Growing up on the renowned Fawley Stud in West Berkshire, Grace Muir saw at first-hand what a can-do attitude can achieve with horses, something that has helped sustain her own career, latterly at HEROS, the charity and racehorse retraining centre she established in 2006.

Her father Ian, a noted horseman within the Lambourn racing community – he bred the 1969 Cheltenham Gold Cup winner What A Myth at the stud – was asked to stand a stallion called Supreme Sovereign, a somewhat unfriendly beast with a propensity for violence.

“He came from Ireland and was a savage,” Muir recalls, talking to Owner Breeder after the HEROS supporters’ lunch. “No-one would go near him. But dad being dad, he just found a way to set him up for covering mares.

“Dad would trim his hooves with a sanding machine strapped to a pole – his behaviour was so bad the farrier wouldn’t touch him, understandably.

“Nothing ever stopped my dad; his theory was if as a human you weren’t clever enough to figure out how to overcome problems, you shouldn’t be working with horses.

“My father’s dad was killed in a car crash when my dad was 16 and he had to take over the farm. He was an amazing man, always incredibly busy – he built Fawley up into one of the busiest studs in the south of England, foaling over 100 mares every year, and standing five stallions.

“To be brought up with someone like him is what dreams are made of.”

Having mucked in on the stud as a youngster alongside her four siblings – she is seven years younger than brother William, the Lambourn handler who enjoyed Coronation Cup and King George successes with Pyledriver – and enjoyed her visits to Tattersalls with youngstock, Muir appeared destined for a life in the racing industry, and so it proved with roles for local trainers Kim Brassey and Jenny Pitman.

It was during her time with Brassey, where she was a work rider and later secretary, that Muir first saw “how many horses needed help after racing”.

By the time Muir returned to work for her father, breaking yearlings at North Farm Stud – next door to Fawley Stud, which had been sold – after spells in the accounts department of a pensions firm and in bloodstock insurance, that need seemed all the greater.

“Trainers would always ask me to find new homes for this horse and that horse, and I would,” Muir explains. “Otherwise, there was a risk they would be put down.

“After meeting with Emma Balding at Kingsclere, I decided I wanted to set up a charity to rehome racehorses, although I was told it wasn’t feasible as you needed a lot of money.

“However, I decided to carry on with the idea and I knew if I ever started a charity, I would call it HEROS. Of course, I didn’t know for ten years I’d spelt the bloody word wrong! George Greener, our first Chairman, pointed it out but I told him it was meant to be an anagram of horse, which wasn’t true at all.”

With backing and funds from Annie Dodd and Andrew Parker Bowles at Retraining of Racehorses (RoR), HEROS was born with a plan to rehabilitate and rehome horses from North Farm Stud.

Another important supporter in those early days was RoR Chairman Peter Deal, owner of 1997 Champion Hurdle victor Make A Stand, who died last month.

“Peter was an absolute diamond,” Muir says. “He really understood what I was trying to do. I was told I wouldn’t ever deal with a better man, and it was true. He was a proper horseman and a top man.”

Education vital

Muir embraced the need for an education programme at HEROS from the start, yet she had something of a light-bulb moment when realising the potential in helping local children who were struggling in mainstream secondary schools, especially given her location on the Oxfordshire/Berkshire border.

The HEROS Racing Academy, for children aged 11 to 16, kick-started a focus on education that will soon provide 80 places per week for children who experience difficulties – often non-attenders or who present with behavioural challenges – in their regular schooling but who benefit from learning on a stud that occupies 200 acres in an area of outstanding natural beauty.

While the Enrichment Programme supports under 16s, HEROS works with training provider KEITS to run traineeships, apprenticeships and diplomas for those aged up to 25, including in horse care, while also running functional skills courses in Maths and English.

Muir says: “There’s a massive need for the type of educational support we can provide at HEROS, with associated funding. The schools and social care are very pleased with the results – we are getting around five application every day at present.

“There’s a real power about this place. Some of your readers might think that’s a load of bullshit, but when the children come here, they can feel it – it does the same for humans as it does for orses.

“You see a horse come here and breathe a sigh of relief – it’s like ‘Phew, thanks goodness I’m okay’.

“Mitsuru Hashida, who trained Nassau winner Deirdre, visited us with his daughter. We walked around the fields and she said this place is so powerful, she can feel it.

“The horses, and the children, suddenly change when they arrive at HEROS. There isn’t a child that wouldn’t benefit from coming to this place.”

Muir goes on to tell the story of a blind student who arrived at HEROS low on confidence having struggled in all her previous educational placements. Not only did she pass her functional skills in Maths, but she was also taught to ride a horse and departed the charity a different person from the one that arrived.

The recent addition of a forest school, making the most of a stunning location to observe wildlife alongside activities such as cooking and whittling, is another string to the HEROS bow and provides a further outlet for children that have failed to thrive in the traditional classroom environment.

While the children enjoy the benefits of such a diverse learning experience – as well as ex-racehorses there are chickens, ducks and even a herd of goats at North Farm Stud – there are clear advantages to the racing industry, with a host of young people being introduced to horses for the first time.

Muir says: “I would say half of my North Farm Stud team have what you would call additional needs. One lad has been here 16 years and while he struggles to read and write, he can drive machinery that no-one else can. Not everyone fits in the same box.

“The beauty of this place is that it recognises people as their authentic selves and takes their qualities into account.”

While the educational side provides an income for HEROS, the practical side must deal with an increasing number of horses that make their way to the facility following the conclusion of their racing careers.

HEROS assumes ownership of horses upon arrival, in part to protect the previous owners from any future issues that may arise. Owners are asked to contribute a sum towards the cost of retraining, with additional funds secured from RoR.

Aftercare is a huge issue and Muir feels it is one the entire industry must take responsibility for to protect the sport and safeguard its future.

She says: “The aftercare pot needs to be bigger – racing needs to understand that this could potentially be the jewel in the crown. HEROS is the official aftercare partner of RoR, and we are working on a retraining assessment programme to help guide a horse’s first steps after racing.

“Should every horse that comes out of training go through something like HEROS? Owners and trainers have their safe outlets, but the onus should not be on the trainer to rehome horses while owners carry the majority of responsibility, and I don’t think that’s right.

“Breeders, stallions studs, sales houses – everyone should put a little bit into the pot. It would be a big win for racing if we get it right, but too many people want to sit on the fence.

“RoR, supported by the Racehorse Owners Association, is working on an accreditation scheme that would work nationwide to assist owners looking to rehome former racehorses.”

More than 700 ex-racehorses have been successfully rehomed by HEROS but one that arrived at the stud and never left is Tullius, a one-time high-class miler for Kennet Valley whose career earnings exceeded £500,000. Now 16, he is one of the most popular attractions at the operation and features regularly in the monthly newsletter sent to donors and supporters, which include the likes of Harry Redknapp and John Francome.

“What a star he is,” says Muir. “He actually came to us as a yearling to be broken. He is by Le Vie Dei Colori and typical of the sire in that he was nervous and flighty.

“I watched him through his career and while they said he used to put his head in the air, he always tried so hard.

“Tullius would always return here for rest or if he had an injury during his racing days and it was lovely when they asked if he could come back here for his retirement. The late Nick Robinson was a brilliant operator, and the horse is a great tribute to Kennet Valley.”

Future plans

Never one to rest on her laurels, Muir, supported by husband Michael and stepdaughter Dulcey along with a loyal band of 33 staff members, is ambitious for HEROS’ future.

She is looking forward to welcoming veterinary students participating in the new Extramural Studies programme, which involves a week’s residential stay, following a successful pilot, having secured funding from the Gerald Leigh Charitable Trust.

Converting two of the stable blocks into an education hub, which would provide additional classroom space, is on the agenda, while building log cabins for student accommodation and a new office for staff is at the planning stage.

Looking at the bigger picture, rolling out HEROS’ pupil enrichment programme nationwide is the aim, although Muir acknowledges the amount of work required to do so.

She says: “There are so many more things we want to do here. Developing an education hub would really engage the students and we could partner with schools in the local area.

“I’d like to set up an association for retraining facilities and progress the accreditation scheme, which would help achieve best practice in the industry.

“With the right infrastructure, our model could be rolled out across the UK although the correct safeguarding procedures would need to be in place. We have a template for success; you simply cannot make money out of retraining alone – if you break even, you’ve done brilliantly.”

Muir adds: “The sky’s the limit and I’m so excited about the future. I’ll see this through to the end when it’s able to thrive without me. I want it to be here forever because I think it’s got such a big place in this world now.”


Education key to HEROS 

The former racehorses at HEROS not only complete their rehabilitation and retraining at North Farm Stud but also inspire the minds of young pupils who have additional learning needs.

HEROS offers opportunities to students aged 11 to 16 through its Enrichment Programme, supported by Godolphin, with bespoke courses aimed at encouraging social and emotional growth, developing friendships and socialising in a safe environment.

For those aged 16 and over, traineeships at Level 1 and apprenticeships at Level 2 and 3 are available for students who do not have an educational health care plan (EHCP), while Diplomas at Level 1, 2 and 3 in horse care are available for students with EHCPs, which can support students up to the age of 25, all run in partnership with training partner KEITS.

Skills in Maths and English up to GCSE level are also provided and are essential for students under 18 who have not gained at least a Grade 4 in their GCSEs.

Muir says: “The students can come up to three days per week between 10am and 3pm.

“Our educational side will never stop developing. We started with the enrichment side and now we’ve expanded with the forest school.

“Ultimately, we’re trying to get the 11 to 16-year-old students to go on to our diploma courses or apprenticeships to get more young people into racing.”