A Hong Kong racehorse in an Essex field
Bridget Chamberlain – Transforming sprinters into hunters
In 2011 a national newspaper alleged that 8,000 horses were being put down every year in the UK. Many of those were race horses, discarded after their running careers were over. These numbers have been on the rise for decades making the work done by people like Bridget Chamberlain all the more important.
Bridget lives at Berewyk Hall in White Colne, and for years she has re-trained race horses from around Britain, to a new life of hunting, almost certainly saving them from the slaughterhouse. But Majestic Anthem is different. He is the first horse she has taken in from Hong Kong. “I got a random call through a friend of a friend who knew I retrained race horses. At the end of their racing life many horses from Hong Kong go to China, sadly for meat – they are just shot and disposed of, although some of them go to riding schools. And someone decided it would be really nice if they could rehome him to an English country home. And she knew I had an English country home. I went back and said ‘yes, interested but what’s the horse like? And they said he’s really nice, really easy to handle.”
“He arrived here in January 2017 as a very sad little frightened horse. He spent three days cuddling the wall in the stable and then we slowly introduced him to grass, hand grazing him. I said to the owners ‘my only condition of having him is I want a completely free rein, and if it doesn’t work I want him to be put down. I don’t want him to go into anybody else’s hands. So he’s mine. I’m not allowed to race him, but other than that I can do what I want.”
Speaking to this strong and determined woman you quickly understand that re-training race horses is not for the faint hearted. Total dedication is required to make a success of it. “Very sadly most of these horses end up in homes that can’t deal with them, because most people see it as a cheap inroad into horses. A free horse, or a horse for less than £1000. But unless you have the ability to deal with a thoroughbred, because they are fractious, they are naughty, (although I don’t think they are naughty, but people tell me they are!!) things can quickly get out of hand. You need to be prepared because they have to be ridden six days a week. It’s a huge, huge commitment. You can’t just take them to a school and ride them. They’ve got to be ‘bottomed’ at least once a week.”
For the uninitiated, ‘bottomed’ means giving a horse a proper exercise. Up close even the ignorant can see that ‘Majestic’ is a beautiful animal, perfectly proportioned for galloping very quickly over short distances. And a betting man would have liked his chances because he was born in 2009 at a stud farm run by the sport’s dominant owner, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. He is the son of ‘super-sire’ Dubawi who finished third in the Derby, and has fathered countless winners. His mother is the superlatively named ‘Drop Dead Gorgeous’.
The headquarters for the Maktoum family’s breeding operations is Darley Stud at Dalham Hall just outside Newmarket. Darley runs eight Stud Farms, one in the States, six in Suffolk, and the last in Australia where Majestic was foaled. These farms bring thousands of foals to the market, the progeny of around 200 brood mares. Bridget takes up the story… “He went to the yearlings sales having been bred in Melbourne by Darley, and sold for a million Aussie dollars so they obviously thought a lot of him, he’s very well bred. They then castrated him in Australia and then they shipped him to Hong Kong. Once they are in Hong Kong they are there for the duration of their racing life.”
“He would have lived on a race course in a high rise stable block. They had three floors and they would go up and down in a ramp system. This would have deposited him straight out on the track. He would have seen and experienced very little else, and he would have been contained there for the next seven years. He left there at eight.” Majestic had a successful five-season career, winning six Class 2 and 3 races, all at the Hong Kong Jockey Club’s Sha-Tin race course, earning his owners nearly $6 million (HK) before retiring in December 2016.
But his life was about to change radically. “He had to have two months quarantine, and wait for a space on an aeroplane. Horses are transported in crates of four, so he had to wait for a free passage where there was a space, and then in April he flew from Hong Kong to Dubai. Next it was Dubai to Amsterdam and then the British Bloodstock Agency picked him up. Finally a lorry from Amsterdam drove him here. All paid for by the Hong Kong Jockey club.”
And once he arrived in Essex there was a new way of life – the Chamberlain way! “They need routine, absolute routine monkeys. So they can’t have a lie in for instance. They have to be fed, all of my horses are fed at seven in the morning. And then 6:30 at night. And when you take them out of the stables, you do it in the same order every morning. Because otherwise they think ‘why is he going in front of me, I will have a go at him.’ I am the ultimate master. But if you stick to all those things they are so lovely and so loyal. They will follow me around.”
Bridget may be the ‘ultimate master’, but she is also their mother and friend. They go through a lot together.
“He’s put on a vast amount of weight since we got him. I suspect his gut was shot to pieces through never having had grass.” She points at the teeth in his lower jaw, many of which have been worn away. “This is where he will have chewed on anything he could get his teeth on in the stable” “So we spent the summer of 2017 taking him completely back to basics. We effectively re-broke him. Remember he’s got to learn English as well. So we taught him to lunge again, which is training on a rope, going round and round in circles, and listening to the voice. He learned the commands of ‘walk, trot, canter, halt’. “And then we took him out and longreined him, where you walk behind him with a couple of reins and you introduce him to all the things that he will encounter when he is out on a ride. When you are out riding, if all else fails then you need a horse that is going to respond to your voice. You’ve got to make sure you’ve established that for your own safety.”
Bridget had some peculiar problems to iron out. “We had to teach him that he needed to go round a corner, rather than into a corner and stop. When he’s on a racetrack you go round it and then at the end you have a shute with hazard boards at the end of it. And that’s the sign that means ‘Stop, end of race’. So for Majestic, going into a 90 degree corner was to him like going up the shute. You didn’t stop, you didn’t go beyond it.” When Bridget showed me round the paddocks, she admitted that all her ‘rescue horses’ had one thing in common. “Everyone teases me – all my horses look alike. Brown jobs. There is a reason for that. Grey horses take a lot of cleaning. Most chestnuts have a ginger side to them, they have a temper. Over the years I’ve learned that I just can’t deal with chestnuts any more.”
“Majestic is adorable, he’s got a sweet personally, very unlike a lot of race horses who have a nasty streak to them.” “I’ve got five horses. Three are racehorses, one of whom wasn’t castrated until he was three, having done very well as a two year-old. Which puts a very different mixture into it because you’ve got a huge amount of testosterone running around. He is trouble” One of Bridget’s very obvious talents is perseverance, in turning these sprinters into cross-country jumpers. “Teaching Majestic how to jump was not easy. I normally teach them by what’s called ‘loose schooling’. You put them in a school with a lot of jumps. No bridle, no saddle, no jockey and you just let them jump for joy, and they get the feel of it. You chase them round and let them jump for joy. But he just couldn’t do it. In his previous life they were barriers where you should just stop.” “So in the end we taught him by riding him, firstly over trot poles, building up to grids, with cross poles. That got us through to August, the beginning of autumn hunting and a great time for introducing horses to hounds, because you can take them out hunting three to five times in very quick succession within a week or ten days. And you do nothing other than walk. If they get excited walk away. Bring them back, and if they get excited again, then take them away. So they get used to hounds, they don’t get excited. You are not hunting anything, you are teaching the horse that it’s fun to be out, on exercise with other horses and hounds. “Once you’ve cracked that then you introduce them more and more to the field which is the term we use for all the other people out hunting on horses, the excitement of what’s going on.”
Bridget is one of the masters of the Essex and Suffolk Hunt, and she has been introducing her ‘converts’ for years. “The other one out there, Mr Testosterone, we’ve run along a knife edge of problems. We’ve dropped off twice, it’s been an absolute nightmare.” But Majestic has learned ….. slowly. “He’s been hunting just like a normal horse all this year which has taken us quite a long time to get there. He still hadn’t really got to grips with it. When he gets over-excited he just takes them by the root (thrown off), which is a bit hairy, because they are solid jumps.”
Over more than four decades of hunting Bridget has broken numerous bones in her body, because of horses ‘taking them by the root’, but nothing will stop her carrying on what is much more than a hobby. It is really a calling. “Mentally he is blissfully happy. You don’t get a horse looking like that” she says, pointing at a photo of Majestic out with the hunt “unless they are blissfully happy. Horses are meant to run at certain animals” “He knows when we are hunting, and he will do everything he can do to get in that lorry, and he gets very angry when he gets left at home and everyone else goes.”
2019 - Read about Tudor living on a grand scale at Alston Court, how Samuel Courtauld & Co. shaped our towns and villages, hear inspiring stories of local vineyards Tuffon Hall and West Street, get an update on the Dedham Vale AONB extension, and take a tour round Polstead Mill, one of East Anglia's beautiful secret gardens.
2018 - Read about Hedingham Castle, a new National Centre for Gainsborough in Sudbury, award-winning new Gins from Adnams, aspects of our Industrial Heritage, the Theatre Royal in Bury St Edmunds, the Dedham Vale AONB and Stour Valley Project, and take a look at the proposed new Constitution for CSCA..
2016 - Interesting articles on medieval graffiti, farming in the Stour Valley, exploring our AONB, early settlers from the Stour Valley to America, the archaeology of a local farm, a wonderful catalogue of British birds, celebrating a Suffolk joinery business, the weather from a South African winery.