I’ve always been an animal lover, and after my family and football, horses are my main passion. So when Clare Balding, my friend and co-presenter at BT Sport, came looking for my help with a horse related charity challenge I was happy to assist.
When Clare heard how the young people at the Riding for the Disabled Association (RDA) in Carlisle had been left devastated by the death of their only large horse, she was determined to help find them a suitable replacement as quickly as possible, with support from The Supporters Club.
The Supporters Club is using the power of sport and teamwork to change the lives of young people here in the UK and all over the world, thanks to donations made by BT Sport viewers. One of the charities that is benefiting from this support is the RDA, which provides therapeutic horse riding for young people with a range of disabilities. It really is a fantastic organisation, and in addition to the happiness and confidence horse riding brings, many disabled children benefit physically from the associated development of muscle tone, balance and coordination.
Clare came to see me at Manor House Stables to see if I could lend a hand on her mission. Manor House was set up in 2007 by my wife Louise and I. Louise is a fellow horse lover and accomplished dressage rider so we set about creating our very own state-of-the-art racing stables in the heart of Cheshire. Manor House Stables now trains 95 thoroughbreds.
I got hooked on horses when I was still just a kid. My Dad used to place small bets on the Saturday races, where he’d pick three horses and let me choose one of them. I used to read up in the newspapers about which jockeys were winning the races and who their trainers were, and that’s where my love for horses began.
Since retiring from football earlier this year, alongside my new role as co-commentator at BT Sport I’m also able to focus on the business of thoroughbred racing. I wasn’t able to ride horses while I played professionally in case I got injured, but now Louise is teaching me the basics and I’m hoping to take part in a charity horse race in the next year or so.
I have a strong affinity with the horses because their training is similar to what a professional footballer goes through. I understand how hard they have to work and all the effort that is needed to get as fit as possible to win. And I sympathise with how they feel after a race and the need to recover quickly.
Thoroughbred race horses are magnificent animals, so trusting, caring and graceful. But they are also highly strung and flighty. The children at RDA need an animal which is patient, safe and with a calm temperament, so the type of horses we keep at Manor House Stables wouldn’t be suitable.
But thankfully I was still able to help Clare and RDA by providing a horse box for transport.
And the great news is that Clare did eventually manage to help find the perfect horse for the young people in Carlisle, a beautiful and gentle natured horse called Nutmeg
And it’s not just Nutmeg that will help the riders at RDA. Thanks to funding from The Supporters Club, the project can now recruit more volunteers and instructors, as well expand its facilities and use special equipment that will enable more children with disabilities to enjoy the riding experience at RDA groups across the UK.
I know from my own four kids, who all love and greatly benefit from having horses as pets, how great it is for children to get out into the fresh air and enjoy the thrill of riding on a horse’s back. For the kids at RDA, having the opportunity to go out on Nutmeg will be brilliant and I’m glad I was able to help.