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Miracles do happen - and it's better than double science.

Byline: Steve Dennis

YOU may remember Montendre. Classy, tough sprinter - perhaps he did you a favour or two during the course of his long career. Important at the time, yes, but nothing that changed your life.

Amy, on the other hand, will never forget Montendre as long as she lives. Because he did change her life.

Montendre is now Monty, 24 years old, happily retired at Greatwood in Wiltshire, one of the four main welfare charities that rescue, rehabilitate and rehome ex-racehorses. Greatwood is not just about horses, though. It's also about Horse Power, an education programme for children with special educational needs (SEN), children like Amy.

"I didn't speak to anyone, I was what they call an elective mute," says Amy. "I couldn't even catch a bus on my own without crying. I was terrified of men. When I got out of the car on my first day here I didn't even say 'hello'.

"I saw all the horses, they moved their heads to look at me. When we got to Monty, the teacher Laura was talking to him and he came over and put his head on my head. It was like he understood me; Monty was the first person I spoke to.

"He used to fall asleep with his head in my arms, I used to sing to him. He helped me so much. After a week or so I was able to talk to Laura, and a bit later I could manage to speak to other people in the yard. Now I can talk to anyone, do anything I want to do.

"When I finished my SEN course I kept coming back to Greatwood, did a bit of work experience, then I came in to do voluntary work a couple of days a week, then I asked if I could do an apprenticeship here.

"Next year I'm going to be working here full-time and learning to ride. Horses are my life now, and all because of Monty."

Monty worked a miracle; he may not have saved Amy's life as such but he was her salvation. You might argue that Helen Yeadon, founder of Greatwood with her husband Michael, is not only in the business of rescuing horses but of rescuing people.

"The germ of the idea started when we were based in Devon," says Helen. "We first did Horse Power here as a pilot scheme in 2006 and were amazed at the interest. Since its inception, more than 2,000 students have passed through the programmes.

"Greatwood is the only place where students can work with racehorses in this way, allied to qualifications rather than just being therapy. When the children complete the course they will receive a qualification equivalent to a lower-grade E-D at GCSE.

"I'm very proud of our work with children and proud that it hasn't been 'fluffy'. I wanted it to mean something, to be structured and positive and not all cute.

"The programme Get Going with Greatwood is for students who want to go into the racing industry. These are disadvantaged, disengaged young people, the furthest away from the job market.

"What we do gives them self-esteem and confidence. Things may be difficult for them at school and at home, they fall behind their peers, become depressed and don't achieve.

"They get a thorough introduction to the racehorse and we also take them to the racecourse. Maybe they won't want to work with horses, but maybe they'll decide that they like the atmosphere at the racecourse and want to be a groundsman, or something like that.

"It's all about opening the door for them, increasing the opportunities available to these children."

Cameron, Georgie and Paige, aged between 15 and 16, have spent the morning mucking out a few of the pens. The rosy glow of hard work is still on their faces as they sit at their desks in the classroom - in a previous life a milking parlour - for a PowerPoint lesson in the colours and markings of the horse.

Tricia, 23 years a teacher, takes them through bay, chestnut, grey, black, blaze, star, stripe, interrupted stripe, snip and white face, with horses in the yard used as examples. Expressions are serious, information is being taken in, notes are made. Then it's points of the horse - poll, withers, elbow, hock.

After that, Tricia and education co-ordinator Ella prepare the ground for a spot of grooming. Objectives are set - we need a clean horse - and methods are discussed - we need to work as a team to get the job done as well as possible - and safety aspects are emphasised.

The three teenagers draw straws to see who will be project manager - it's Cameron - and horses are carefully assayed for calmness and tractability. Cameron and Georgie will do Al and Paige chooses Monty. Equipment is sourced, helmets donned, coats zipped up. We make our way past the vast menagerie at Greatwood, the donkeys, goats, dogs, sheep, hens, geese, the tune of The Surrey With The Fringe On Top playing quietly at the back of my mind.

It's gentle stuff, not a thorough strapping, but the horses enjoy it and the children apply themselves with an intensity their varied disadvantages will not permit in the schoolroom. When these and other children at Greatwood gently describe themselves as 'having a few problems at school', one wonders what frustrations and disappointments are disguised behind this practised vagueness.

Georgie takes her brush to Al's neck, Cameron goes above and beyond requirements by plaiting Al's forelock, carefully and methodically. The horses shift their feet in the straw, amiably picking up one and then another as Paige wields a hoofpick.

Back inside, while the children have lunch, Tricia outlines the disabilities of this class and others. The children who attend the Greatwood classes have dyslexia, Asperger's syndrome, autism, ADHD, Juvenile Alexander Syndrome (neurodegenerative), DiGeorge syndrome (manifold frailties) and many other social and emotional behavioural disorders. One child is sent into a rage by anything orange-coloured, another - it sounds amusing until you realise how disempowering it must be - cannot cope mentally with seeing full stops.

THESE children are dealing with severe personal problems, yet are liberated by their contact with horses, by the increase in self-value and confidence that comes with the discovery that, while they may not be good at reading or writing or social interaction, they are good at something else. They are offered rare responsibility and a position of trust and made to feel needed.

Animals do not judge, do not provoke awkward social complications. Here, children with special educational needs can make a connection between themselves and others that they are unable to manage at other times.

"Racehorses are particularly good with children," says Tricia. "They just seem to know that here is someone a little different who needs to be treated a little differently.

"There seems to be an easy empathy between them. Racehorses are much like autistic children, they don't like their routine being changed, they are unpredictable - they're special.

"It doesn't work for all the children, but such instances are extremely rare. One girl got on so well with an ex-racehorse called Athletic Sam that she has adopted him."

After lunch, the cleaning of tack. Tricia and Ella help with buckling and unbuckling while Paige, Cameron and Georgie get to work with a wet sponge and a bar of saddle soap. Slowly, the gleam comes through. Later in the 36-week course there will be lessons in bandaging, feeding, horse health - even how to fill in all the details on an official Weatherbys passport. Even if none of them go on to work with horses or in racing, Greatwood gives them these skills, instils a sense of self-worth, enhances hitherto limited possibilities.

The children chat away over the damp saddles, gossiping about this and that and him and her. Back to 'real school' tomorrow - so is this the best day of the week? "Definitely," says Paige. "When I come here I miss double science." Beneath that teenage flippancy lies the truth, though, and everyone knows it. It emerges unannounced, unexpected, unmistakably. When Cameron completed that shaky plait adorning Al's forelock, his smile shone in the dim barn like electric light.


Confidence boost: Former racehorses are particularly good when it comes to helping the children who attend Greatwood
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:The Racing Post (London, England)
Date:Dec 4, 2011
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