Ballygraffan Life

Ballygraffan is a very special place set amidst 50 acres of breathtaking scenery in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty on the banks of Strangford Lough.  Home to the successful ‘Horses for People’ program by June Burgess, Ballygraffan will be welcoming five Thoroughbred former racehorses as we embark on our first THOROUGHBRED ASSISTED™ pilot program kindly co-funded by the Down Royal Corporation of Horsebreeders. 

A Thoroughbred Assisted™ Collaboration

This exciting collaboration with DRCOH arose from Racing To Relate’s preliminary stakeholder feedback process at the beginning of Phase One of their research with University of Bristol.  The pilot follows the transition of five Thoroughbred former racehorses in a monitored training/retraining programme at an EAT facility.  This experimental cross-industry collaboration will run in parallel with the first ‘Audit’ Phase of the Racing To Relate /University of Bristol PhD and has been geared towards complimenting the Phase Two and Three field studies across a number of EAT facilities.  

“Down Royal Corporation of Horsebreeders has been advancing and improving Racing in Northern Ireland since its inception, celebrating the Thoroughbred both on and off the track. This project is an exciting and necessary next step in the process of developing and progressing thoroughbred welfare and human wellbeing within the Racing industry.”

– Jim Nicholson, Chairman of Down Royal Corporation of Horsebreeders 

Down Royal Corporation of Horsebreeders

DRCOH aims to support and develop the Thoroughbred industry in Northern Ireland.  Equine, jockey and stable staff welfare has always been a critical driver for the Corporation.  The Corporation focuses on projects making a difference in Northern Ireland, which directly benefits the broader horseracing and Thoroughbred breeding industry. 

Building opportunities in Northern Ireland for Thoroughbreds that have finished their racing careers

“Over the past few years the Corporation has been working with various projects to try and build on the opportunities in Northern Ireland for Thoroughbreds that have finished their racing careers.  The Corporation has always been focused on advancing racing to ensure the maximum welfare for the horses, the riders, the stable staff and those supporting racing.

The field of Equine Assisted Activities is starting to grow in Northern Ireland and the benefits of these activities when undertaken in a safe, regulated and sustainable manner are incredible for both the horses and humans involved.”

Molly McCluskey, DRCOH 

Horses For People
International Collaboration

Molly McCluskey represents DRCOH on the project. Molly is a qualified barrister and a life-long equestrian who maintained an interest in riding and competing throughout her university years, completing a diploma in the breeding and racing industry whilst studying for her undergraduate law degree. Molly is a consultant for Down Royal Corporation of Horsebreeders and through their vision and insight for the Thoroughbred industry in Northern Ireland, she has worked on many rewarding projects to improve Thoroughbred welfare and create awareness of the opportunities and benefits of working with Thoroughbreds. 

“The Corporation, through Rachel Annan from CAFRE, were introduced to the charity, Racing To Relate. The Corporation felt the potential for Equine Facilitated Therapy and also for the use of Thoroughbreds within this sphere was fantastic.

At an information day organised through the Department of Health at Ballygraffan, the Corporation was introduced to the work being done by June Burgess at Horses for People. June’s background as an international event rider, business woman and life coach gave her a unique insight into the horses, the people and also the business model required to make this sustainable. The layout at Ballygraffan lends itself so well to retraining Thoroughbreds for this work. It is such a peaceful place with well thought out turnout, shelters and feeding arrangements which maximise the welfare of the horses but also the opportunity for true human horse connections.

June is an incredibly strong woman who brings not just her equestrian expertise to this project but also her life coaching skills, equine facilitated learning experience, a vast array of equine welfare qualifications but most importantly an enthusiasm to collaborate and learn from practices throughout the world to make this pilot a unique opportunity for Thoroughbred and human welfare on an international scale.”

Molly McCluskey, DRCOH


Horses For People : an award winning programme

June Burgess runs the award-winning horse-assisted leadership programme Horses For People from her equine facility at Ballygraffan in Northern Ireland. Horses have always been a considerable part of June’s life, having ridden for Ireland in over 60 international competitions and at the British Eventing Championships. June has over 40 years of experience working with and learning from horses including owning and producing the Rio Olympics bronze medal-winning horse, Mighty Nice.  June also built and directed the Ballygraffan International Horse Trials from 2003-2008, welcoming several thousand spectators each year, as well as professional riders from eight countries. June brought all of her significant strengths and experience from the business world and horses to form her EAT programme, Horses For People. With international accreditation, June facilitates Horse-Assisted Leadership workshops for leadership, resilience, therapy and wellbeing. In 2019 she was recognised in the Armed Forces Soldiering On Awards for her work with veterans suffering from PTSD:

“When Molly suggested the Racing to Relate Thoroughbred Assisted project to me, there was no way that I would not have wanted to be involved because it pulls together everything that Horses for People is about and is an opportunity to show the world that racehorses have so much potential beyond the racecourse. It is our duty to look after our horses, not only whilst they are competing, but once they have reached the end of their careers. We owe it to them. But it’s not just our moral obligation – Thoroughbreds add a whole new level of responsiveness to equine therapy. They are sensitive, curious, and expressive, precisely what I am looking for in my workshops.

Thoroughbreds are clever, and there are so many ex-racehorses that could easily be trained to be exceptional therapy partners. I can’t quite believe that I have a chance to demonstrate this and help to highlight a whole new purpose for them. A purpose in which they will be gentle yet responsive partners in the role of helping people. This is people helping horses to help people.” 

– June Burgess, ‘Horses For People’ at Ballygraffan 

Creating opportunities for hands-on experience

Supporting June and the pilot project at Ballygraffan is student placement Daria Fidgeon who recently completed a BSc Hons in Equine Management at CAFRE.  Daria has worked at Gigginstown House Stud, and during her degree, she worked with racehorses. She also travelled to Kentucky, visiting the equine industries leading establishments there. Before her studies, she had no experience with Thoroughbreds but fell in love with them and their individuality. Daria is also an accomplished photographer and we are lucky enough to have her involved not only in the research but to document the project in pictures :

 “I was immediately interested in the opportunity to be part of a project that will benefit Thoroughbreds worldwide. I recently completed my dissertation on horse movements and lying down behaviours in three different housing environments, stable, turnout and active turnout, using GPS technology and thoroughly enjoyed the hands-on experience collecting data and dealing with problems that occurred. I am passionate about equine welfare, and this project has the potential to benefit thousands of thoroughbreds while offering an extremely valuable service to people.” 

– Daria Fidgeon, CAFRE Graduate

A pilot for wider collaboration on Thoroughbred welfare post racing

The pilot is part of the programme of R2R THOROUGHBRED ASSISTED™ inter-sectoral evidence based collaborations intended to underpin the charity’s vision for long-term Thoroughbred welfare beyond racing.   The Thoroughbred Assisted™ focus is on building and informing an innovative and widely collaborative knowledge platform. It will offer evidence-based guidance on optimal engagement, implementation and welfare outcomes for both horses and the people who work with them.

This exciting collaboration with DRCOH and Ballygraffan arose from Racing To Relate’s preliminary stakeholder feedback process ahead of the ‘Audit’ Phase of the PhD research with University of Bristol.  Phase Two and Three of the PhD which will take place over the 3 year study will involve a series of field studies across a number of different EAT facilities.  The selection of these will be informed by the results of the Phase One Survey which is due to be sent out to the EAT / retraining sector this summer.  

The PhD study with the University of Bristol and this first Thoroughbred Assisted pilot have already attracted considerable interest from several key international stakeholders in the Thoroughbred and EAT communities. We are incredibly grateful to all the people involved and we hope this interest is the beginning of some inspiring collaborations with industry professionals. The pilot has become a superb opportunity to work together, exchange ideas and experience and shape these future collaborations. It’s a really exciting time for us, and it’s hugely encouraging that there is such enthusiasm for our project and for Thoroughbred welfare. Molly came up with the great idea of a webinar series inspired by the success of recent online conferences and webinars, including IFAR, the One Equine launch and the CAFRE Online Equine Welfare conference. As we develop, we are learning more and more about the important work in this EAT and welfare context. We look forward to bringing you our own series of webinars and the opportunity to share our collective knowledge-building processes over the coming months.  We will be releasing details of the webinar series and how to participate shortly.

– Jennifer Twomey, Racing To Relate 

Steering Group: 

Jennifer Twomey – Racing to Relate, Molly McCluskey – DRCOH Project Officer, Mike Todd – DRCOH Committee, June Burgess – Horses for People, Margaret O’Sullivan – ROR, Claire Neveux PhD Student  –University of Bristol, Professor Siobhan Mullan – UCD/ University of Bristol, Dr Mathilde Valenchon –University of Bristol, Dr Deborah Butler – University of Bristol, Dr Jo Hockenhull – Bristol University, Dr Becky Parkes – City University, Hong Kong, Dr Esther Skelly-Smith – Shanaghan Veterinary Services, Dr Helen Sharp – Equi-S Therapies Ireland, Seamus McAliney – CAFRE, Rachel Annan – CAFRE, Richard Moore – One Equine, Sarah Sands – Treo Eile, Meta Osborne – Veterinarian and Irish Racing Expert

Collaborative Partners:

New Zealand Thoroughbred Racing – Martin Burns, Stacie Clark – TAA in USA, Di Artbuthot– IFAR, Irish Equine Rehabilitation and Fitness Centre, Baileys Horse Feeds, RDA – Riding for the Disabled, Emma Hutchison – HorseBack UK, Lisa Coffey – Racing Hearts, One Equine – Equine Assisted Therapy awareness charity


Meet the Thoroughbreds

CAFRE placement student Daria Fidgeon is also a talented photographer and will be sharing her superb images and videos of the Thoroughbreds with us.

Pilot Webinar Series

We really look forward to bringing you this series of webinars over the coming months.  Schedule and details of how to participate coming shortly.

A wider healing process in NI

Northern Ireland offers a nurturing space for the development of ground-breaking work within the realm of healing and therapeutic processes.

Our goal with this new R&D platform is to build upon and share the wealth of collective knowledge out there.  With the University of Bristol PhD Study and this exciting first pilot, we are off to such a great start.  We see working together on the evidence-base as a crucial first step towards a vision for long term welfare of these magnificent horses in new roles helping people.  We are really encouraged by the positive response so far across both the Thoroughbred and Equine Assisted sectors and look forward to seeing these collaborations develop and contribute to wider Thoroughbred aftercare efforts.

Adrian PrattChairman of Racing To Relate