This is not the usual sort of book about the ‘Sport of Kings’ – it is about an outsider whose amazing understanding of horses has brought him fame and pain. Gary Witheford is that outsider whose unique skill with horses has made him indispensable to many of the most senior insiders in the racing world.
In fact his skills take him beyond racecourses and trainers’ yards – he specialises in training young and problem horses from all walks of life.
If he deals everyday with angry horses, he has also to deal with his own anger at his childhood and the way it was stolen from him. Gary Witheford and some of his brothers were groomed and sexually abused by twin brothers – adults who professed to be Christians.
These men are still alive, have both served time in prison and were plausible enough to fool Gary’s mother – she did not believe he had been abused and showed him no proper affection.
All this and much more is revealed in If Horses Could Talk by Horse Whisperer Gary Witheford with Brough Scott (Racing Post Books.) It is a very compelling tale.
Gary is a great talker and has talked this book onto the page making it a lively read. Brough Scott – former jockey and long-time racing journalist – has given it shape, context and added depth. With brief essays in between the chapters, Scott helps us understand how Gary’s strange and successful life developed.
The book is full of photographs and Scott has also included an enlarged glossary – called the Tack Room – which is really helpful in getting a proper understanding of Gary’s methods.
Gary Witheford has Wiltshire in his bones – he spent several years at Rudloe when his father was in the RAF. Understandably, he left home and his boarding school for troubled boys in Devizes, and was introduced by teacher Alan Stonell to the ‘racing game’ at the Beckhampton yard (then run by trainer Jeremy Tree.)
After many years with Elaine and Stan Mellor at Lambourn (not quite Wiltshire!) and time working away from horses, he set up in business first near Wootton Bassett and is now based at a former dairy farm near Burbage.
His practical, low-key approach to horses is termed ‘natural horsemanship’ and is a mix of his own theories, those of the original American horse whisperer Monty Roberts and other experts. His methods hark back to what Native Americans had been doing for centuries – and had then passed on to cowboys.
Ably assisted by his son, Craig, and by his wife Suze who looks after his complex logistics (“She is like my right hand”), his thriving business has two mainstays.
First, starting young horses. He does not like the term ‘breaking horses’ – he does not break anything in his ‘starting’ process and it takes minutes rather than the weeks taken to ‘break in’ a horse by traditional methods.
Secondly, he is called on by trainers to go to racecourses here, there and everywhere to make sure tricky horses get into the starting stalls. He wants to persuade the governors of the racing industry that reform of the stalls loading process is vital – just one of the reforms he would like to see.
But, as he says quite openly in this very open book, at 54 he is now feeling a bit worn out. Not all young and troubled horses are polite – they have landed him with plates in a hand and an elbow, with a crooked jaw, bad shoulders and an uncooperative back.
The adrenaline rush of coping with horses that are often and in varying degrees pretty violent, takes its toll. And his business involves endless driving – travelling to British and Irish trainers and racecourses and further afield still.
He has had many more than his fifteen minutes of fame – whether it was training the first zebras to be ridden (the press loved that) or giving jaw-dropping demonstrations of his skills.
John Gosden, who used to be at Manton, is one of the trainers who often relies on Gary. In the book Gosden is quoted in one of Brough Scott’s mini-essays: “It’s very reassuring, especially for jockeys, when Gary is down at the start. Gary has a profound understanding of the horse and its psyche.”
This year, Gary was supervising the stalls entry for Gosden’s Classic star Kingman. He will be disappointed that Kingman has an infection and will not make his last appearance (in October’s Queen Elizabeth II Stakes at Ascot) before going to stud.
Brough Scott writes that if horses really could talk, their first words would be to thank Gary. I would go further: I believe the horses would urge him to carry on campaigning to reform aspects of the racing game. And when he has succeeded – and when the odds are long Gary very often does succeed – he and Brough Scott could write another book together.
If Horses could Talk – Horse Whisperer Gary Witheford with Brough Scott (Racing Post Books) £20.
[Coming soon on Marlborough News Online – ‘On the road with Gary Witheford.’]