By Julieanne Horsman
When renowned horseman Patrick Herde walked into Burton’s Saddlery in early 2018, as he had done hundreds of times before, he had no inkling this particular visit would set him on the path for his greatest and most rewarding challenge yet. As he wandered around the shop in the heart of Armidale he struck up a conversation with owner Lee Burton who told him about BackTrack. Lee’s son Paul Dawson was working with the unique not-for-profit organisation which helps the most troubled youths get back on the straight and narrow and raved about its positive impact. Patrick looked up BackTrack online when he got home and knew he wanted to get involved too.
One of the key elements of BackTrack is the Paws Up program where participants learn to train working dogs for shows. It promotes self-control and leadership and as the current Australian champions it has given the kids a sense of accomplishment they’ve never experienced before. Having seen first-hand the emotional and psychological benefits of working with horses, Patrick came up with an ambitious plan to adapt the dog program for ex-racehorses. He approached BackTrack and Racing NSW’s equine welfare division Team Thoroughbred NSW with his pitch and in early 2019 it was given the green light.
Ten retired racehorses from Team Thoroughbred NSW’s rehoming program were delivered to Patrick’s Deepwater property, Ballyoch Horses. Some had managed to win races, others hadn’t even made the trials, but they had all been assessed as retrainable for careers after racing. Once a week Paul Dawson from BackTrack would drive half a dozen kids the 140km from Armidale to Patrick’s place so they could help with the retraining process and in turn learn invaluable skills, form friendships and build confidence.
“Firstly, we made sure the horses were safe and once we were confident of that we started teaching the boys and girls the basics,” Patrick said. “It wasn’t long before we had bums in saddles and could ride up into the hills for a picnic and campfire lunch. I was blown away by how far the kids came in the first month alone. The horse mirrors what you are feeling so you have to control your emotions. The kids became very aware of the energy they were putting out. You would see them get angry or frustrated then realise it was affecting their horse and change their attitude.”
Some of the boys have shown such a great aptitude for horsemanship, Patrick has employed them to work at his farm. The older ones stay there during the week and go back to Armidale for TAFE.
“We are teaching them a range of horsemanship and general farm skills which will make them more employable in the future,” Patrick said. “I want to see these kids chasing their dreams and being proud of themselves. We’re certainly proud of them.”
With the first group of horses now trained up for stock work and trail riding, they are ready to be sold so new horses can come into the program. An auction and open day will be held at Ballyoch Horses on Saturday, 1st June 2019. Inspections begin at 8:30am and the kids will be parading the horses from 10:30am with the auction to be completed after lunch. People can absentee bid by contacting Ballyoch Horses. 100% of the sale price of each horse will be donated to BackTrack. There will also be working dog demonstrations, plenty of catering and taste testing of Deepwater Brewing Co’s ales.
It’s not just the BackTrack participants and horses who are benefiting for the program. The local community is too. Patrick has sourced all his building materials and feed from the region and uses local service providers including vets and farriers. They’ve also formed a polo club and are fundraising to build a field in the middle of Deepwater Racecourse.
“It’s a win win win situation,” he said. “None of us really knew what it was going to look like but we’ve all been determined to make it work for everyone. We’re looking forward to the next group of horses arriving and welcoming more BackTrack kids to the program. My goal is to create more permanent jobs for BackTrack graduates on our farm.”