In the new year, a museum centre in Cambridgeshire will be offering a new and unique service no other could: horse therapy.
“Horses, and particularly racehorses, have a deep-rooted sensibility to people’s feelings” says the centre’s director, Chris Garibaldi. “They can help bring people out of dark places by showing them they're valued and important to them.”
It is the National Heritage Centre for Horseracing and Sporting Art occupying five acres in Newmarket, and it will be able to offer the service because of its string of retired thoroughbreds.
Main image copyright Mark Atkins
These equine athletes have a natural empathy with humans, and being in their company can have dramatic results in restoring confidence, dignity and even mobility in the case of the physically injured. It has already proved its worth with ex-servicemen who had been damaged either mentally or bodily, but the Newmarket centre will be looking at its horses working with young people. “It's not about riding the horses” Garibaldi says. “It’s about being with them for a period and developing a relationship. It’s very rewarding just to watch”. Two of the horses are being specially trained.
Because, says Garibaldi, racehorses trained for one purpose may have five or six years racing but live another 25 or more years, and it is important that they should not be left “rotting on their feet”. They can be trained for showjumping, dressage, polo – and therapy. The museum has up to eight at any time, being prepared for the rest of their lives.
The programme is just one of the activities of the centre, an expansion of the former National Horseracing Museum which is now incorporated in the centre along with collection of the British Sporting Art Trust and the Rothschild Yard with its live horses and attractions like the riding simulation machine and galleries on equine veterinary science, life in a stables, the colours silks jockeys wear. And you can meet the horses, with their grooms equally devoted to introducing them to visitors as to caring for them.
The £18m transformation as completed two years ago, and within a year it had been shortlisted for the Art Fund National Museum of the Year Award. The resultant publicity – which included being able to have a jockey wearing specially devised racing colours, and winning the race – saw visitor numbers treble.
The racehorse simulator
The centre stands in the horseracing capital of the world since James I established it as a centre for racing excellence. It is the home of the Jockey Club, effectively established in 1688, which owns much of the real estate in the small town; there are also 80 trainers, many devoted owners and up to 3,000 racehorses living in Newmarket. Within its now enlarged estate is Palace House, which includes the art gallery housing pictures and sculpture from the museum’s own collection and that of the British Sporting Art Trust.
King James built a palace there, often used by his son Charles I but lefty to decay by Cromwell government. Charles II was a racing enthusiast, setting up the Round Course I at Newmarket which is still used. And in the 1670s he built a new palace, a small part of which has survived as Palace House. In 1857 it was bought by the banker Baron Meyer de Rothschild as the centre for his stable of horses producing a series of classic winners, and it was expanded at the turn of the 20thcentury, with the Rothschild Yard nearby. Palace House was badly damaged by fire in the 1980s and restored thanks to a National Lottery grant.
The Home of Horseracing Trust was created in 2005 to develop the new centre, and the Queen opened it in October, 2016, to incorporate the collections of the National Horseracing Musuem which had opened in the town centre in 1984.
The Queen meets one of her own retired horses, Barber's Shop, on opening the centre
The new museum tells the full story of the sport of kings, and the outstanding personalities in that story.
In the 1790s William Ogden was the first bookmaker to accept bets from many indsividuals on any horse in a race.
Sir Charles Bunbury, Steward of the Jockey Club for half century, took on the Prince of Wales who was bent on his horse winning in 1791 by less than honest means, and prevailed.
In the mid-19thcentury horseracing had been badly bitten by corruption, with doping of horses, bribing of jockeys and officials, false starts and “ringers”, and the gambler and stables owner Lord George Bentinck was determined to tackle it, going a long way towards eliminating fraud in racing.
There is a bust of perhaps the greatest ever jockey, Fred Archer, who in the 1870s and 80s was champion jockey for 13 consecutive seasons and was probably the first sports celebrity. Next to it is the revolver with which he shot himself in 1886, depressed by the death of his wife and a cruel dieting regime.
There is a gallery showing the biological science of a racehorse, how its body is specially constructed by intense training from birth to run at the fastest speeds for long periods, contributed by the Wellcome Foundation.
Winter landscape with skaters, Cornelis Troost, 1740
The centre has, in its possession and on long-term loan, a matchless collections of equestrian paintings and drawings by the likes of George Stubbs and Alfred Munnings, but it is also eager to present the arts of sport collection.
So opening last week and running until April is an exhibition devoted to a sport which at first might seem a distant echo of the horseracing. “Not really” says the collection’s curator, Dr Patricia Hardy. “They are both to do with speed, excitement, great public popularity and sporting perfection”.
Skatingincludes paintings by Flemish Old Masters 18thcentury paintings of remarkably similar scenes by Charles Lees, and photographs of fen skaters, the athletes such as Turkey Smart, many times a champion in the 1890s and so-called because of his style of flapping his arms when he began each race.
Fen skating racer Turkey Smart (left) an this great rival William See