Horses And Life

Local teacher Gary Lawrence believes in paying it forward

Gary Lawrence shows a group of children the starting stalls

Gary Lawrence is introducing youngsters to the world of horses

I was lucky enough to grow up surrounded by horses. When you’re young, you don’t appreciate that cleaning stables, dishing out feed and grooming out winter coats are special privileges, but they are. Even when you have your toes squashed, your fingers crunched and endure long dusty rides in the back of the horse box only to get dumped at a the first jump.

Because for all the hard work, you were rewarded with bareback rides in the hot summer sun, swims in the dam and long breathless gallops with the wind in your hair. Thanks to horses, childhood memories smell like leather, they have hot sand burnt feet, pockets full of carrots and endless adventures.

It is only later, much later, when you’re preparing for an exam or planning a project, that you realise the daily stable routine taught you discipline, 2-day Pony Club treks taught you to plan ahead, the warm up arena taught you how to play nicely with others and those hours trying to reason with a stubborn loader taught you patience and negotiation skills.


Carl Hester said “It often doesn’t make sense where an all-consuming fascination for horses comes from, some people just have it.” I definitely have it. What I didn’t automatically have was a fascination for racing, but my father gave me that. Through his love for competitive sport, which translated so easily onto the Cape Hunt race tracks, I learned to appreciate the hard work that goes into training, the hopes, the dreams, the luck in running, the highs that come with winning and the many lows that come without it. I have also been privileged to meet a great many wonderful people and wonderful horses.

With the demise of Cape Hunt racing, the easy bridge to the amateur, pleasure riding community suffered a body blow, as did the appeal to the younger market. However, someone who is making work of repairing some of the damage, is Reverend Gary Lawrence.

Gary Lawrence

Gary started life in East London, in the days when they still had a track. He grew up going to the local riding school, where he fondly remembers a horse he used to look after called Jill, which the Queen rode on her visit to South Africa in 1947. “I never rode at any great level, but I enjoyed just being there. I grew up with the likes of Andre Ferreira and the Snodgrass family while helping around shows in PE. Through horses I’ve made some good friends and done some amazing things.” He helped build show-jumping courses which took him to a number of Junior Festivals, the Johannesburg Derby, Royal Show and many more and he got to work with the likes of Brian Lavery and Harold Preston. “I was just a gopher really, but that sort of experience no-one can take away.”

Gary studied at Rhodes University and become a teacher. He was offered a teaching post at Mowbray Primary School and made his way to Cape Town and has been here ever since.

Outside of his teaching commitments, Gary ran a shavings business and became heavily involved in the Cape Hunt & Polo Club, enjoying success on the flat as well as over hurdles with horses such as Blazing Cross, Prime Value and the professionally trained No Gamble (born at Louwlands) whom he bred and raced. When Trevor Dix retired, Gary took over his position as Hunt Club steward and spent a number of years helping to promote the point-to-point, find sponsors, etc. He helped build courses as well as arranging the runners. “We used to have 10-15 point-to-point runners in those days. Riders included people like Geoff Woodruff, Duncan Webster, Chris Snaith and Dr. Vere Allin. Good times.”

Glorious Days

Cape Hunt steward Jeff Steadman introduced him to Cape Racing and he joined the handling team in 1981. “I’ve been doing it on and off for the last 34 years. It was a fantastic team. Those were the days of Messrs Amos, Kleb, Herman Brown Snr, Rick Stewart, Alex Soteriadis, Alan Higgins, Atholl and Margaret Fisher, Terence d’Arcy and maestro Terrance Millard – real glorious days of Cape Racing. I worked with some great horses too. I was savaged by Foveros before he ran – and won – the Queen’s Plate. He went on and won the Met too. His service fee was around R2,000 in those days! I worked with Wolf Power and I loaded Eli’s Truth when he ran second to London News in the Met.”

Next Generation

As an outing Gary took class groups to Damascus Stud in Malmesbury to experience and see the horses and workings of a stud farm. “Some of those kids are in their 40’s now and I still get calls saying how they remembered the farm and the horses.” So he’s recently decided to take the initiative up again.

“I was getting to the end of my handling career. I’m not as young as I used to be and handling is a bit like cutting your own hair. It’s something you need to do every weekend, because you need to be on the ball and keep your eye in. It’s a dangerous job and you can get hurt. I’m still a passionate racing enthusiast and have still been introducing kids to horses over the years, but then I had the idea to do it a little more formally.”

“It’s quite hard work, and fairly stressful as you have to manage the group for an entire day, but I’m in an ideal position at the school. I keep pictures of myself and my horses at school and of course I talk it up quite a bit! My target market is the grade 5’s, 6’s and 7’s and I promote the outings both in the classroom and at assembly. Anyone interested takes the relevant forms home with them after school. One has to get various information such as indemnity letters, medical aid numbers, emergency contacts, etc. but I’m the sort of guy who knows most of the kids at the school and church and their parents know me.”

Eric Sands teaches the group about feeding horses

Eric Sands teaches the group about feeding horses

“I generally aim for groups of 5 – 10 children. We all meet at the school at 8:30 and from there I take them to the Milnerton training yards. Eric Sands has been a good mate for many years and is absolutely wonderful with the children. He shows them the feeding and how the yard works. They get to see the strings working and sometimes the jockeys, visiting trainers or the farrier will come over and have a quick chat to them. I take them over and show them the starting stalls, etc. On our last outing the kids got to meet the course vet Dr Rheinders, jockey Greg Cheyne, TV presenter Neil Pretorius and visiting Gauteng trainer Sean Tarry, which was very special.”

Full Circle

“From there we go to a riding yard in Morning Star so that they can see what happens to the horses after racing. A couple of horses have Australian brand marks and they were amazed to hear that despite being imported, these horses hadn’t won a race and were now riding school horses. They all bring a packed lunch, so we camp out under a tree for a break and then we head to the track. We generally spend 2 races on the grass, trying to get as close as we can to the horses in the parade ring and on the rail and then we spend 2 races at the start exploring the course and showing them how exciting the starts are and how everything works and fits together.”

Group gets to meet champion trainer Justin Snaith

Group meets champion trainer Justin Snaith

It’s a little difficult with children under 12 not being allowed into the parade ring, but people are generally very friendly and kind and last weekend, Justin Snaith came for a chat and a photo with the group, which was wonderful. Ideally I’d like to get it to a stage where I’ve got a group of 10 every month or so. It would be great if we could build in something where they could spend some time on a farm and perhaps see a foal being born, but obviously it’s time-consuming and the logistics are a little difficult. But it’s starting slowly and it’s going well. The feedback from the children as well as the parents has been very positive.”

“At the end of the day, it’s not just about the horses and the racing – it’s about teaching life skills. On Fillies Guineas weekend, they saw the incident with Bernard falling off at the start. Having seen all the things they had in the morning and everything that goes into the build-up of a race, they understood a bit of how racing works and so they could appreciate just what a devastating loss it was to blow a Group 1 opportunity like that. And they got to see the whole cycle in one day.”

“I have been involved with horses my whole life. Horses have brought me friendship, they’ve got me through a divorce, and given me the most incredible experiences. Horses have given me decades of enjoyment and this is my way of trying to give a little back.”

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