March 4, 2024

Horse Love

When I was about eight years old, my mother gave me a book, “Black Beauty” by Anna Sewell. It quickly became a favourite and I proudly wrote my name on the title page – it was my book after all which my sister Sarah might of course borrow but she had to give it back.

It is a book written from the point of view of the horse about his life and in the end reminds us of the kindness and gentleness we owe them. I think something like 50 million other readers have enjoyed it as well since it was written and undoubtedly some of them penned their names in their copies as well.

Horses have made such a difference to humankind over the millennia. Until a century or so ago they were our only mode of transport over land but more than that: they give us hope through their loyalty and courage. Did you enjoy the film National Velvet or did you prefer Seabiscuit? Or perhaps Phar Lap, Champions or Hildalgo or The Dreamer….?

Apart from my rather eccentric but beloved riding horses, Geordie and I have continued in his late father’s footsteps (if on a much smaller scale) with a few broodmares. Thus, foals and yearlings enjoy the rolling chalk downland pasture here and we have some horses in training. The journey from choosing which mares to send to which stallions and then some years later deciding which races would suit their progeny are a passion for Geordie as  it is for so many others. It is all about patience, detail and a great deal of optimistic hope.

My father-in-law, known for much of his life as Porchey, was a steadfast friend of the late HM the Queen – they both shared a passion and deep knowledge of breeding racehorses and one of my first Highclere memories was Geordie’s father setting off on one of his regular visits to the trainer Richard Hannon’s yard which is about 30 minutes away.

Fillies such as Lyric Fantasy, Niche, Lemon Soufflé and many more were celebrated as they returned to his yard. On my pa-in-law’s recommendation, the late Queen also sent several of her horses to Richard Hannon’s yard as well. When he retired, one of his sons, Richard Hannon junior, took on the mantle from his father and has since achieved over 1,600 winners.

We are just about to send two of our fillies to Richard and, at this time of year, our dreams of future speed and athleticism are full of hope, of what they might win and where they might race.

Up to now, Geordie’s and my role has simply been to ensure that the young horses are as relaxed, happy and well fed as possible, that they are not fussing and willing to try. Food and digestion are entirely key in their racing life in Richard’s yard – as they grow and learn how to balance and develop physically and mentally.

As a farm, Highclere grows and sells oats to Richard as well as to other trainers along with other equine interests from eventers to polo and livery yards. As humans we know we should cook, eat and live well, rather than buy manufactured and re-constituted food and it is the same for our four-legged friends.

Our horse feeds business grows, harvests, grades, clips, polishes and bruises oats, depending what is best for each client. Oats are a natural food essential for slow digestion, with high dietary fibres and phytochemicals contributing to their nutritional value and horses chew them effectively, maximising their goodness. To this base any horse owner can add alfalfa, for example, which has other minerals such calcium zinc and copper and digestibility attributes which helps regulate the acidity in a horses’ gut.

Horse feed needs to change according to season and what they do and I find the whole science of it absolutely fascinating. At the very least, just like humans, good food makes them happier and thus safer if you are riding them and faster if you are racing them.