A pioneering initiative to tackle mental illness and social isolation through the magical powers of horses has come to the North-East for the first time. PETER BARRON reports


AS the kind-eyed, dapple-grey mare stands perfectly still, Debbie Matthews nuzzles up close, shuts her eyes, and breathes in the tranquility.

“Horses saved my life,” she says, quietly, giving Stream Song’s sleek neck a final stroke and walking back across the field.

Debbie is a woman on a nationwide mission: to harness the power of horses to help humans overcome mental health problems and tackle social isolation.

And her latest visit is to Elwick Stud, an equine oasis, just outside Hartlepool, where blue-blooded thoroughbreds graze contentedly, and wide-eyed foals, destined to one day go racing, get used to their idyllic surroundings.

Debbie was invited to Elwick after news spread of how she’d founded Go Racing Green, a pioneering initiative to involve the horse racing industry in providing therapeutic experiences for those with “invisible conditions” – depression, anxiety, autism, dementia, and loneliness among them.

The stud is the proud legacy of the late North-East businessman and racehorse owner, Geoff Turnbull, who first fell in love with horses while helping his father look after the pit ponies at Horden Colliery.

Geoff, who sadly died last year, was also someone who believed in the magical qualities of horses to change lives, and he would have whole-heartedly approved of Elwick Stud playing its part in the Go Racing Green campaign.

Charlotte Turner, Elwick’s stud secretary, is only too happy to help Debbie to spread the word: “It’s such a brilliant initiative and we want to be part of it,” she says. “Geoff was always a passionate believer in people being given a chance in life and that’s part of our ethos. We’re so lucky to be here in such lovely surroundings – why wouldn’t you want to share it?”

Debbie launched the charity in January 2019 after suffering a series of personal traumas, including the loss of her baby, and subsequently being diagnosed with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

For years, she was unable to leave her home, feeling safer in her own “bubble" – until racing changed her life. She hadn’t been particularly interested in the sport until March 2017 when she started watching the Cheltenham Festival on TV and was captivated by the sight of the mighty Altior, flying his fences on the way to winning the Queen Mother Champion Chase.

It was the start of a life-saving love affair. She began following Altior’s record-breaking career and, in doing so, developed a wider interest in watching racing. When her son was born in October 2017, she was consumed by terrible post-natal depression and she credits her new-found passion for racing with helping her through some dark days.

Finally, when Altior was declared to run at Ascot in January, 2019, Debbie decided on a whim that she was going to see him in the flesh. A Tweet about her plan was widely shared, an article about her experiences was published in the Racing Post, trainer Nicky Henderson invited her to meet Altior, and messages flooded in from people who yearned to go racing but faced personal barriers.

Debbie was so overwhelmed by the response that she started going to more race meetings, and became convinced that the industry had potential to help heal others. It was the beginning of a movement that became the inspiration for Go Racing Green.

Her previous job had been in accessibility tourism – advising businesses on how to cater for visitors with physical and mental disabilities – and she set out to use that experience to make racetracks more inclusive.

She started a blog, under the name Novice Filly, and racecourses across the UK began to register an interest. Nottingham was the first to formally adopt the initiative, with plans to set up a specialised room for racegoers who need time away from the crowds, and staff being trained in awareness of a range of mental health conditions.

Along the way, a community has been created, with vulnerable people encouraged to attend race meetings, often wearing branded green ribbons and hats to help identify them at the courses.

Thanks to sponsorship from Unibet, Debbie has been able to leave her job in tourism to concentrate on promoting Go Racing Green full-time.

Several trainers have also embraced the charity and Debbie’s visit to the North-East last week also included tours of Ruth Jefferson’s yard at Malton, and Micky Hammond’s at Middleham.

“Up to now, the visits have really concentrated on Newmarket and Lambourn but, when we started to come out of lockdown, I wanted to start going round the country, and this is the first trip to the north,” she explains.

“Elwick Stud says everything about what Go Racing Green is trying to achieve – to get people in small groups as close to horses as possible, so that the don’t feel intimated. These are such peaceful, beautiful surroundings, away from the hubbub of daily life, so it really is perfect.”

The battle against mental illness continues for Debbie and, back home in Somerset, she has Rosie, the cob, and Orla, the Shetland Pony, to turn to whenever she needs them.

“Horses have a sort of peace about them, and an understanding that’s in tune with people’s emotions. They’re just someone to talk to and I’m honestly not sure I’d have pulled through without them,” she explains.

“Go Racing Green is open to anyone – they don’t have to talk about their problems, they can just come along, see some horses, have a cup of tea and a bit of cake, and relax.”

What makes it all so worthwhile is the feedback from people, saying what a difference being close to horses has made.

“I’ve had people, who’d been suicidal, sending messages to say it’s saved their lives too. That means everything to me – because I’ve been there.”

ALONG with the well-bred thoroughbreds at Elwick Stud, there's an engaging little fella called Bob, the cob.

The Northern Echo:

He's unlikely to ever win a classic but he has an extremely important job nevertheless. His official title is "stud teaser" and his role in life is to make sure the stud's 35 mares are "ready" for mating.

Best not go into too much detail but it's clearly quite a responsibility when you consider the Elwick mares are visited by some of the world's best stallions.

Bob's only little but he's a star, loves being in the limelight and, by all accounts, is quite a sex symbol.

A bit like Tom Cruise.