Famed for its historic castle, cobbled squares and Georgian tearooms, the small ‘chocolate-box’ market town of Middleham in North Yorkshire has another claim to fame… its rich horse racing heritage.
Race horse training is the life blood of this part of Wensleydale and Micky Hammond Racing is home to one of the area’s most prestigious stables with a wide range of facilities, all kept to a tip-top standard by a team of highly skilled staff… including the famous stable lads and lasses.
These long-suffering, dedicated, muck-shovelling, horse-grooming, dawn-risers perform one of the hardest jobs in the country and so it was with much pride, excitement, trepidation and downright dread that 16-year-old Gemma Hogg arrived at Hammond’s stables in 1998 to begin her trial by fire as a stable lass.
Twenty years later and an award-winning employee as well as an assistant trainer at Micky Hammond Racing, Hogg looks back over 20 years of blood, sweat and tears in a unique, gritty, funny, fascinating and affectionate account of life in one of the country’s top racing yards.
From dragging herself out of bed at 5am every morning and ignominiously falling off her horse on the first day at the gallops to discovering that the Yorkshire Dales turns into Finland in February, caring passionately for her beloved horses, and riding home a winner, this is an uncut, bawdy and often emotional glimpse of a world many of us have never before encountered.
Like most stable lads and lasses, the teenager from the Leeds suburb of Horsforth arrived at the yard fresh out of racing college and eager to embark on one of the most demanding and dangerous careers imaginable.
The main reason Hogg was prepared to swap her cosy life for a potentially perilous new adventure was an obsession with horses, a lifelong love affair that began when she first sat on a pony at the tender age of seven and which grew into a dream to become a stable lass.
What she had not considered was coping with living away from home, getting used to the brutally long hours, the backbreaking work, the earthy humour and the often treacherous weather. But although the regime was tough – and her colleagues occasionally cheeky and challenging – it was undoubtedly the horses that stole the show.
The young Gemma had ridden ponies and long-retired racehorses but being on the back of a thoroughbred on the High Moor gallops at Middleham and travelling at 40mph was so thrilling that on her first outing she screamed ‘with pure elation.’
On that same day in 1998, Hogg fell in love with Polo Venture, a smart and beautiful chestnut gelding who was the first racehorse in her care and the horse that taught her that one of the most important aspects of the job is the relationship between the animal and its carer.
The stable lass or lad sees the horse as ‘part pet, part friend, part colleague and even part confidant’ in a relationship made up of love, understanding, kindness, compromise and ‘an almost indescribable amount of trust.’
Hogg also learned how dangerous it can be if a horse takes against its carers, whether it’s the growling gelding Valiant Warrior who had a mind of his own and liked to be in charge, or the potentially lethal Broadwater Boy who, in human terms, was ‘like a category A prisoner.’
Born horsewoman Hogg also brings to life the camaraderie, the practical jokes and the characters around the yard, from straight-talking boss Micky Hammond to the jockeys starving themselves to make weight, the wealthy owners and the other stable lads and lasses who come from a range of different places and backgrounds.
From the joy of having several winners in one day to the heart-wrenching grief of losing a horse, life at the stables, says Hogg, was a journey of highs, lows, doubt, pain, shame, bad language, wisecracks, weather and, of course, the horses.
Written in tandem with Hogg’s brother-in-law, the writer James Hogg, Stable Lass is an exhilarating ride and a fascinating ‘muck and all’ glimpse into the closed world of horse racing, a sport that can be ‘such a cruel business’ but also gifts you ‘some incredible highs.’
(Sidgwick & Jackson, hardback, £16.99)