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‘First in Europe’ – The pioneers using Cheltenham Festival-winning racehorses to educate and inspire young minds

Greatwood Charity’s head of communications, Sasha Thorbek, says the charity were the trailblazers in using retired racehorses to educate young people.

Founded in 1998, Greatwood initially sought to rescue and rehabilitate former racehorses that had fallen into neglect due to a lack of support from the industry.

Based in Marlborough, the charity now aims to educate disadvantaged children and young adults with Special Educational Needs, too.

Sasha Thorbek (middle)

“We were the first in Europe to deliver animal-assisted intervention programmes,” Thorbek said.

“We identified that there’s a real link between humans and horses, there’s a part of the human brain that is the same as the equine brain, to do with emotions.”

One of the horses the charity has used to educate people with SEN in the past is Cheltenham Festival winner, Cole Harden.

The ex-Warren Greatrex-trained gelding was bred in Ireland, before moving to Lambourn in the summer of 2013.

Cole Harden’s festival victory came in the 2015 World Hurdle, beating Saphir Du Rheu by three lengths.

Thorbek continued: “Horses make really good vehicles for translating that. It’s a very simple process that we use so that young people can learn about body language and understand their own emotions through horses.”

Since Greatwood’s first educational programme launched, they’ve expanded to deliver a host of programmes designed for people from five years old into adulthood and have educated over 2,000 people to date.

While increasing and improving their educational work, Greatwood has also kept its initial promise of rehoming retired and neglected horses.

“None of our horses are sold, they’re all out on permanent loans so we can keep track of where they are and check on them every year,” Thorbek continued.

“If at any point we’re not happy with how the horses are being cared for or circumstances change and they can no longer look after the horse that they have taken from Greatwood, we will take them back.”

Over its lifetime, the charity has rehomed almost 1,000 horses, Cole Harden being one.

He is now cared for by Greatwood’s head of equine who lives less than a mile from the charity’s base on Clench Common, which means the champion is always on hand to be involved with several programmes.

“Currently, we’ve got about 35 horses on site and we’ve got in the region of 40 out on loan,” she added.

It costs approximately £550,000 a year to keep the charity in operation, with Greatwood reliant on volunteers and donations to continue their excellent work.

Thorbek explained: “We have a scheme called Greatwood Guardians where people donate five pounds a month and that goes a huge way in supporting the work that we do – it’s integral to our survival.

“Each year we have an open day, we are now finalising the details of our 2024 event. Going forward, we simply want to keep doing what we’re doing but focus on expanding our educational programmes so we can support as many people as possible in the community.”

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