The British Thoroughbred Retraining Centre (BTRC), founded by Carrie Humble MBE in 1991, was created to improve and promote the welfare of retired racehorses. It does this through extensive work, encompassing education, rehabilitation, retraining and rehoming.
It obtained charitable status in 1993 and initially leased stables on the outskirts of Kendal and later near Preston. In 2005, following a successful fundraising campaign, the centre bought a 200-acre former dairy farm, Whinney Hill, at Halton, north of Lancaster.
Since then, Whinney Hill has been re-purposed to include stables, a dedicated vet treatment facility and an indoor school. In 2007, the Thoroughbred Rehabilitation Centre was opened by HRH The Princess Royal – the first of its kind in Europe and regarded as a role model for racehorse aftercare.
In 2015, Gillian Carlisle was appointed chief executive and the charity was rebranded The British Thoroughbred Retraining Centre. Gillian has 25 years of global experience in the equine sector.
The centre currently has 40 stables and usually facilitates 70–80 horses per year. The rehabilitation and retraining process typically covers six to eight months. The centre never sells horses but instead offers them on loan to safeguard their future for life.
The charity’s operational aspects are undertaken by a dedicated team of 12, including Consultant Vet Gordon Sidlow of West Ridge Equine, who has extensive experience with thoroughbreds.
A third of the horses are gifted by their race owner or trainer, and owners normally provide a one-off donation to support the charity’s work. The remaining two-thirds are horses that have retired from racing and are in equestrian but, for numerous reasons, are deemed vulnerable. BTRC uses its charity funds to support these horses through its Vulnerable Horse Programme, helping more vulnerable thoroughbreds than any other centre in the UK.
Gillian says: “Horses on this programme are vulnerable, and the reasons are often quite complex, beyond visual aspects of poor condition.
The majority of horses make the transition from racing to equestrian, but there will always be a few horses that find it difficult, and this is the reason why the centre was established
"BTRC is a safety net for horses that struggle, usually as a result of a combination of unsuitability, injury or environment” she adds.
All horses entering the centre undergo a vigorous initial clinical and behavioural assessment. According to Gillian, 95% of reported behavioural issues are directly related to a physical injury, many of which can be managed and resolved. Horses that have unresolvable welfare issues and are unsuitable for rehoming are euthanised on welfare grounds.
Gillian adds: “This is a last resort, and I need to know in my heart that it’s the right decision, so we are very strict on clinical evidence and are supported by one of the most experienced vets in the world in this sector.”
Decisions on rehoming horses follow the same ethos. Gillian says: “We go to great lengths to match the owner, horse and environment – our golden triangle of sustainability. We also complete regular checks on the horses out on loan.”
After the pandemic, the charity experienced an influx of horses as a result of thoroughbreds bought on impulse on the internet during lockdown. It suffered diminished reserves due to operating in an inflationary environment, coupled with receiving no financial assistance from the racing industry.
Following a heartfelt discussion with charity founder Carrie Humble last June, Gillian was inspired to explore other options to help support the centre’s work.
Gillian says: “When you are ultra-focused, it is easy to develop tunnel vision. We were only using one third of our land for the centre, and rather than selling it, which would be short-sighted, we realised we could do so much more with it.
“We have a £2m master plan, with planning permission to develop an education centre and to double the size of our horse yard. But, with finances being tight all around, we were forced to explore other options.
“We had already taken our horses to local nursing homes. We met up with the University of Central Lancashire and started to explore more ideas around social prescribing and helping the community through horses. We also realised that we’ve got 20 acres of woodland in the Forest of Bowland, which has been dormant for probably 100 years.
“We want to collaborate with specialists, and are currently looking at developing a wild campsite in association with the Greener Camping Club. It will be the first accredited site in Lancashire.”
For Gillian, sustainability is at the heart of this initiative. It is less glamping and more of a horse-themed nature retreat, with a hybrid use for social prescribing, education and tourism. It will also host rare farm breeds and electric bikes.
Gillian adds: “I want to preserve our team and their ethos, and to respect what they’ve signed up for. Our ideas have great potential, but I want to ensure that we retain our core focus on the centre’s work.
Reflecting on the benefits of its CLA membership, Gillian says: “Horse-focused people don’t always think about the various aspects of owning land, such as drainage and laying concrete yards. Given our plans to diversify, we will be sure to make better use of the CLA’s excellent advisory service. The range of topics the CLA covers is very comprehensive.
“We find Land & Business magazine a source of immense interest. We also find the regional e-newsletter from CLA North a very useful source of information.”
Find out more about the charity here.