Pukekohe horsewoman Clare McGowan travelled the world with Olympians and their horses before emigrating to New Zealand. Here she continued her practice as a horse physiotherapist and ultimately ventured into harness racing.
Animal wellbeing, meeting and marrying her husband Dave and the way in which a pony helped a young boy regain his speech which he’d lost due to traumatic circumstances, are all part of her story.
Born in the UK Clare wasn’t born into a horsey family. Both her mother and father were child psychiatrists.
“My sister was into horses, and we didn’t get on. For my birthday present my parents gave me riding lessons. My parents thought it would give us something to talk about. I ended up getting naughty ponies to ride or fix,” Clare said.
At the end of her final school year she went to riding school for the summer holidays.
“Literally a month later I got offered a job at Lucinda Green’s. Much to my Mum and Dad’s disgust I decided to put Uni on hold. All of a sudden you’re going to the World Games and going to the Olympics.”
Green was a British equestrian rider. She won the 1982 World Championship, was twice European Champion and won an Olympic silver medal in the team event in 1984.
“She used a physio for her horses called Mary Bromley. Mary was one of the first to bring the concept of body work, physiotherapy and maintenance to horses as athletes rather than being the vet at the end of a problem.”
Impressed with Clare’s talent, Bromley headhunted her to undertake a course specialising in physio.
Mary pioneered veterinary physiotherapy, establishing Downs House in 1984 which was a world class specialist rehabilitation facility for horses. She also treated all the top golfers and tennis players in London.
“She used to say she hadn’t done her job if they got injured. She was an amazing lady. A horse could walk off a truck and she would say ‘he’s had a rotational fall over his left leg and he’s twisted his neck.’ Mary encouraged me to do physiotherapy on the horses saying I had a real feel for it.”
Clare became a student of Mary. “I worked for her on and off for the next five or six years before the EU decreed that you had to be a vet to treat a horse. I was doing a bit of freelancing for Toddy (Mark Todd) and Tinks Pottinger and they said ‘just go to New Zealand.”
Clare took their advice and came to New Zealand to test the waters.
“It just took off. I never advertised and was turning people away each week. It was amazing. I was the first person in New Zealand to do physio type work on horses. Now there are seventeen in Auckland alone that do some form of physio on horses.”
Clare says her advantage is that she’s been a thoroughbred trainer and looked after sport horses so she’s able to talk about rehabilitation.
“It’s how quickly you load that injury and put pressure on it that’s relative to your success. If you go too soon it’s going to fall apart again. I think that gives me an advantage over those that just do the college courses.”
When based at Takanini Clare worked for standardbred breeder Noel Taylor and thoroughbred trainer Mark Sullivan both of whom sold horses to Australia.
“They sold the first millionaire horse called Hayai to the Lee Brothers.”
Hayai won ten races and over $1.1 million including the Caulfield Cup, the Tancred Stakes and two Craven Plates.
“Anything the Lee Brothers didn’t want, we trained. It was more about trialing them and selling them to Aussie.”
Clare trained thirty eight winners between 1989 and 1998 including Just Anything which won thirteen races including the Wanganui Stakes and the Wanganui Cup.
“We had all of Noel’s trotters as well as horses like Insutcha (Lordship), Hitchcock (Payson’s Brother) and Sogo (Genghis Khan). We looked after those as young horses.”
At Takanini she was able to tap into some of the best training brains.
“Mark Sullivan said to me ‘if you want to learn anything follow Mr (Trevor) McKee and Mr (Colin) Jillings around.’
“After about the fourth day Jillo said ‘what are you doing?’ I told him that Mark had said he was the only person worth learning off. Jillo said if he taught me something every day, I had to promise him I wouldn’t be coming back like the rest of the women round here. He said you’ve got to always present yourself at the races and don’t become a hard b….”
McGowan said Jillings and McKee used totally different training methods.
“Trevor would train a two year old filly a set way, until he got Sunline and then he was quite different. He always had the numbers coming through and they were always for sale. Jillo kept his numbers down and got to know the horse, kept it happy and trained it as an individual. Jillo gave me what he called a ‘crystal clare moment of the day”.
She said Jillings would often sit in the manger for hours just looking at a horse that had issues.
“He was a really good man and always made time for you and Trevor was the same.”
One of McKee’s best gallopers was Mufhasa.
“He had the most shocking knees and conformation in front. He had body work every week. He was a fun horse with heaps of personality and they’re the ones you remember.”
Mufhasa won twenty races and $3,629,818.
On the thoroughbred side of her business one of Clare’s main clients is Cambridge trainer and Bloodstock agent Alex Oliveira.
“He buys for some of the big Asian syndicates. He looks at all the horses in the catalogue and any horse he earmarks to buy I look at. There are two muscles in the hind quarters and every good horse seems to have exceptionally big ones. I also do a lot of work for Westbury and Haunui Studs.”
On the standardbred side her main client is Steve Telfer of Stonewall Stud.
“They fly me down to Christchurch to do their South Island stable sometimes so that makes them a big client. I work for Nigel Tiley when he’s in the country and Te Akau when their horses come to the beach to have R and R. I’m also involved in Stephen McKee’s old yard and there’s a young guy there that does a lot of breaking in.”
She’s been going to the McKee yard for twenty eight years.
She met her husband Dave in a round about way, through working with Mark Purdon’s horses at Ardmore. Horseman Todd Macfarlane who had worked for Roy and Barry Purdon and then went to work for Dave McGowan, provided the link.
“When Todd went to work for Dave, he and Bernie Lim used to drive the horses over to me at Takanini and I treated them. Todd sold a horse and Dave wouldn’t take his ten percent, so Todd shouted Dave and his two kids a campervan holiday. Todd asked me to come over to Pukekohe because he didn’t have time to take the horses to Takanini. So the first time I went to Dave’s stable he wasn’t there. I treated four horses for Todd and three won. Bernie who Dave trained for, took everyone out to celebrate and that was the first night I met Dave. Di Wood who trained a few horses decided we’d be a good match.”
The rest is history. Dave and Clare have been married for twenty five years and have been training together since 2000. They’ve trained 172 winners – their first being Timmo (Holmes Hanover) at Auckland in August 2000.
Their best horse was trotter Special Force (Chiola Hanover) which won twenty seven races including an Interdominion Trotting Final at Alexandra Park, two Greenlane Cups, five races in Australia and two in Sweden. He also ran a third in Denmark. While in Scandinavia he ran seventh in a heat of the Elitloppet, the world’s greatest trotting race.
“He was a crock of a horse but he would just try and try. He took Dave to Sweden and back which was amazing.”
However Clare says it’s not all about winning.
“It’s seeing horses that are broken hearted and internalised with the pain, bounce back. That’s just so rewarding.”
Clare works at the stables from 6.00am to 1.00pm. Then she undertakes her horse physiotherapy work until 8.00pm.
She says horses that run off in training are often thought to be badly behaved, but it’s not always the case.
“It must be so hard for a horse to run crooked, so you ask the question why trainers put the pole on with a pricker. If the horse is still choosing to run off and take that pain from the pricker, it must be running off something. They don’t get up in the morning and decide to piss you off.”
She believes the relationship with the blacksmith is an important one.
“A problem in the body will make the feet grow funny and bad shoeing will make something happen high up in the body. There’s no point in the farrier doing the work if I don’t fix the muscle that’s making the feet flare to the outside. The feet are very adaptable and will adapt where the weight’s going and that can often be your mirror to what’s happening higher up. Sometimes taking one degree difference in a hind leg can stop all back problems in a horse.”
She’s noticed that over the years the acceptance level of her type of work has markedly increased.
“When I first started, if the horse didn’t win at it’s next start you were useless. It was very black and white. Nowadays I’m a really strong part of what happens to a horse, and the trainers totally trust me. Steve Telfer’s amazing. If I tell him a horse needs to go out for six months, it goes out the next day. We go back thirty years of knowing each other.”
She says she prefers the natural way of healing.
“The whole trend at the moment is to shockwave or inject with cortisone. It’s sad because these horses are still working on those injuries. For the guys I have worked with for a long time it’s not their first resort.
Most trainers keep a close eye on their bloodstock and are aware of any changes.
“We’ve just looked at a horse that was going to be sacked because he kept on running off the track. I was looking at him one day and spit was coming out of his mouth. I said to the trainer that the horse wasn’t swallowing. We found the horse had a bit of mesh wire stuck right at the back of his throat. The area was all infected. They took that out and he’s just won two races in a row.”
Clare breeds from three or four mares every year. Her foundation mare is Scusi (Sundon) which was bred by Brian West.
She’s left Scusi Doctor (Dr Ronerail) the winner of seven, Connie Goodin (Continentalman) the dam of Madeleine Stowe (Monkey Bones) fifteen wins, Revenue Maker (Revenue) seven wins, Be Seein Ya (Monarchy) six wins and Pasi (Monarchy) five wins.
Another of Scusi’s progeny Scusi Boyz, (Brylin Boyz) has left six foals of racing age for six winners. The best has been Adelle (Orlando Vici) who’s won seventeen races including a Group Two and a Group Three.
“It’s been a good bread and butter family and fun to have.”
Clare gains a lot of satisfaction from young children and she says they read their ponies better than some adults.
“It’s so cool.”
But her most satisfying moment was with a young boy who didn’t talk.
“He was looked after by a nanny and they came to one of my lectures about a pony that had epileptic fits, kept getting caught in the fence and cutting his legs. We built a safe place for the horse with mattresses. They lived by the beach and this little boy started to take the pony down to walk in the water, walking over logs and was really into the rehab to get all the cut legs right again. The family sent me an email a couple of months later with a photo of the kid riding the horse with all the ribbons round his neck. The father rang up and told me the boy had watched his mother take her own life and had never spoken from that day on. He said when his son came back from that show he said ‘Dad, Dad, Cracker was amazing.’ It was the first time the child had spoken to his father for four years. That’s as good as winning the million dollar race at Trentham with Mufhasa.”
by Bruce Stewart, for Harnesslink