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Wednesday, 22 October 2014

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Cumbrian horse whisperer aiming to school troubled animals

For most of us, when the talk is of horse racing we will inevitably think back to Ladies night at Carlisle Racecourse or watching your horse fall at the last fence in the Grand National.

George Newton photo
George Newton

But there is a lesser known version of the sport practised in the country and indeed around the world, by a few dedicated followers, that they would argue is equally, if not more exciting than the thoroughbred sport.

Harness racing, at first glance, looks reminiscent of Roman chariot racing. Riders stand in two wheeled carts known as Sulkies and ride standard-bred horses around a track at high speed.

The sport is divided into two versions, pacing and trotting and is extremely popular in Continental Europe, America, Canada and New Zealand, with winners there earning mega bucks.

One man who knows more about harness racing than most in the region is George Newton, from Cargo, near Carlisle.

George saw his first race 40 years ago and has been fascinated by this little known sport ever since.

He said: “I have competed for the last 18 years, and have become a little disillusioned as to why the sport has not progressed in the same way as thoroughbred and greyhound racing.

"Way back in the ’70s I worked for a saddler who had a shop in Botchergate, called Terry Burrows. He bought his first standard bred horse and asked if I wanted to go and see him race at a track in Kendal.

“When I saw how exciting the sport was I was hooked and decided I wanted to have a go myself.”

Terry decided to take the horse by the harness and set about learning about the breeding and conformation of the horses, travelling the length and breadth of Britain to watch and perfect the methods used by the professionals.

It wasn’t until the 1990s that George began buying horses to race himself, initially having little success. However Clemtex, a young horse he picked up later, propelled him into harness racing stardom and he has now won a string of titles with various horses every year since 2004.

George, 58, puts a lot of his success down to breaking his horses in, a method known as “horse whispering” to those in the business.

Many of the modern days techniques are accredited to the great American horseman Monty Roberts, seen as the messiah of managing untamed horses.

Monty spent his youth observing wild mustangs' body language, enabling him to then “join-up” with that horse, earning its trust.

His 1996 autobiography, The Man Who Listens To Horses, sold over five million copies worldwide and is regarded by many horse enthusiasts as the bible, with his methods being taught all over the world.

George first saw Monty’s work in 1989 when Queen Elizabeth II, a keen horsewoman herself, invited him over to break in her horses. This gave Monty huge publicity in the UK.

“The documentary was shown on QED, and I became fascinated, buying his books and videos, and I have now been using his methods for 14 years.

“There is a centre in Berkshire called Intelligent Horsemanship Ltd, run by ex-jockey Kelly Marks, who works very closely with Monty.

“I visit there often, as well as travelling abroad, working in places like Canada for a few months every year to see people who use his methods.

“I’ve met the man before, and I am working towards becoming a qualified recognised associate of Monty Roberts, which at the end will see me travel to his ranch in America for a final exam.”

George, who is still very passionate about harness racing, is currently taking a year out to concentrate fully on schooling troubled horses.

He can be contacted on 07900967875.

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