In October 2014 I had the pleasure of meeting Gary Witheford, the well-known racing horseman at our Rowley Mile shop at a book signing for his book, 'If Horses Could Talk'. With the generous help of his wife Suze, Gary has opened up to the Palace House blog to let us know his lifelong love of animals and his career in horse racing
I hope you enjoy the read.
How old were you when you first got involved with horses?
I would have been about 11 when our family lived in Corsham. My father was in the RAF and we were stationed there and we played outside a lot, I had started to show an interest in some local ponies and was allowed my first proper ride on a little white pony owned by Ken and Anne, Ken being the local milkman. It was a true experience of horror but thrilling – I ended up being bolted off with and dumped in a slurry pit!
What attracted you to horses in the first place or was there a defining moment?
I have always been drawn to animals; I was the only one in our family who was
really. I was basically a mis-fit and labelled ‘the difficult one’ - I was one of four boys but there were reasons for my behaviour, I was abused as a child. I won’t go in to details now but it’s all explained in my book, If Horses Could Talk. Nevertheless, horses and animals became my salvation.
The real defining moment would be, I think, when I was offered the chance to go to Beckhampton Stables where trainer Jeremy Tree was based. I was mentored at boarding school by the wonderful Alan Stonnell, my house master, who really saved me. Not only did he work out that the abuse was going on but he engineered this opportunity for me. It was the start of everything for me.
How would you describe your area of work?
I am often called a “Horse Whisperer” but I prefer the simple term “Horseman”. I suppose the fancy term would be Equine Behaviourist but I don’t like to dress it up, I like to think I am very quietly getting inside the heads of horses who have problems. Perhaps the hurt I experienced as a child explains my empathy with horses that don’t fit into the expected pigeon holes.
I also work with lots of young horses, which I love. They are innocent and not messed up by humans which is generally what the cause of most problems is. Horses are not generally born with behavioural issues but us humans come along and think we know it all – that’s where the problems start. I like to work with the horse’s natural instinct rather inflict human thinking on a flight animal.
How did you begin to get involved in the world of horse racing?
Well, Eric Wheeler was Stan Mellor’s Head Lad and soon recognised that I could handle all the ‘tricky’ or ‘quirky’ horses. I had ended up in racing after my introduction at Beckhampton and by the time I was a young married man I was full time. However, I soon had to support a family and had to get ‘a proper job’ outside of horses but I still rode out every day and was called up for the odd tricky case. My passion was still for horses and I eventually took the plunge and returned to set up on my own after my first marriage fell apart. It was a hard period for us all but led me to be where I am now. My first ‘proper’ trainer client was Simon Dow and I still work for him now!
There are lots of press clippings from the old days on my website and I can hardly believe how the time has flown!
How many racecourses have you worked at?
I think it’s easier to say which ones I have not been to! We generally only work with flat horses with stalls issues but of course in my days with Stan Mellor I looked after many NH horses and I think I have been to every course except for Cartmel.
Have you worked abroad at some of the International racing venues?
I have worked extensively in Ireland, France a fair deal and also Dubai. I am also Official Advisor to The Turkish Jockey Club so I am there frequently travelling to all the courses for stalls team training and dealing with some problem horses. I also did work in Barbados for a few years which was fun and my son Craig has clients in India but I have yet to go to the States for the Breeders Cup and Australia hasn’t called me yet!
Do you work with both flat, National Hunt Horses or any horse?
We work mainly with flat horses but I have worked on a fair few National Hunt horses such as the infamous Mad Moose, and me and my team also deal with horses from all spheres such as happy hackers, showjumpers, dressage horses and my favourite – children’s ponies, they can be the worst, give me a 3 year old race fit colt any day!
What is the most famous horse you have worked with?
It has to be Sea the Stars – Craig was the first one ever to sit on him and he was the first horse we ever started for John Oxx. We also worked with the mighty Kingman, the 2015 Champion miler and there are quite a few other characters on my list you will have heard of!
What are the various issues/problems you have encountered in your work with horses?
We have really seen everything that horses throw at us – you name it, we have worked with it. Starting stalls aversion, bolting racehorses, fear of the vet, farrier, dentist, horses that can’t be loaded onto lorries, competition horses that lose all confidence and those that have been abused.
When we are at the start with tricky stalls horses we have to deal with a lot of pressure – the adrenalin is in full flow with all those horses so it’s vital to be calm, in control and keep your wits about you. We often witness scary stuff, but I believe we have the best handlers and starters in the world. My time in Turkey has shown how professional and well organised our UK teams are!
Has any horse posed an unusual problem?
I think the hardest ones to deal with are those that refuse to race. It’s often pain related as the horses just know what’s coming and they have no way of telling us humans that running is painful for whatever reason. Of course there are the characters that, in my opinion, are just incredibly clever to have worked out that there is not a lot you can do to make a horse run if it doesn’t want to! Generally though it is pain, horses are herd creatures and want to stay with the herd, watching them all flight away goes against all their instincts.
Have you worked with other animals?
I once did a Llama at a demo at Tetbury Polo Club but the most famous one has to be my zebras, it’s a long time ago now and I would like another one but I’m just too busy. There are some amazing photos and cuttings on my website of a much younger me and Nicky, the jockey who rode my zebras. She still works with me to this day!
Have you ever ridden yourself and do you have a horse?
I certainly have! In my younger (and light-weight days!) I was a National Hunt jockey which of course meant many hours learning to race ride initially with Jeremy Tree and then at Stan Mellor’s, I had a few rides but mainly rode work which generally meant I was given the trickier horses. Later on, when I initially took the plunge to set up my first yard in Wootton Bassett, I often rode. There are a few press cuttings on my website to prove it!
I didn’t actually get around to owning my very own horse until Brujo came along in 2000! He’s one in a million and there will never be another horse like him.
What other ambitions do you have?
I don’t really have any clear ambitions as I have achieved more than I ever thought I would but I have a few broodmares and I’d be thrilled if I managed to breed a horse of note. I’d also like to be around to see Craig continue to develop the business, he’s done me proud.
You clearly love horses could you ever see a day when are not involved with them?
I think there will always be horses around me, I would like to semi-retire but can’t see a future without them. We have a charity project in Cuba which enables us to take over medical supplies, tack, equipment - vets and farriers come with us to help treat injured and exhausted horses. Perhaps my future can be a few months away each year continuing this work with a bit of time out on the beach! Check out our Facebook page.
By Stephen Wallis