The pilot is a joint initiative between Racing To Relate and the Down Royal Corporation of Horsebreeders (DRCOH) and takes place at ‘Horses For People’ (June Burgess) at Ballygraffan, Northern Ireland. The pilot is part of the programme of Racing To Relate's Thoroughbred Assisted inter-sectoral evidence based collaborations intended to underpin the charity’s vision for long-term Thoroughbred welfare beyond racing.
Racing To Relate is a ground-breaking charity that has at its heart a deep respect for the Thoroughbred racehorse. Racing To Relate focuses on nurturing a long-term positive impact on Thoroughbred welfare and supporting the Thoroughbred/human partnership beyond racing. The charity aims to create a global standard for off-track Thoroughbreds within the Equine Assisted Therapy (EAT) sector implementing engagement, education and evidence-based research within the racing industry, EAT and broader public contexts. R2R is endorsed by the British Horseracing Authority and their official retraining charity, Retraining of Racehorses (RoR). R2R’s visionary work has received backing from several established organisations including generous on-going support from The Voice of Racing – The Sir Peter O’Sullevan Charitable Trust, The Childwick Trust and followed by generous support for the PhD research by The John Pearce Foundation.
Down Royal Corporation of Horsebreeders aims to support and develop the Thoroughbred industry in Northern Ireland. Established in 1685 by the Royal Charter as a profit-making but not profit-taking corporation, it is a unique entity offering support to the Thoroughbred breeding and horseracing industry and the wider equine industry within Northern Ireland. From its previous base at Down Royal Racecourse, the Corporation transformed racing in Northern Ireland, bringing Grade 1 National Hunt racing and black type flat racing to Northern Ireland. Equine, jockey and stable staff welfare has always been a critical driver for the Corporation. The facilities and investment at the racecourse reflected this. In more recent times, the Corporation has supported a wide variety of equine initiatives in Northern Ireland, including Racehorse to Riding Horse, College of Agriculture, Farming and Rural Enterprise bursaries, Irish Equine Rehabilitation and Fitness Centre, Eventing Ireland, Irish Thoroughbred Breeders Association and the Riding for the Disabled Association. The Corporation focuses on projects making a difference in Northern Ireland, which directly benefits the broader horseracing and Thoroughbred breeding industry.
“Down Royal Corporation of Horsebreeders has been advancing and improving Racing in Northern Ireland since its inception, celebrating the Thoroughbred both on and off the track. This project is an exciting and necessary next step in the process of developing and progressing thoroughbred welfare and human wellbeing within the Racing industry.” - Jim Nicholson, Chairman of Down Royal Corporation of Horsebreeders Thoroughbred Assisted Northern Ireland Pilot Overview :
The six-month pilot funded by DRCOH and R2R will follow retraining of four Thoroughbreds for use in Equine Assisted Therapy. The process will take place at Ballygraffan and monitoring will be facilitated by academic collaboration between the College of Agriculture Farming and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE), Ulster University, Queens University and the research team at the University of Bristol via Racing to Relate. June Burgess and Daria Fidgeon will undertake daily on-site monitoring. All data will be fed back to the University of Bristol via Racing To Relate to form part of the more exhaustive PhD study. Outcomes will include selection of Thoroughbreds retrained in a facility focusing on maximum welfare of the horse and longevity of career. At the end of the retraining programme, any Thoroughbreds who prove to be more suited for a next career other than one in EAT will be supported in further training with our agreed partners. DRCOH hope that in the future the pilot outcomes will also help inform an academic module at CAFRE for the retraining of racehorses for use in EAT. The Thoroughbreds: The horses have all now arrived at Ballygraffan and are settled in really well. Five-year-old flat-bred mare Nouhime is recently off-track. The second is gelding Our Seamus. He is a successful nine-year-old National Hunt horse also recently off track and has had kissing spine surgery. Elusive Time is 13 year-old and was winner of the 2017 Irish Cambridgeshire and numerous other races. The latest addition, a gelding called Drummer retired from racing in 2012 and went on to a next career as an eventer. Thoroughbred Assisted™ Project Background: Racing To Relate has pioneered an international-first in a collaborative research PhD with the University of Bristol (UOB). The research aims are to develop an evidence-based standard for selecting and educating post-racing Thoroughbreds for Equine Assisted Services (EAS). The John Pearce Foundation has very kindly funded this three-year study. It has the potential to become a template for developing a global standard. The PhD is a significant component of Racing To Relate’s long-term research aims under their Thoroughbred Assisted banner. The Thoroughbred Assisted focus is on building and informing an innovative and widely collaborative knowledge platform. It will offer evidence-based guidance on optimal engagement, implementation and welfare outcomes for both horses and the people who work with them. The Collaborations: The exciting collaboration with DRCOH arose from Racing To Relate’s preliminary stakeholder feedback process for Phase One of their research with University of Bristol. The pilot follows four Thoroughbreds exiting horse racing into a monitored training/retraining programme at an EAT facility. This experimental cross-industry collaboration will run in parallel with the first ‘Audit’ Phase of the Racing To Relate /University of Bristol PhD and has been geared towards complimenting the Phase Two and Three field studies. Molly McCluskey represents DRCOH on the project. Molly is a qualified barrister and a life-long equestrian who maintained an interest in riding and competing throughout her university years, completing a diploma in the breeding and racing industry whilst studying for her undergraduate law degree. Molly was Assistant Manager at the Down Royal racecourse and is currently a Giant’s Park C.I.C director. Newly established in Belfast, Giant’s Park is a centre of education, sporting excellence and empowerment for all ages and abilities with the horse at its core. Molly is a consultant for Down Royal Corporation of Horsebreeders and through their vision and insight for the Thoroughbred industry in Northern Ireland, she has worked on many rewarding projects to improve Thoroughbred welfare and create awareness of the opportunities and benefits of working with Thoroughbreds. Molly explains how the collaboration with Racehorse to Riding Horse and Horses for People came about:
“Down Royal Corporation of Horsebreeders first became involved with Racehorse to Riding Horse Ireland almost a decade ago through Julie Morris. Julie approached the Corporation to sponsor an Open League for horses that had raced and were now entering the second phase of their career in the showing ring. The Down Royal Corporation of Horsebreeders Racehorse to Riding Horse League was created and is still running to date. For the Corporation, the League offered an opportunity to support Thoroughbreds who were no longer racing but were still very capable of having a second career off the track, importantly for the Corporation the League offered an opportunity to showcase how they could adapt to a second career and how important it was to ensure that they were given that chance. The competitors would parade each year at the Down Royal Festival of Racing. The Festival was a celebration of world class racing on the track and it was an invaluable showcase for these wonderful horses who had completed their racing careers and were subsequently to be celebrated in a totally different light.” Ballygraffan Collaboration: The partnership between R2R and DRCOH is at the centre of a more comprehensive collaboration supporting related organisations from the Thoroughbred and EAT sector in Northern Ireland. It is no coincidence that Northern Ireland offers a nurturing space for the development of ground-breaking work within the realm of healing and therapeutic processes. The last 30 years of the twentieth century saw the most intense violent conflict over national identity in Northern Ireland experienced anywhere in Europe during those years.[i] Although not directly connected to the conflict, the work undertaken during the Thoroughbred Assisted™ pilot is intrinsically linked to organisations, partners and ambassadors who have been part of the broader process of healing in Northern Ireland and who have, primarily through work with horses, facilitated learning and growth for the people in Northern Ireland.
“Over the past few years the Corporation has been working with various projects to try and build on the opportunities in Northern Ireland for Thoroughbreds that have finished their racing careers. In addition to the Racehorse to Riding Horse league the Corporation has supported a number of initiatives to encourage the continued use of Thoroughbreds post-racing in a variety of disciplines. The Corporation has always been focused on advancing racing to ensure the maximum welfare for the horses, the riders, the stable staff and those supporting racing. The field of Equine Assisted Activities is starting to grow in Northern Ireland and the benefits of these activities when undertaken in a safe, regulated and sustainable manner are incredible for both the horses and humans involved.
The Corporation, through Rachel Annan from CAFRE, were introduced to the charity, Racing To Relate. As discussed above, the proposal for a joint pilot project to incorporate ex-racehorses into a retraining programme for use in Equine Assisted Therapy was created. The Corporation felt the potential for Equine Facilitated Therapy and also for the use of Thoroughbreds within this sphere was fantastic. At an information day organised through the Department of Health at Ballygraffan, the Corporation was introduced to the work being done by June Burgess at Horses for People. June’s background as an international event rider, business woman and life coach gave her a unique insight into the horses, the people and also the business model required to make this sustainable. The layout at Ballygraffan lends itself so well to retraining Thoroughbreds for this work. It is such a peaceful place with well thought out turnout, shelters and feeding arrangements which maximise the welfare of the horses but also the opportunity for true human horse connections.
June is an incredibly strong woman who brings not just her equestrian expertise to this project but also her life coaching skills, equine facilitated learning experience, a vast array of equine welfare qualifications but most importantly an enthusiasm to collaborate and learn from practices throughout the world to make this pilot a unique opportunity for Thoroughbred and human welfare on an international scale.”
- Molly McLusky, DRCOH
One central collaborative figure in this healing approach is accomplished equestrian and businesswoman June Burgess. June runs the award-winning horse-assisted leadership programme Horses For People from her equine facility at Ballygraffan in Northern Ireland. The pilot is fondly referred to by June and the project team as ‘People For Horses’. June has been director of several successful companies and has developed numerous others over 25 years in business. Horses have always been a considerable part of June’s life, having ridden for Ireland in over 60 international competitions and at the British Eventing Championships. June has over 40 years of experience working with and learning from horses. This includes owning and producing the Rio Olympics bronze medal-winning horse, Mighty Nice. Parallel to her phenomenal career development, June built and directed Ballygraffan International Horse Trials from 2003-2008, diversifying from the classic equestrian event model to create a country fair with extensive private and public funding corporate hospitality, international marketing and SkySports coverage for four years. Several thousand spectators were welcomed each year, as well as professional riders from eight countries. June brought all of her significant strengths and experience to form her EAT programme, Horses For People. With international accreditation, June facilitates Horse-Assisted Leadership workshops for leadership, resilience, therapy and wellbeing. In 2019 she was recognised in the Armed Forces Soldiering On Awards for her work with veterans suffering from PTSD:
“When Molly suggested the Racing to Relate Thoroughbred Assisted project to me, there was no way that I would not have wanted to be involved because it pulls together everything that Horses for People is about and is an opportunity to show the world that racehorses have so much potential beyond the racecourse. It is our duty to look after our horses, not only whilst they are competing, but once they have reached the end of their careers. We owe it to them.But it’s not just our moral obligation – Thoroughbreds add a whole new level of responsiveness to equine therapy. They are sensitive, curious, and expressive, precisely what I am looking for in my workshops. Thoroughbreds are clever, and there are so many ex-racehorses that could easily be trained to be exceptional therapy partners. I can’t quite believe that I have a chance to demonstrate this and help to highlight a whole new purpose for them. A purpose in which they will be gentle yet responsive partners in the role of helping people. This is people helping horses to help people.”
- June Burgess, ‘Horses For People,’ Ballygraffan Supporting June and the TAP project at Ballygraffan is student placement Daria Fidgeon who recently completed a BSc Hons in Equine Management at CAFRE. Daria has worked at Gigginstown House Stud, and during her degree, she worked with racehorses. She also travelled to Kentucky, visiting the equine industries leading establishments there. Before her studies, she had no experience with Thoroughbreds but fell in love with them and their individuality. Daria is also an accomplished photographer and we are lucky enough to have her involved not only in the research but to document the project in pictures :
“I was immediately interested in the opportunity to be part of a project that will benefit Thoroughbreds worldwide. I recently completed my dissertation on horse movements and lying down behaviours in three different housing environments, stable, turnout and active turnout, using GPS technology and thoroughly enjoyed the hands-on experience collecting data and dealing with problems that occurred. I am passionate about equine welfare, and this project has the potential to benefit thousands of thoroughbreds while offering an extremely valuable service to people.”
- Daria Fidgeon, CAFRE graduate A steering group guides the Northern Ireland Pilot made up of the following stakeholders and partners:
Steering Group: Jennifer Barker – Racing to Relate, Molly McCluskey – DRCOH Project Officer, Mike Todd – DRCOH Committee, June Burgess – Horses for People, Margaret O’Sullivan – ROR, Claire Neveux PhD Student –University of Bristol, Professor Siobhan Mullan – UCD/ University of Bristol, Dr Mathilde Valenchon –University of Bristol, Dr Deborah Butler – University of Bristol, Dr Jo Hockenhull – Bristol University, Dr Becky Parkes – City University, Hong Kong, Dr Esther Skelly-Smith – Shanaghan Veterinary Services, Dr Helen Sharp – Equi-S Therapies Ireland, Seamus McAliney – CAFRE, Rachel Annan – CAFRE, Richard Moore – One Equine, Sarah Sands – Treo Eile, Meta Osborne – Veterinarian and Irish Racing Expert
Collaborative Partners: New Zealand Thoroughbred Racing – Martin Burns, Stacie Clark – TAA in USA, Di Artbuthot– IFAR, Irish Equine Rehabilitation and Fitness Centre, Baileys Horse Feeds, RDA – Riding for the Disabled, Emma Hutchison – HorseBack UK, Lisa Coffey – Racing Hearts, One Equine – Equine Assisted Therapy awareness charity