A Holistic approach to horsey benefits

Combining her passion for racing with a way to offer stressed out ‘townies’ and horse lovers from all disciplines the chance to relax and have fun led to Lisa Venables establishing Holistic Horses. LIZ FALKINGHAM tries out the racehorse experience on a rainy day in Kingston Lisle, Oxfordshire

FOR anyone who loves racing the way I do, driving down the leafy lanes that lead to Kingston Lisle and passing signs for Lambourn elicits a special thrill.

Lisa Venables
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We offer all kinds of riding experiences – not just lessons or the racehorse day, but being able to come along and spend quiet, relaxing time on a horse, enjoying the scenery. There’s something about spending time with a horse that helps ease stresses and strains.– Lisa Venables

That the weather on the day I visit chooses to be murky and then wet does not detract one iota from that thrill – even though it spoils the view from the Ridgeway gallops. I’m here to have a go at riding a racehorse up a gallops, something I’ve always had a hankering to do and which only Lisa Venables of Holistic Horses currently offers under license.

When I arrive, Lisa is hurrying about the yard, checking horses, organising the vet and sorting staff problems, her mobile glued to her ear. Like any horse-based business, there are always a million things to be done, but after a quick tour of the stables we sit down for a welcome cup of tea and a chat. Where did the idea for Holistic Horses come from?

“I originally envisaged it as a way to offer a sort of red letter day for townies, part stress relief and part just a fun day out with support,” says Lisa.

While she had spent years working in the racing industry, a confidence-shattering fall plus the limited opportunities for lady jockeys eventually prompted her to take some time out for travelling. The relaxation and enjoyment she had while doing so was something she wanted to replicate for others once she returned home.

Liz Falkingham
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Liz Falkingham rides Jack in the school – all riders on the racehorse experience are assessed on a pony first, both to get used to the racing saddle and position and to allow Lisa to gauge their level of competency.

The website describes Manor Farm Stables as ‘a retreat centre for adults with an equine theme’, somewhere to ‘experience the wonder of horses and learn in a non-confrontational way’.

“We offer all kinds of riding experiences – not just lessons, or the racehorse day, but being able to come along and spend quiet relaxing time on a horse, enjoying the scenery. There’s something about spending time with a horse that helps ease stresses and strains,” says Lisa.

Lessons are on offer, however, as are liveries, one-off client sessions and training for BHS exams. Patrick Print of the BHS teaches at the yard, and Lisa herself does the ‘wibbly wobbly rider’ course for those overcoming nerves or loss of confidence.

She also has training days with top names like former champion jump jockey Richard Dunwoody and Colin Brown. Her proximity to Lambourn, the ‘home’ of national hunt racing, also means she gets trainers sending new, novice stable staff to her for additional training in race riding.

Lisa at the Kingston Lisle gallops
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Lisa Venables at the top of the Kingston Lisle gallops. Just a short ride from the yard, and featuring a gradual uphill slope, the gallops are perfect for the racehorse experience day offered at Holistic Horses.

“It’s a big leap from learning at the racing school to coming and working on a yard. I teach them techniques for controlling your nerves when jumping off [the moment when the racehorse sets off], for example.”

And it is at this point in our conversation that we begin talking about the racehorse experience and what I will be doing. Lisa describes to me the importance of learning to balance my weight evenly between my feet in the racing saddle, and of achieving the ‘martini glass’ shape.

“Your lower leg is the stem of the glass, and then your thigh, arm and back provide the triangular glass shape on top,” she explains.

All participants on the course must sign a disclaimer and undergo an assessment on a pony in the school first, for obvious reasons. It also gives the rider a chance to get the feel of a racing saddle, and most importantly the shorter leathers.

I know, rationally, that it will feel different and is the equivalent of doing squat-type exercises while balanced on a galloping horse, but nothing prepares me for how incredibly physically taxing it is.

While Lisa shouts instructions on how to maintain the correct position (“keep your leg back, toes in, keep your back flat, head up!”), I canter steadily round the school for five minutes before I have to stop and gasp for breath. I know without checking I have gone an unattractive shade of bright red from the effort and my thighs are already whispering promises of aches and pains for days to come.

Lisa and Liz
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Lisa and Liz head up the gallops at Kingston Lisle.

After another 10 minutes, Lisa is satisfied I’m capable of tranfering to one of the Thoroughbreds. When I get off Jack, my legs buckle, jelly-like, and I wonder if I will be capable of walking back to the stables, never mind getting on another horse! And I thought I was reasonably fit.

My ride up the gallops will be on Upton Lass, a former racehorse who now does a sterling job of taking novices like me for a spin. The fact that Lass is 19 does not reassure me – Thoroughbreds rarely make the mental transition to old age and she looks ominously fit.

“Don’t worry,” Lisa assures me, “I only keep them half fit, and they are also trained to voice commands – whoa and such – to prevent things getting carried away!

“The gallops here are perfect – four-and-half furlongs uphill, so if the horse does run a bit free, they will peter out at the top. I’ve never had anyone come off the gallops without a huge grin on their face.”

And so it is with me. Despite the pouring rain, I love every second of it, from the trot up the road to the gallops, to the moment when Lass jumps off at the foot of the gallops, and then the surge up the track.

As Lass spooks like a novice at my photographer, we repeat the process three times to get the perfect picture, and each time Lass gets faster. So much for being 19!

Craig and Ben
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Craig and Ben take the point-to-pointers up the gallops. General Spud (nearside) began his career as an eventer, reaching intermediate as a seven-year-old, but Lisa thinks the smart bay, by Religiously out of Mrs Daly, will make a top class pointer/hunter chaser, and may be good enough to go into training.

While I’ve ridden all my life, and ridden Thoroughbreds before, nothing prepares you for the sense of power and speed. On the third spin up the gallops, Lass is in full racing mode – she tucks her head down and shifts like a Jaguar. I can only imagine how this must feel on a fully fit racehorse, on a real track with a series of chase fences to negotiate at nearly 30mph. I even catch myself thinking that maybe I would like to find out for myself, perhaps try a little point-to-pointing...

On the final run, however, my thighs graduate from whispering to screaming and I am glad, finally, to stop. But all the way back to the yard, I smile and smile – and the smile lasts all the way to the following morning, when I discover muscles – and pains – in places I did not know existed.

“It gives you a new respect for the toughness and fitness of jockeys, particularly jump jockeys,” says Lisa, and I can only agree. It also gives you the minutest taste of the huge buzz of race riding – I’m hooked.

• The racehorse experience costs £110. Lisa also has shares in point-to-pointers available and is looking for new owners to increase the number of horses she has in training. More details at www.holistichorses.co.uk.

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