‘You know where you are with a horse’

Tom McBain with Menapian

They are both ready for the start of the National Hunt season and itching to get stuck into a race; their trainer, Helen Nelmes, is absolutely convinced they are going to do well, she just wants some more people aboard to enjoy it with her.

For now, though, Menapian and It’sabouttime are confined to stables at Warmwell, lapping up the attention that comes their way and waiting for the ride-outs that are as much rewards as they are training exercises. They are thoroughbreds, but on the face of it at least, humble with it.

‘These are smashing horses, more than ready to be syndicated. They’re what I call proper horses,’ says Helen. ‘These are horses you can have some real fun with as owners, trainers or jockeys. They’re not going to go to Cheltenham, that’s fair enough, but with horses like these two you know they can go to Fontwell Park and come home in the places – second, third or fourth all day long, first on a good day.’

Menapian, a five-year-old bay gelding, ran at Fontwell as a four-year-old and finished third, well ahead of the favourite. ‘He’s coming back from a break and has grown on lovely’ is Helen’s assessment.

It’sabouttime (known as Bob-Bob around the stables) is a six-year-old grey gelding and a real character, smiling as he poses for photos, reaching out to nuzzle two-year-old Ernie as soon as he comes within range. ‘We’ve brought Bobby on slow, he’s a real star in the making,’ explains Helen, although given her clear fondness for the toddler, she could just as easily be talking about Ernie.

‘That’s all horses are,’ she beams, ‘two-year-old kids most of them. You feed them, let them stretch their legs and give them lines to follow. If they stay within the lines, they’re fine. If they don’t, you just pull them back in. I much prefer horses to people; you know where you are with a horse. And give me a horse over a teenager every time – kids that know it all and know nothing, I can’t be doing with it. Mind you, I’ve met the odd horse like that as well. They’re not like it for long with me.’

Only a fool would doubt that. Helen Nelmes has been at Warmwell Stables and Stud for the best part of thirty years, twenty of them as partner and now as owner. Her first love is horse showing, but she drifted into the racing world led by husband Ken and their son, Owen, who was a champion amateur jockey. Their other son, Dean, is an English champion sheep-shearer.

‘It’s often the way that horses are a family thing,’ says Helen, ‘but not always – I wasn’t. My mother sent me somewhere to learn to cook and all that rubbish but I didn’t last three weeks. I was that silly girl who loves horses and had all these ideas about being around horses, but I soon had to think again when I started working with them. That was 50-odd years ago and things were very different then. There weren’t the opportunities there are now for one thing, we had to make our own and in many ways we still are now.’

Warmwell Stables is a racing yard and stud offering facilities approved by the National Pony Club and British Horse Society. It is equipped to train to NVQ Level 3 in all aspects of horse care and offers modern apprenticeships as well as traineeships and work experience. A range of full and partial liveries is available with stud services from three stallions, each with excellent track records.

Helen Nelmes showing Wild Power at Dorset County Show

The racing stables date from 2001 and include 50 acres of private rides, long grass gallops and country lanes. As ever, there is no shortage of young talent willing to muck in and help out in return for a chance to ride with the help and advice of Helen, who holds a full National Hunt licence, and Ken, who puts the young riders through their paces in the arena.

‘They don’t shout at us too much, but when they do, it pays to listen,’ says 14-year-old Tom McBain, from Poole. He has been riding for about three years, comes to the stables every Saturday and harbours ambitions to be a jump jockey. ‘It’s hard work, it’s really tough on the legs because you have to stand in the saddle in the racing position. Sometimes I sit down on purpose just to get a break, but they soon tell me to get back up out of the saddle again.’

As he pitches into a large stack of straw that has to be moved into the stables, working alongside him is Sidoni Davis from Dorchester, who has signed up for a three-year NVQ apprenticeship and is in no doubt about what she is doing it for. ‘I’m going to be a race jockey. I don’t care that there aren’t many female jockeys, there’s no reason I can’t do it. I love it. It’s hard and you have to be quite brave to get on a horse, but that’s all part of it. When Helen says I’m ready, I’m going to the British Racing School in Newmarket. She keeps telling me it takes patience and hard work and that I have to listen more and I will, because this is what I really want to do.’

Helen raises her eyebrows but clearly relishes the ambition of her two stable hands. And they are not alone. Other helpers are more interested in showing horses and around the yard, owners are getting ready to take horses out.

‘Saturdays when there are no races are lovely days at the stables, with people coming in and out,’ says Helen. ‘I like seeing the youngsters here. It’s how kids should be brought up – outside. The banter is non-stop, but there’s work being done as well. This is a seven-day-a-week job, except it’s not because it’s not like work. What I love about it, apart from the horses of course, is being able to help people out. If they’re willing to muck in, I’m glad to help them in any way I can – whether it’s a youngster wanting some advice or an owner wanting to know more about how their horse is trained, we have an open door here.’

The sport of kings is generally regarded as a rarefied world, but the owners who keep horses at Warmwell are a surprisingly varied lot, according to Helen. ‘We’ve got some lads who live in Monaco and come over for races, but then there are the fruit and veg boys, a lorry driver, a retired policeman, all sorts really, just ordinary people who have a passion for racing. We’re not competing with the top yards – we can’t fork out £120,000 on a horse that could break down first time out, never mind the £700,000 that some do. A lot of them come over from Ireland but we have to hunt high and low for our horses and spend a couple of thousand pounds a time. It means we’ll take a chance on a horse, maybe one that has a personality defect, and train it out of them. That’s the challenge in what we do.’

It’sabouttime grins at his little mate Ernie

One such was The Clyda Rover, the 22-1 outsider that jockey Paul Moloney rode to victory in the Devon National in 2013, a real achievement for a small, family-run yard like Warmwell. Rover followed the equally unfancied Unowhatimeanharry that Helen bought for a nominal sum from a small ad in Horse and Hound as a four-year-old and trained to victory at Fontwell. Although Harry had to be sold not long after, he has since gone on to record a string of victories for trainer Harry Fry’s stables at Seaborough. Helen again: ‘We’ve had our successes and those two horses did really well, but then we dipped a bit and I had to have a good look at what we were doing, moved things around a bit, changed the feed and now we’re coming back strong again.’

For all the clamour and glamour of the stellar yards, the bread and butter of horseracing is in places like Warmwell Stables, where success is measured on its own terms and victories are all the sweeter for it, says Helen:     ‘We train horses to finish in the places because it keeps the prize money coming in and that helps keep the yard open – it’s all pretty simple really.

We’re a tight-knit operation here and that’s what attracts our owners. They can buy or lease a horse in partnership with their mates, as a syndicate or on their own. They get race tickets, paddock access and entry to the Owners and Trainers areas, so they’re really involved on race day and it’s a great day out. We do all sorts of packages, and it’s within reach of more people than they might think.’


• First published in Dorset Life – The Dorset Magazine.

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