Saddle up! Gemma Hogg rides out to the Raworths Harrogate Literature Festival to talk about her book, Stable Lass, with tales from a Yorkshire racing yard, praised for being wickedly insightful.
You’ve been described by the Racing Post as ‘the equine Bridget Jones’ – is that a fair description?
A clumsy, over thinking, big knicker wearer…. I’d say that would be correct!
Did you read Black Beauty as a child? What got you into horses?
I’m afraid I didn’t, although I’ve obviously heard of it and know that it’s a classic. There used to be a television programme I think but that was before my time. It was my Dad who got me into horses. He was a big racing enthusiast so my sister Becky and I were forever being taken to meetings. We loved it. Then, one day we went to visit some friends of his who owned a riding school and that was that. I’ll never forget the first time I sat on a horse. Or in this case a pony. It changed my life.
The racing world seems pretty extreme, with jockeys starving themselves and the level of competitiveness, did you find it mentally challenging?
Yes. And I still do. The thing is, you know what you’re letting yourself in for being a jockey so you just adapt. Or, as with my husband Tim, you jack it in and become an assistant trainer. He suffered some awful injuries as a jockey – a broken back being one – and because he used to ride over Christmas he’d have to starve himself. He once went 4 years without having Christmas dinner. He just had an apple and some water. Regarding the competitiveness, I think we feed off that. I certainly do. It’s part of what gets me up on the morning. That and the horses, of course.
There’s a romance to stables somehow, they always seem to feature in a Jackie Collins or romance flick – is there any glamour and romance, or is it more mucking out?
There are always plenty of romances going on – it’s inevitable with a yard full of young people – but you’ll find more glamour in a disused quarry! Racing itself can be glamorous, but when you’re getting up for work at 4.45am in the middle of February when it’s tipping it down outside and you’ve got to muck out, feed and exercise four or five horses, you tend to forget the fact. I wouldn’t change it though. No way!
Horse racing can attract some criticism from animal rights activists, as someone who clearly has horses’ interests at heart, do you think events like the Grand National can be cruel? Have you ever had to have a horse put down as a result of a race?
Horses are strong, intelligent animals and if they don’t want to do something we can’t make them. They’re heard animals so racing is instinctive to them.
The Grand National is a great British event in my opinion. The racehorses are treated like royalty and they get the best of everything. Believe me though. If they didn’t want to do it, they wouldn’t.
Unfortunately I have lost some friends along the way in my 20 year career and it’s the most heart breaking thing. Like losing a family member. There’s one horse in particular who almost gets his own chapter in the book. He looked after me when I first started out in racing and I still think about him all the time.
Horse riding can be pretty scary too, so racing and training thoroughbreds must come with some trepidation – have you ever feared getting ‘back into the saddle’ so to speak?
Yes! Some horses have a reputation for being difficult and if you have to look after them then the chances are you’ll bear the brunt. We used to have a horse called Valiant Warrior and he was an absolute nightmare. He features heavily in the book and we’ll talk about him at the Festival. We used to call him weasel and he hated everything. Dogs, cats, birds, other horses. But especially people! He actually used to growl at people. Seriously! He terrified me.
What life lessons has working as a stable lass to assistant trainer taught you?
Just two: Be nice and work hard. Racing is a very incestuous industry and so if you’re horrible to somebody there’s a very good chance it’ll come back and bite you on the bum. Just like Valiant Warrior used to.
What do you hope audiences in Harrogate will leave with after experiencing your talk?
First of all I want people to get an insight about what it’s like working in a yard. That’s one of the main reasons I wrote the book in the first place and because it’s such a unique job I’ll be trying hard to get that across. I also want people to feel like they’ve been entertained, to be honest. Horses are astonishing animals and we’ve got a plethora of stories. They’re all very different but I guarantee they’re all interesting. That’s not a bad description for the horses really. Anyway, it’ll be good fun and I’m really looking forward to it.
Gemma Hogg, Stable Lass, is Saturday 20 October at 9.30am at the Raworths Harrogate Literature Festival, The Crown Hotel. Book online here or call the Box Office on 01423 562 303.