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The academy in Newmarket where ponies are helping to change pupils’ lives





Newmarket schoolboy Finley Lawson is in no doubt as to how much the Newmarket Pony Academy has changed his life.

It’s an opinion echoed by his mum Dominque who said it had been the making of him.

As a single parent Dominique was not in a position to pay for riding lessons and said if Finley had not had the chance to saddle up thanks to a free place at the pony academy his passion for riding, which has now developed into a passion for racing, would never have been realised.

Finley Lawson who has gone from riding ponies to racehorses
Finley Lawson who has gone from riding ponies to racehorses

Now 15, Finley, was in Year 6 when he took part in the academy’s pilot scheme launched during the Covid pandemic lockdown back in 2020 when the mental health of a whole generation of school children was under extreme pressure.

It was the brainchild of Godolphin's charities manager Penny Taylor who realised that, despite being home to thousands of racehorses, Newmarket offered few opportunities for local vulnerable or disadvantaged children to ride. Working with Andrew Braithwaite and Grant Harris at Newmarket’s British Racing School, where the academy is now based, she came up with a plan to rectify that.

The following year, Penny’s Ponies became the Newmarket Pony Academy (NPA) which became an instant hit with local primary schools who were able to nominate pupils they believed would benefit from the five-day hands on programme it offered.

Finley was one of those youngsters and from ponies he is now riding racehorses having moved up to the British Racing School’s flexible learning programme, a two-year course offered to 14-16 year olds as a one day release from school to learn to ride and care for racehorses. And he has a Saturday job with town trainer James Ferguson which he has been promised can become a permanent position if he completes all the relevant qualifications.

The Newmarket Academy pupil is thriving. “My confidence and resilience has got much better both with my schoolwork and with the horses,” he said. And the programme’s instructor Jackie Gill agrees. “He is a totally different person to the one I first saw at the pony academy,” she said. “He has a lot more confidence in himself, he is more assertive and wants to please so he listens to his instructors.”

Academy funding was secured for an initial three years from West Suffolk Council, Godolphin, the Sir Peter O'Sullevan Charitable Trust, Thompson Family Charitable Trust, Orbit Housing, Tattersalls and the National Lottery, while Jockey Club Estates pitched in to build an office and classroom for the academy students.

Newmarket Pony Academy manager Anna Sylvester knows first hand how the lives of young people have been transformed thanks to their experience at the academy
Newmarket Pony Academy manager Anna Sylvester knows first hand how the lives of young people have been transformed thanks to their experience at the academy

The learning module for the five-day programme focuses on equine care in a way that brings in elements of the national curriculum work in English, maths and science.

Having started back in 2021 with just five ponies, one group of 10 school children and two members of staff, the NPA is now delivering programmes all year round during term time, after school, during school holidays and at weekend, supporting around 600 children each year.

And its success is such that it is now oversubscribed and has had to close its waiting list.

Patient ponies are just what the youngsters need
Patient ponies are just what the youngsters need

“Godolphin is proud to support Newmarket Pony Academy and we are thrilled by how the programme has developed and flourished in the three years since it launched,” said Penny.

“For the young people in our community to have the opportunity to interact with the ponies and learn in this unique environment has proved to be incredibly valuable. We look forward to seeing the pony academy continue to grow and offer even more children the chance to learn and develop through this initiative.”

Academy manager is Anna Sylvester whose enthusiasm for the project is infectious and who knows first hand how young people’s lives have been transformed thanks to their experience at the academy.

Learning how to care for and groom the ponies is an important part of what the academy teaches the youngsters who go there
Learning how to care for and groom the ponies is an important part of what the academy teaches the youngsters who go there

“One student was unable to function in mainstream education due to anxiety and emotional regulation and was struggling to mix socially with her peers culminating in extreme bullying,” she said.

“She was not interested in horses before she came to the NPA with her school and was resistant to attending on day one. But time at the NPA has allowed her to grow and mature with a positive constant in her life for the last year providing a safe and happy place for her to be herself. She has achieved a vocational qualification and is now working towards her young equestrian leadership award. She has had life changing experiences including meeting the Queen and has grown in confidence and self esteem as a result. She now looks forward to a bright future and is hoping to work with horses as a career.

“The benefits we have seen in this student have been enhanced confidence self esteem, communication and social skills, improved impulse control, self-awareness and better management of stress and anxiety.

Most of the children attending have never ridden before but their confidence soon grows thanks to the instructors and volunteers on hand to help them
Most of the children attending have never ridden before but their confidence soon grows thanks to the instructors and volunteers on hand to help them

“She came to us with low expectations and little aspirations, and she will leave us with direction, ambition, and a significant improvement in her mental health.”

Another youngster, a 10-year-old girl, was referred by a Cambridgeshire children’s mental health charity. She and her brother had, with their mother, been forced to leave the family home after being victims of domestic abuse, losing not just her home and belongings but also her confidence. Joining the NPA saw that confidence start to grow again and she star1ted to talk more and trust adults again.

“She has grown up so much since starting at the academy,” said her mum. “It has given her her smile back. I am forever grateful.”