme is funded by Racing to Relate and The Down Royal Corporation of Horsebreeders. The focus of the Thoroughbred Assisted demonstration day was to illustrate the evidence-based training and scientific methodologies undertaken by the University of Bristol vets to assess the transitional life of recently off-track Thoroughbreds into a possible career in equine assisted services. It was also an opportunity to highlight the suitability of off-track Thoroughbreds within the equine assisted sector and the incredibly important work undertaken at Horses for People and similar EAS service providers. Centre-stage on the day, of course, were the magnificent phase one Thoroughbred Assisted horses, including the latest recruit, a broodmare sponsored through ITBA, ITBA Northern Region and Treo Eile.
A warm welcome was offered by Racing to Relate Chairman Adrian Pratt and by June Burgess of Horses for People and her dedicated team. Guests were invited to watch a moving demonstration by two of June’s former workshop participants. The first was Gillian Glass of Women’s Aid, who had facilitated a group of women who had been survivors of trafficking to work with June and the Thoroughbreds. The second was Eddie Rea, a severe PTSD sufferer.
Both Gillian and Eddie worked with the horses and by doing so eloquently, and at times emotionally, shared their life-changing experiences working with the Thoroughbred Assisted horses under June’s guidance. Onlookers watched as two of the racehorse graduates from phase one of Thoroughbred Assisted worked brilliantly and in unison with their human companions in the sand arena at Ballygraffan, illustrating perfectly what words cannot express, their suitability, sensitivity and positive transition from a career in racing to one in EAS.
Gillian Glass, Human Trafficking Support Worker with Women’s Aid, said: “The outcomes were extraordinary. The six girls were extremely fearful at first, cautious, unsure and lacking in confidence. Over the two days they went through a series of interactions and exercises with the horse, allowing them to learn about themselves, how others perceive them and discover their strengths and skills. Horses are great teachers and through building a respectful and honest bond with the horse, each girl developed their ability to communicate effectively, step out of their comfort zone, risk into a new space and grow in confidence in order to connect with the horses.
“The most powerful and beautiful thing is the horses showed each girl unconditional acceptance and kindness. For survivors of human trafficking to feel safe in a place where they are accepted, not judged and simply belong is key to recovery. The horses provided this and this experience has certainly greatly helped to aid their recovery. The girls still talk about the two days with the horses, June and her team.”
“I’m happy that we demonstrated that, rather than being too sharp, many racehorses embody the characteristics we are looking for in equine assisted work, arguably more so than the more traditional breeds. The powerful testimonials from the past participants proved that the pilot phase one horses contributed hugely to the mental well-being of all those who worked with them,” said June Burgess.
The Thoroughbred Assisted pilot project begins from the moment each Thoroughbred is selected and every day of their transitioning is monitored and data fed back to the central team of vets at Bristol University. The vets were able to show sensitivity tests and other welfare assessment tools to the assembled audience and discuss their PhD project. The PhD is funded by Racing to Relate and the John Pearce Foundation and is the first of its kind in the world.
Siobhan Mullan BVMS PhD DWEL DipECAWBM (AWSEL) MRCVS Professor of Animal Welfare and Veterinary Ethics at UCD and co-supervisor of the Racing to Relate PhD research project introduced the veterinary context. Research Fellow and PhD co-supervisor, Dr Jo Hockenhull BsC (R’DG) MSc PhD and research engineer at Ethnova and PhD student Claire Neveux BSc, MSc shared practical demonstrations of their on-going research and outcomes from phase one.
“We really enjoyed the opportunity to demonstrate some of the tests we are doing as part of our research. Everyone seemed interested and we had some great questions and discussion with the people there. It was brilliant to hear such positive comments about the project,” said Dr Jo Hockenhull BsC (R’DG) MSc PhD.
Members of the wider Ballygraffan team were on-hand to discuss the project and the horses, including respected integrated approach vet Dr Esther Skelly-Smith MRCVS and former Thoroughbred Assisted team member Daria Fidgeon, who was central to the lives of the horses arriving off-track and into the pilot programme.
As part of the demonstration day, the team had the opportunity to officially launch the second stage of the Thoroughbred Assisted pilot, which is now open for owners and trainers, who wish to register their Thoroughbred to be considered for a funded space on the six-month programme.
Thoroughbred Assisted are working with the latest veterinary designed traceability, welfare monitoring and record keeping technology, EquiTrace and guests were given a demonstration of how EquiTrace works and what a game-changing effect its use can have on the wider Thoroughbred industry and for welfare particularly.
The Thoroughbred Assisted research is a globally-focused pilot project. The evidence-based study gives Thoroughbreds an opportunity to transform from one career to another in optimum conditions and allows the entire industry an opportunity to really get behind Thoroughbred welfare, which can only be positive for all.
“The demonstration day gave the pilot project the opportunity to introduce the two main beneficiaries of this Thoroughbred Assisted project to the equine profession. It showcased the Thoroughbreds that have completed their initial six-month retraining programme, whilst allowing those who have been in the equine assisted learning sessions with these Thoroughbreds to articulate why equine assisted learning and, in particular, equine assisted learning with Thoroughbreds, has had such an impact on their lives.
“It can be challenging to integrate horsemanship, technology and academia, however, the demonstrations of Ballygraffan showed how it is both achievable and vital to the progression of Thoroughbred welfare to do exactly that. The experience and knowledge displayed by June and her team around the horses is key to maximising their potential throughout the retraining programme. When this is supported by the expertise of Siobhan Mullan and the Bristol team, you begin to understand ‘why’ such powerful transformations for both horses and humans are able to take place. Combined with the transparency of data offered via the EquiTrace app and the PhD data collection, the optimum ‘how’ becomes evident. This is totally transparent Thoroughbred care and should be the touchstone for all in the equine sector moving forward. It is accessible, understandable and robust and can be presented to both those in the industry and, importantly, those on the outside of the industry opinionating on the welfare of Thoroughbreds,” said Molly McCluskey LLB LLM BVC PgDip.
Anthea Smyth of Down Royal Corporation of Horsebreeders concluded: “When I attended the demonstration day at Ballygraffan, I was quite sceptical and even doubtful about the benefits of Equine Assisted Therapy, but have to admit that I was impressed and indeed won over. After the day, I was convinced by the benefits to both horses and people.”
Following a lot of constructive and collaborative discussion between attendees and the Thoroughbred Assisted team, everyone was invited for a thrilling evening’s racing and warm hospitality at the beautiful Downpatrick racecourse, hosted by racecourse manager Richard Lyttle and racecourse chairman Robert Nixon. The Thoroughbred Assisted Down Royal Corporation of Horsebreeders Pilot Handicap Steeplechase was won by the Mark McNiff trained ‘Nuttorridge’.
The day at Ballygraffan demonstrated the phenomenal impact that Equine Assisted Services can have for a wide range of people across all communities and demographics. Retraining Thoroughbreds for this sector of practice gives it the scope to grow in Northern Ireland and beyond in a safe and regulated manner to allow everyone who could benefit from it to do so. It was wonderful to bring together representatives from many different organisations including British Thoroughbred Retraining Centre, Horse Racing Ireland, VSS, Women’s Aid, Down Royal Corporation of Horsebreeders, RDA, One Equine Trust and Festina Lente to create a network of committed people to support both Thoroughbred and human well-being.”
To register the details of a potential Thoroughbred for the next phase of the project or for further information on the pilot, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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