Promise Fulfilled

I keep my promises, see.

As I told you yesterday, this post shall regale you with the past few days of my life spent mostly in Newmarket on our college study tour.

The four hour journey was a killer. I hate travelling at the best of times, and the weather along the motorway was just dire. I get travel sick, particularly in minibuses/coaches, so the thought of being stuck in one for several hours did not fill me with confidence. I took my travel pills, however, and settled in as best I could. As it turns out, despite the bad weather and long journey, I survived fairly well. At one point I took my headphones out and realised the bus was awfully quiet. Turning around, I found this:

Bless their little cottons. Sleepy girlies. After waking everyone from their nap as we arrived, we disembarked the bus at the Animal Health Trust.

The AHT is a charity which focuses primarily on the health of animals, as opposed to the welfare which is the main focus of other charities. They gave us a short lecture about their main aims and target areas, and it was interesting to learn about the huge amount of research they do into various ailments in the animal world. We were then given a tour around some of their diagnostics equipment and shown their equine unit. It was still pouring with rain at this point but we managed not to get too soaked, and left with the sky looking slightly brighter.

From there we headed down the road to the British Racing School which is where we would find our accommodation for the duration of our trip. It was around half three by this point, and I was seriously tired! We checked in at the school and collected our key cards. I was more overjoyed than I can possibly express to go into my room and discover a little station with kettle, teabags and milk, a TV and a comfy looking bed. We also all had an ensuite each, and the rooms on my side of the building looked out onto the practice gallops for the training students.

We were told that supper would be served at 5pm, so we headed down a little earlier in the hope that we’d catch the first serving before the students all arrived. The kitchen staff were everso friendly, and my plate of macaroni cheese was nowhere near as stodgy and hard to swallow as I’d expected. I don’t get on well with cheese sauce, but it was alright. We retired to our rooms, and I tucked myself into bed whilst the others watched Made In Chelsea. Happy days.

The following morning we were up bright and early to grab some breakfast before heading off to the gallops to watch the horses in training. The gallops we went to were interesting in the sense that they were not a private area. They are owned by someone, but all the surrounding race yards pay a certain fee per month to be able to use them. So we saw a massive number of horses go charging up, all from different yards. It was strange actually, seeing so many horses in one place. And so many that looked almost identical to one another. Thoroughbred after thoroughbred. Fortunately I quite like them as a horse, so I enjoyed watching them pass.

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From there, we got a little lost around Newmarket, until we eventually found our way out to Tattersalls Sale Yard. What I loved about driving around Newmarket was how horse-centred they are there. There are normal pavements, and then wider yellow stoned ones for the horses. There are specific horse crossings at various intervals along the roads, and specially designed gateways and bars to show where the horses walk and don’t walk etc. It was so weird, and wonderful, to be in a place where that much attention to detail was given to the horses. They almost seemed to have right of way over motorists and pedestrians. But then I suppose in a town where racing is it’s heart, it would be strange to focus on anything else.

Up at Tattersalls we were given a tour by a really lovely lady. She took us to the main sale ring first where she explained the sales process, the sorts of figures they tend to turn over in a year, and how horses are vetted and authorised before and after sale. We were then taken around some of the yards and shown the pre-ring walk up areas where potential purchases can get that last final look at the ones they’re interested in. She explained the complicated entry and vetting process for each and every horse that comes onto the property, as well as the regulations and legislation that must be abided by throughout the sales process. She added that the sales was an exciting place to be and encouraged us to visit when there was a sale on as the atmosphere is apparently electric. She did warn us to sit on our hands and keep our heads perfectly still, however, as the slightest movement can be seen as a bid. And given that some of these horses are going for millions, it would be a little awkward to end up with that cheque at the end of your daytrip…

After Tattersalls we headed into town for a while, as we had some time to kill. Kelly found herself a very cute dress for the weekend, and Erin was coaxed into buying a lovely jacket for an occasion she’s going to. We soon realised that despite it’s focus on racing and horses, Newmarket is not a young persons town.

Having seen all there was to see in the town itself, we made our way to the British Racing Museum. Quietly oohing and aahing at some of the exhibits, we meandered around and compared notes on which of the jockeys from the 1800’s would’ve been considered the most attractive. I think my favourite exhibit was Hyperion’s skeleton which stood in a glass case in the centre of one of the rooms. It was fascinating to actually see the entire skeleton up close, to be able to really understand how things are put together, the angles they make, and the sheer size of those bones. A horse’s femur is not to be trifled with! And Hyperion wasn’t even that big a horse. Having seen his skeleton, I’m now looking at Bryn with a deeper level of respect and awe!

Pretty soon we found the less austere room in the museum. The one with the simulator! There were other exhibitions in the room, showing the meals a jockey would’ve eaten, the kind of things the horse’s would’ve been given and the tack that was used. There was also a rack of different silks, and a table for colouring in (which Erin and Kelly very quickly made their own).

The man in there, John, was a lovely fellow. An ex-jockey who weighed a paltry 5stone when he began his racing career, he greeted us warmly and invited us to come and look at the racing simulator. He turned it on so we could see how it worked, and at first we all balked slightly at how fast it seemed to go. Eventually though, Amy was persuaded to take one for the team and have a go first. She donned the Royal silks and climbed aboard. After that, everyone gained a bit of confidence and soon there was a queue of us waiting to have a go. Everyone was great, although a lot of faces were pulled as legs got hoisted up into the insanely short jockey stirrups. I managed to get a video of everyone having a go, apart from myself as my phone ran out of battery. I think someone else videoed me, but I don’t have it yet so I can’t share it with you.

I do think, however, that I might have taken him a little seriously when John told me to get in the zone and push on like I meant it. I had my hands braced on the neck, and I pushed away with my arms as if my life depended on it. At one point I lost my left stirrup, so my leg was clamped onto the side holding me up, and my arms were going like billy-oh. And now I have some quite serious muscle cramp going on in my triceps. I can barely bring my elbow into a right angle, let alone any tighter. Which means brushing my hair and teeth is nigh on impossible. Dressing is a bit tricky, and I keep forgetting and try to do things which pull it and make me want to throw up with the pain. Oops.

The highlight of the trip, apart from watching each other pretend to be jockey’s, was going to the National Stud on Tuesday afternoon. Initially I was slightly disappointed to find we were going to be on a tour with a bunch of other people, as I didn’t realise the Stud did tours twice daily for the public. And then when we were told to come and get on a bus, my heart sank again. As it was, the guide drove around very slowly anyway, and although there were other people, there weren’t too many of us altogether. We were driven from the reception up into the farm where we stopped at one of the yards to go and meet an extremely precious foal.

Sired by Galileo, and half sister to the famous Frankel, the little five week old filly was utterly gorgeous, a real character and desperate to have her butt scratched. Oh yeah, and she was worth upwards of £750,000. Crazy.

We then got to go and play with some of the older foals and their mothers, who were pushier than the foals themselves.

The mare in the picture above decided that she deserved the attention far more than her foal did. Note the forehead and ear to the side of her chest? Baby got pushed out of the way so that mum could have a scratch. She blissed out a little bit actually, as she had Emma rubbing her forehead while I scratched behind her head with one hand, and just above her withers with the other.

She was in a field with a few other mares and foals, which made for a lovely sight in the sunshine.

There was a definite alpha mare who went around charging off all the others and making sure no other mare came within a five metre radius of her foal. These foals were all born in January and February, which gives them the best possible chances when it comes to their entry to the racing world as they’ll likely be the biggest and strongest of their peers. All thoroughbreds have the registered birthday of 1st January you see, which means that a foal born in November is considered the same age as one born in January of that year. When they get older, this matters less, but horses don’t fully mature until they’re around four or five. And in the racing industry, they will begin their career at around two years old. Two year old races are usually the entry point for a lot of thoroughbreds, and a horse born much later in the year just won’t stand a chance against its peers as it will not have the physical strength to compete. So these guys might do quite well, we’ll have to wait and see I guess. In the mean time, they do make a lovely “aaw” worthy photo.

From those paddocks we continued our tour up to the stallion yard where we met two of their three stallions. We didn’t get to meet the stallion man, which would’ve been interesting, but keeping a wary distance from the chaps themselves was decent enough. Bahamian Bounty, their oldest resident, clocks in at twenty years old and as such is on light duties these days. This means he only covers two mares a day during the season. Bless.

One of his sons, Pastoral Pursuits, is also stationed at the Stud, but we didn’t get to meet him. The other stallion we saw is a more recent addition and goes by the rather brilliant name of Dick Turpin. He was quite splendid, although we were warned by the guide “Watch out or he’ll have you!” as we formed a semi-circle around his door at a respectful distance to photograph him. He seemed something of a diva, and worked the crowd beautifully, posing this way and that. As we later found out, the stallions at the Stud frequently do professional publicity shoots for magazines and advertising purposes, so I suppose being photographed and admired is something like second nature to these boys.

Alongside the stallions lives a gelding. A gelding at a stud farm you ask? That’s a bit strange isn’t it? Well yes, it is a bit. Until you realise that he’s perfect for petting, which means children visiting the stud have a pony they can meet and stroke and give a polo to. He’s also something of a crowd pleaser, working his way up and down the line, taking the polos and nuzzling for more. Oh, and did I mention that he’s Grand National Champion, Amberleigh House?

Slobbered on by a champion. What a high honour!

After another evening at the racing school where I retired early with a cup of tea, biscuits and Harry Potter on TV, we started our final day with a trip to Rossdales Equine Hospital. Which was a really interesting visit. The man who took us round kept apologising for not being a vet and therefore not being able to give us as much information, but what he did tell us was great as it was. We witnessed a horse having it’s stomach pumped for suspected grass sickness, which was a sad thing to see but fascinating at the same time. The vet administering the treatment chatted to us about what she was doing, explaining what they were hoping to achieve etc. We also saw a foal that had just had an enema due to an impacted meconium, with his nurse sitting patiently next to him, waiting for the results to present themselves.

Later on we got to watch a horse being prepared for x-rays, and got an explanation of what was going on from one of the vets there. A technician also showed us a variety of different images taken from the horse that morning, explaining the various aspects of them and then talking about what they were hoping to find now that they had removed his shoes. And we watched another horse being trotted up and lunged in a lameness examination down on the hard standing areas of the facility. All in all, it was a very educational visit, and really great to see all the different faculties and how they worked.

Something I was particularly amazed by was the capacity for standing surgery. When we were told that some surgeons are able to perform fracture repairs, inserting metal plates and screws into a horses leg during standing surgery, I think my jaw almost hit the floor. The horse is sedated and stood in the stocks, and away the surgeon goes. It just sounded so insane, and amazingly forward thinking at the same time. As horses, like most animals, are not well suited to general anaesthetic.

We left Rossdales, feeling suitably taught, and headed back onto the road for the journey home. During which everyone fell asleep again, although having already won the “pictures of people sleeping” competition, I didn’t feel the need to take another one.

It was a really good trip, and I enjoyed all the different aspects of it. Each place we went to was very different and gave me a new insight into areas of the racing industry, something I had previously known very little about. While it is still an industry I do not feel is quite me, I am definitely less opposed to working in it than I was before. Having witnessed the care and thought put into the health and welfare of those horses, I feel much more warmly towards the racing industry, and would certainly take the opportunity to gain experience and knowledge from trainers, riders and clinicians alike.

Despite the agonising pain in my arms, I headed into college today to help Kelly with the musical ride practice for the first years. She needed an extra pair of eyes to help her spot any issues with timing and spacing so I stood at the C end of the school and watched as they rode it through. And on the whole, they did really well. The canter diagonals were the trickiest bit, as always, but with some more practice I reckon the girls will have it down to a tee. Proper job!

I then had a jump lesson with Kelly. She had me, Kayleigh and Tillie set up some poles and wings in an interesting formation. A line of canter poles, with a rather solid looking barrier to one side, effectively forming a tunnel of poles and potential jumps. After warming up for a bit, Kelly got me and Tarzan popping down over the poles, focusing on keeping a consistent rhythm. She then whacked one of the jumps up, plunging me straight in at a vertical. My brain fizzled out a bit to be honest with you, and I completely forgot to keep my leg on, which meant that dear old Tarzan just gave up and stopped halfway down the line. We stood there for a second while I worked out what had happened, apologised to Kelly for my abominable riding, and made him walk through the jump so that he didn’t think he could refuse it next time. After that, my leg stayed more effectively ON.

After popping over it a couple of times, Kelly had me knot my reins. Each time I came round she got me to drop the knot at the beginning of the line and move my hands into a different position. First I had to rest them on my thighs, then stretch my arms out to the sides like a plane and then reach forward towards his ears. After successfully flying over the single fence rein-free, she popped up the middle one. “Eek” went my brain, “I’ve jumped without reins before, but not more than one in a row”. Managing to keep myself chilled about it, we rode in and lumbered over them. The next time around was better though, as Tarzan no longer felt he needed to look at every fence he approached, so we were able to pop over them both nice and tidy, with my hands out in the air. After doing the double a couple more times, Kelly assembled the third jump, and got me flying down the grid, one, two, three, with no reins to be seen.

We did it a few times on the right rein, and then a few more on the left rein to balance it out a bit. Good boy that he is, Tarzan worked really hard, but he made me work hard too. He’s a horse that will stop and look at something if he thinks it’s scary or hasn’t seen it before. He leans on your hands and falls in on his inside shoulder. He’s resistant to come down to trot from canter. And he’s old, so he coughs and splutters a lot. All of which put together with the fact that I hadn’t jumped in a while and I had no reins for most of the lesson, made for an interesting ride. But it was brilliant.

Tarzan behaved beautifully, and I was exhausted. Which I guess is the correct way to end a good lesson. Jumping a grid of somewhere in the region of 2’9″ without reins. Woohoo. My legs were a bit shaky afterwards though as I was really using them. I’d also had to ask Tillie to fetch my water bottle for me and had to take a couple of breaks to go and gulp some down as the sun was beating down on us and I was extremely warm. Despite all that water, I still blacked out a little when I was hosing Tarzan down afterwards. Until Kelly managed to hose me, that is, I woke up a bit then!

So, my arms are in agony, I am absolutely shattered and I don’t know how sore my legs will be tomorrow. But the study tour was a brilliant experience, and my riding lesson today was awesome!

In conclusion? I’m feeling pretty good.

Ta ra then.

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