Three absolutely stunning chestnuts are casually clopping back into the yard as I arrive at Operation Centaur’s Holly Lodge headquarters. One has the unmistakeable dish face of an Arab (well, unmistakeable once I’ve asked his breed), and the others are stockier 16hh chaps whose rumps border on strawberry roan. All three look relaxed, pleased and ready to have some elevenses. After all, they’ve got a busy afternoon ahead of them.
I’ve just started my 14-week BHS Stage 2 course at Trent Park in north London, and as part of this, I want to explore some of the amazing stables and equine operations that are happening around me in our capital. I saw Operation Centaur on Instagram last year, but other than the fact they work on keeping Shire horses working traditionally – and around London – as carriage horses and “heavy” horses, and offer some unusual-to-London share options, I didn’t know much about them. So, I hopped on the train to Richmond, and then ambled the half-hour through the Park to get to their HQ in the old mounted police stables next to the ultimate security system: police headquarters!
After a cup of coffee with yard manager Barbara, herself a former policewoman, I met Dr Andreas Liefooghe, the brains in every sense behind Operation Centaur. And I realised with growing joy that I had been quite colossally dim. Because Operation Centaur isn’t just about heavy horses, or providing shares, not at all.
The horses who are permanently based here are riding horses – the lovely Arab is a cheery soul named Zoltan, but my heart is kidnapped by the larger of the two chestnuts, a jolly chap named Wexford, and a vast grey who came from an eventing yard, suitable called High Altitude. During the mornings, their sharers come to groom, fuss, and ride them: either in the large manège near the turn out fields, or out in the glorious surroundings of Richmond Park. But these horses have a very special purpose in the afternoons as part of Dr Liefooghe’s therapy programmes helping people with addictions, depression, anxiety and ADHD, as well as going out into the community and working with school children.
“We bring horses, and the relationships you can have with them, to people who would otherwise have no access,” Dr Leifooghe tells me. Part of this is through an innovative anti-bullying intervention for schools, called Real Horse Power. “It’s about confrontation, not conflict, and asking, how do you channel aggression? We don’t just work with the bullies or the victims, we work with the whole group. You can’t bully a shire! You have to build a relationship, build empathy.”
Hence centaur: part human, part horse. The therapy programmes and horses are part-funded through carriage drives, and through a sharing programme, which sees people sign up to ride at least once a week and get all the benefits of sharing a horse, and building a relationship with them. All the while living in a city where actually owning one yourself is pretty tricky.
If you’d like to become one of Operation Centaur’s sharers – and wouldn’t we all? – you can apply for an assessment lesson on their website. You need to be a fairly capable rider and sharing packages start from £50 a week with an annual £60 fee towards track maintenance. What’s lovely about the sharing is that it isn’t just about getting on, riding, and getting off again. You can be as involved in your horse’s grooming and care as you can be, and they are not over, or under, ridden.
“Our horses have portfolio careers,” says Dr Leifooghe. “A morning ride with their sharer means that in the afternoon we have a quieter horse with his mind on his work. It feels like you’re riding your own horse because they’re not riding school horses: you have to ask them to do things, and you have to think. They need that character for therapy.”
His traditional heavy horses sometimes stay at Operation Centaur, and often in 40 acres by Hampton Court Palace. As well as providing an eco-friendly and traditional way of providing maintenance to the Palace grounds, and to Richmond Park, they provide services to the other Royal Parks, and even to smaller parks around town. On February 9, they’ll be just down the road from where I used to live in Camberwell, in Ruskin Park, to manage the gardens.
“You can’t justify bringing heavy machinery into these places, and we can get the horses here and do the work. It’s a cost-effective solution and it engages communities into taking care of their community. Nobody’s going to have a look at a tractor, but you bring a shire horse and everyone’s going to want to be a part of it!” Each of the local schools is timetabled to come and watch the horses in action, as part of something that 200 years ago would have been commonplace in Ruskin Park.
The work with Shire horses is part tradition, and part conservation. Shires, I’m astonished to hear, are rarer than pandas (“The state of France’s indigenous horses is incredibly healthy because they eat them. We don’t.”). Dr Leifooghe’s Shires are all geldings, left over from breeding programmes who need something to do. One in a hundred colts are kept entire, and the mares tend to be kept to breed. It’s also practical: when they are driving charabancs at Hampton Court, the geldings wear nappies – this wouldn’t work so well, or as hygienically, with mares.
“The Shire horse society has tried to diversify, but you can’t ride a Shire horse – it’s like taking a tractor up the M1. Just create jobs for them! If you see our horses, they’re built differently than the ones you see at the Shire Horse Show; all big fat conkers. They look amazing, but it’s all fat. Ours have six packs. They can work a six-hour day no problem at all.”
And if you can’t get to Richmond Park, there’s always the chance to see the Shires working their wonderful magic around London – a glorious sight for urban equestrians everywhere!