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Ashlee Hammond

Where there’s love for the horse, there’s always a way

Ashlee Hammond

Ashlee Hammond

One of the joys of racing is that one spends your life within arm’s length of greatness. Whether in the paddock or in the parade ring, one merely has to stretch out your hand to touch aristocratic bloodlines tracing back hundreds of years, champion trainers, champion riders and a host of who’s who in the ownership ranks. It is a particular honour then spending time at 9-time Breeders Champions, Summerhill Stud, where champions of the past and the present mingle with stars of the future at the Summerhill School of Excellence.

Give a man a fish…

Summerhill's School of Excellence (credit: hamishNIVENPhotography)

Summerhill’s School of Excellence (credit: hamishNIVENPhotography)

Back in the 1950’s, a scientist named Harry Harlow subjected groups of infant Rhesus monkeys to varying periods of isolation to study the effects of companionship on social and cognitive development. The results, rather predictably, showed that individuals deprived of normal interaction were left psychologically and socially impaired. Subsequent (and somewhat nicer) studies by Claudia Meuller and Carol Dweck showed that individuals thrive on praise, and in particular, that being praised for effort made people more motivated and likely to attempt bigger challenges in future. We also know that people who are actively engaged in what they do are more likely to be intrinsically motivated, to enjoy what they do and to work harder at it – or, as the old saying goes, an organisation is only as good as its people.

Someone who is a master at recognising, fostering and engaging talent is Mick Goss. Mick is the first to admit that success has been achieved by getting up a little earlier and working a little harder than most, but one can’t do it on your own. It has taken an exceptionally talented and motivated team to get them where they are today and he has built that team through education.

Long before the words ‘transformation’ and ‘upliftment’ became part of our lexicon, Summerhill has been investing in its staff. Their first international scholarship was handed out in 1998 and to date they have awarded in excess of 45 international scholarships. An in-house educational facility took shape in 2009 and under the watchful eye of Heather Morkel, the School of Excellence had its very first intake in 2011. The generosity and foresight of the Childwick Trust’s Antony Cane and John Wood added a scholarship to the English National Stud for the top student and the school was on its way. Thabani Nzimande graduated top of the 2011 class and duly progressed to the National Stud, vindicating the quality of the Summerhill programme by graduating top practical student of his class. Thabani returned to Summerhill and has just been promoted to head of their yearling division. John Motaung followed in Thabani’s footsteps and Ashlee Hammond has just become the third School of Excellence graduate in four years to finish top of her class at the English National Stud.

Ashlee Hammond

Ashlee Hammond

Ashlee Hammond

They say It often doesn’t make sense where an all-consuming fascination for horses comes from, some people just have it. Born into a non-horsey family, the diminutive Ashlee says, “It’s always, always been there – whenever we drove past a horse, I’d make my parents stop so that I could take a look. I think I was born with it.” Ashlee learnt to ride at a small riding school for the disabled. “It was the only one we could find! I think my parents eventually realised that this wasn’t going to go away and finally bought me my own horse.”

“I knew working with horses was something I wanted to do. One day I was watching Tellytrack and saw a programme on the School of Excellence. I told my dad ‘I’m going to get into that school if it’s the last thing I do. I actually applied two years before I finished school. We went to see Heather (Morkel), we visited the farm and went to see them at the sales. I was so excited when I got my acceptance letter!”

Challenges

Asked what advice she had for aspiring writers, Dorothy Parker once said “the second greatest favour you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.” One might be tempted to say the same for the racing industry, particularly for female hopefuls. The diminutive brunette with the soft voice and broad smile is not the type one imagines wrestling stallions and pulling foals at 2am, but Ashlee is unmoved. “I know it’s hard. People have told me, ‘you’re not strong enough’ or ‘you’re too small’. I have taken criticism from every side, but the passion and love I have for it overcomes. Going into work and doing what I do every day – that’s worth everything. And I can tackle those foals better than any guy!” she laughs.

The course

Ashlee Hammond

Ashlee doing what she loves best

The School of Management Excellence offers a five month course covering all aspects of breeding and stud management, racing operations, veterinary, horse feed, sales preparation, pre-training and training. Ashlee elaborates, “It’s really well planned and Summerhill teaches you every single aspect. You arrive at the beginning of May and start with the pre-training section. You each get a horse to break in, which you have to do in three weeks. I had a Muhtafal filly who was sweet, but really tested me. The guys even asked whether I wanted to swap, but I said no. Thabani and I worked her twice a day and eventually she turned out the sweetest of them all! If you’re a rider, you get to ride out in the mornings. I wanted to give it a try and I rode out three times a week.”

“Then we split into groups to work with weanlings and yearlings, we did the sales and worked with the stallions around stallion day. I’d worked with show-jumping stallions and didn’t know that Thoroughbred stallions weren’t always lovely, so I just went into the barn and treated them like normal. I think it helped that I wasn’t intimidated.”

“Next was foaling and looking after the mares and foals takes up the rest of the course. Students sit up twice a week and in the height of the season you foal up to 6 mares a night, so you get a lot of practice. It’s quite an experience if you’ve never done it before. We also helped with covering and you get really involved – from booting up the mare to checking the sperm under the microscope, but looking after the babies is my favourite part. When I foaled my first mare, I said ‘guys, I want to do this every day!’ Despite the hard work when you have to bottle feed them every two hours or carry 5kgs of milk out to feed them, I love doing it.”

Academics

Ashlee Hammond

Ashlee graduates top student

“Heather used to give us multiple assignments and we had big exams twice a month. Our final results were a combination of our exam marks, assignments and how we did out in the yards. There was a final presentation to the board members after which you are interviewed on what you learnt and how you felt about the course. Interviews last until about 4pm and then you have the Hartford Graduation dinner. It’s a nice big gathering with your family, the yard staff and the board members and they announce the results and the scholarships and do the prize giving. Luckily they do all that at the beginning of dinner so that you get it over with!”

National Stud

Ashlee Hammond

Ashlee shows off her National Stud badges

Ashlee was determined to win the National Stud Scholarship from the outset and left for England on 23 January alongside Warren Sabbat from Wilgerbosdrift. “I must say the National Stud course sorted the men from the boys. That’s why Summerhill’s selection system is so hard – National Stud is really for the strong and you have to go there mentally and physically strong. It’s very intense.”

“The course runs from the end of January to 30 June and you go there for the breeding and foaling season. Our day to day schedule was waking up at 4am to feed, then teasing mares from 6am. Once you’ve got through teasing, you muck out stables and turn horses out. The vet arrives at 10am and you do a lot of in-depth veterinary work. You finish off in the afternoon, looking after the mares and doing treatments. Students are split into groups and rotated so that you get to experience all aspects of the course. We also had allocated walk outs and got to see stallions like Frankel and Kingman.”

“There were 23 students this year and it was a really smart bunch – strong guys, kids who have been in the industry for generations and I’m there with one School of Excellence year. I worked my arse off. I volunteered every weekend and did extra and beyond. When they called my name and said I got the distinction after all that hard work, blood sweat and tears, I couldn’t stop crying with happiness. I was so proud to represent the Hammond family and Summerhill and be able to show my little sister that hard work pays off and dreams really do come true.”

Onwards and upwards

Brian O’Rourke, manager of the National Stud, hand selects students for onward international placements. He only picked 5 candidates this year and Ashlee was one of them. “I’m going to Cambridge Stud in New Zealand. They don’t even hire women there! Mr O’Rourke told me that only the strong go to Cambridge, so that makes me feel really good. I’ll be doing the foaling season and sales prep, so I’ll be there till the end of February 2016. I also want to apply for the Darley Flying Start course and will work on my riding and apply for that from New Zealand. Then Mr O’Rourke is sending me to Kentucky for the sales and then I’ll come back and do our season at Summerhill till the end of the year. In 2017 I want to go to Ireland and depending on whether I get into the Darley course or not, I’d like to do another Australian or New Zealand season and then on to Japan.”

Finance

Mr O’Rourke helps us get the placements, but we’ve got to make our own way there. I told my parents ‘this is going to cost a lot of money’, but it’s too big an opportunity to pass up and they have been amazingly supportive. The only reason I’ve got this far is because of my family and the way I’ve been brought up. My parents always told us to dream big. They taught us the importance of the little things like being polite and always going the extra mile. If someone asks you to sweep the floor, you do it 110% and always do your best, no matter how hard it is. I am who I am because of them. They’ve worked with me on scheduling and planning and we’ve got it all mapped out – I’m going to New Zealand!”

“The racing industry is hard to get into and it’s hard in the beginning – early mornings, late nights, even sleepless nights, but Summerhill and National Stud have taught me that no matter what other people say, I can do this. Even though you fall off, get stood on and get bitten occasionally, it’s nothing compared to the things you do, the places you go and the things you see. If you love the animals and what you do, then it’s worth it in the end.”

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