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Sunday, July 14, 2024
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PeopleHarriet Laurie

Harriet Laurie

‘I was brought up with two brothers in London by my father who worked as a journalist and author and my mother who ran a ‘groovy’ clothes shop on the Portobello Market. We lived above the shop and the hustle and bustle of the market provided the backdrop to a lively family life filled with music, theatre, dinner parties and debate. We were expected to think for ourselves and join in the adults’ conversations. Our grandparents lived nearby and were part of our household—‘Grin Gran’ would dish up Birds Eye chicken pies as the perfect antidote to any upset, and I still turn to them in moments of crisis.
I went to the International School of London where I was given a shambolic but hilarious education. Dozens of languages were spoken and taught, though I proved to be a very poor linguist. I later moved from this small, diverse school to a huge sixth form college in Richmond. I struggled at college and, with hindsight, I realise I was suffering from anxiety. On the tube journey I often had to get off to be sick but didn’t think to mention it to anyone. I ended up leaving after a year and only later returning to education to do a degree in Law.
My love affair with horses began with my homemade toy stables under a grand piano. Many of my childhood memories, eavesdropping on the adults who existed only as ankles and knees, are from this dark world. I eventually grew too large and had to join the real world.
I learnt to ride in the New Forest. My father had borrowed a barn to build a 30 foot trimaran, on which we would later spend a great deal of time at sea, and he used to drop us off at the local stables each day to keep us busy. We had the money for one ride a week and worked to earn extras. The owner of the stables, Mrs Brown, took me under her wing and from the age of six I was regularly taking the train from Waterloo to Lymington to spend the weekends at her cottage.
Once the boat was built we sailed it to Weymouth and my parents rented a tumbledown cottage near Little Bredy, where we spent weekends and holidays from when I was aged eight. I pestered my parents relentlessly until they bought me a pony and from then on I was in love with Dorset and the countryside.
As a pony-mad teen I was invited to spend all my holidays at Wilton House, the home of Lady Pembroke, who was one of my mum’s best customers and a breeder of Arabian horses. I slaved away in her stables where training for the Olympic equestrian teams also took place. I was used as a spare rider for horses in training and absorbed an amazing equestrian education by osmosis. In my spare time I hacked about on a Lipizzaner horse which had been handed on by the Queen—for me it was horsey heaven. Living in a stately home meant that there was a constant flow of ambassadors, actors, pop stars and celebrities, providing endless opportunities for me to make a fool of myself, I remember telling Andy Warhol he was really uncool and out of date! I frequently curled up with shame as a result of my impulsive remarks but Lady Pembroke was extremely tolerant.
In retrospect it is clear to me that the periods of my life where I didn’t have much to do with horses, the nightclubbing years in the eighties and later when my children were small, were more difficult—something was out of balance. Being with horses was healthy for me; physically, mentally and emotionally. That must have fed into my developing TheHorseCourse, which was when I finally found my vocation.
After my law degree, being a solicitor didn’t really appeal so I started a desktop publishing business, which rapidly grew into a specialist typesetting firm until Maggie Thatcher’s recession hit us very hard. For the first time I learnt the panic and shame of being unable to afford food for my family. I taught myself graphic design, where the margins are higher, and managed to make ends meet. By the time I was pregnant with my second son I was desperate to leave London so that I could work less and spend more time with my babies.
We moved to Dorset in 1993—my parents were already living here and one of my brothers soon followed. With housing being cheaper in Dorset, I was lucky enough to be able to work part-time from home. My design career took off and I enjoyed the creative variety of working for local businesses as well as national IT firms where I had built a niche. To my surprise, I was approached by Triumph Motorcycles who gave me free rein for two years to work with paint colours and metal finishes for their whole range. Then, on one of my frequent flights working for Triumph, I noticed how awful the Virgin Atlantic planes looked. So I wrote a cocky letter to Richard Branson, telling him how I could sort the paint out on his planes. To my astonishment, Virgin replied with a non-disclosure agreement to sign and an invitation to London to give a presentation which led to a contract for paint and livery design for both planes and trains. All this, as a now single mother of three small boys in Dorset, seemed quite surreal.
Once my boys were old enough to go to school I returned to horses, becoming interested in natural horsemanship, and started learning more and more about a particular style of training called Parelli. Although I was still running my design business, for the next couple of years this became an obsession, and soon other people were asking me to help with their horses, so I started to teach. It became clear to me that the principles were not about training the horse, but about understanding what made sense to the horse and training yourself to be calmer, clearer and less predatory. Asking the opinion of the horses, I got some honest answers and humbling feedback. So through the horsemanship I worked on myself, and meanwhile my horsemanship students were telling me how much better their lives and relationships seemed to be going. I began to modify aspects of the Parelli approach to leverage the demands of the horsemanship to provide the greatest possible impact on the humans.
I had been thinking about how this technique could work with people in real need of help when my good friend Emily Bolton introduced me to John Thompson from New Orleans, whom she had helped exonerate after he’d spent 17 years on death row. Understandably he was someone who struggled to be calm in everyday life. After a session with my horse Flower, he literally grabbed me and said, “Harriet, you’ve got to do this for other people, this is important.”
Through Jim Knight, former MP for South Dorset, I was put in touch with the Young Offenders Institute on Portland. That led to my taking two horses into the prison and working with a small group of violent young offenders. It turned out to be really successful, so I quit my career as a designer, registered as a charity, got a couple of grants, and TheHorseCourse was born. University researchers tracking my participants saw that, a year after release, the reoffending rates of the lads I’d worked with were halved (compared to their specific OASYS risk ratings).
To see these young men, with chaotic lives and with no faith in themselves, blossom as they learnt, in action, to self-calm, to set and hold a strong focus, to be safe and trustworthy leaders was incredibly moving. We would invite the governors to a display where the prisoners would have the horses kicking giant balls, jumping barrels and standing on pedestals—all cued with subtle body language alone. It was like a circus, but a circus with a real purpose.
After several years in prisons we realised the programme could be helpful for a much wider cohort. We now work with young people, families and adults referred to us by social services, NHS and schools for a wide range of difficulties, when talk-based therapies and other services aren’t working.
TheHorseCourse employs six trained facilitators in Weymouth on an ex-dairy farm, which is covered in bunting and fairy lights and plays host to horses, hens and a horticulture programme. We train and support several similar centres across the country. I am proudest of how my three beautiful boys have turned out, but running this purposeful circus is a very close second.’

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