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The Gentle Giants of Hampton Court

You may have seen magnificent Shire horses pulling carriages in Hampton Court’s grand gardens, but there’s so much more to know about these beautiful beasts and the pivotal role they play in supporting the environment and people’s wellbeing.

Words: Lucy Donoughue

For many people Shire horses are a symbol of a bygone era, when animals and people worked the land, and we were all more in tune with nature than the settings on our phones.

We’re lucky here in The Court to catch a regular glimpse of these phenomenal creatures, who are far from a thing of the past, as they offer rides in the Palace gardens and Bushy Park, when restrictions permit. However, pulling carriages is by no means the sum total of what they do, although it’s an important revenue generating activity which allows some seriously important work to take place, led by Operation Centaur.

Andreas Liefooghe, a life-long horseman, founded Operation Centaur in 2005. He’s also a Professor of Psychology and Leadership and a psychotherapist, who knows first-hand the amazing therapeutic impact horses can have upon people.

Here, Andreas shares why the work of the Shire horses is so important and how we can all help Operation Centaur thrive.

Tell us about Operation Centaur?

There are three strands to Operation Centaur’s work.The first is providing horse and carriages, and we’ve been doing that at Hampton Court Palace for the last 30 years.

The second is conservation work, with our Shire horses, managing woodland and bracken. We do the majority of this work in the Royal Parks, although we’ve worked in Sutton and Clapham Common too. It’s a softer less impactful way of managing the land, especially in urban spaces. In these small areas it really makes environmental sense to use our Shires.

Then we come to our third strand, which revolves around wellbeing, therapy and connecting with our community. For elderly people, meeting the Shires triggers happy memories, for others loneliness may be a problem and then they’re able to come out, meet the horses and engage with other people.

That’s just wonderful.

As a psychologist and a psychotherapist, I’ve developed a form of equine assisted therapy, so we also work with a whole range of different groups using the horses. We address anxiety, depression, addiction and recovery and trauma. We’ve worked with prisons and with schools on anti-bullying initiatives too.

Many people will have seen the Shires providing carriage rides – is this an important activity for you in terms of funding?

Yes, we don’t get a lot of funding, so we have to earn our keep. The rides we were offering in Bushy Park last year took place so we could raise money to do wildflower management in the park. The proceeds that we get from those rides go back into Bushy Park and allow the horses to work there.

“Last year we had our first foal, Hampton Court George. He was the first Shire to be born here in over a century.”

Hampton Court George

Tell us about why the Shires are so special?

I’ve been a lifelong horseman, so I’ve always been around horses. About fifteen years ago we started to look at Shire horses. They’re an amazing symbol of this country and they’re also dying out because there’s no work for them. Shires are now rarer than pandas. They’re on the verge of extinction.

I’m pleased to say, however, that last year we had our first foal, Hampton Court George. He was the first Shire to be born here in over a century. That was a real moment for celebration.

Now, one of our many roles is to keep Shires in the public eye. Our horses have been featured on Countryfile, The Alan Titchmarsh Show, Christmas at Hampton Court, and lots of other profile-raising programmes.

What would you say to people who have concerns about the Shire horses working?

Shire horses are like the lorries of the horse world – they need a job. You can’t just put them in a field as an ornament, they’d get bored and it doesn’t work for them. Shires look for a human connection because they’ve been bred that way. They need a job and a purpose. Our horses are happy horses that love to come to work.

“Shires are now rarer than pandas. They’re on the verge of extinction.”

What are Shire horses like to work with?

They’re amazing animals. They are so intelligent. It’s very much true that they are gentle giants, although they do have their moments! There’s a real strength to them; people know that they are strong but also kind and that’s their appeal.

What can we do to help Operation Centaur?

Hopefully we’ll be back at Hampton Court Palace at Easter and throughout the summer, so people can come for carriage rides there. We also have experience days and for mental health professionals, I teach equine assisted therapy too.

Once Covid restrictions have been eased and we’re able to operate in Bushy Park again, I’d truly love for people to come along for a ride. It’s not just about the ride though, it’s about meeting these amazing horses, contributing to the upkeep of the park and the continuation of the Shires’ work.


Find out more about Operation Centaur

Follow on Instagram @operationcentaur

Images courtesy of Equipassion UK

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