Greener pastures

Retired British horses are living out peaceful, happy lives in Dordogne thanks to the efforts of one expat couple, as Susie Hunting discovers

With its peaceful countryside and sleepy medieval villages, Dordogne has been an expat retirement hotspot for decades, but since 2007 the area has become a retreat for a new breed of retiree – the hard-working police horse.

A love of all things equine led Roland and Alison Phillips to the commune of St-Pancrace, near Brantôme, where they run the only rescue centre in France for Britain’s retired police horses. Since moving lock, stock and nine horses to south-west France in 2007, the couple have steadily established the centre, which has French charity status and offers courses in horsemanship.

Finding the right property was critical to the success of the venture: “We had such a long list of criteria; a house set in its own grounds with paddocks and woodland, room to build stables and expand, set in a tourist area, and with a building for a gîte,” says Roland.

From the sale of their four-bedroom house in Sevenoaks in Kent, the couple, both aged 55, bought La Grange, a seven-bedroom, 18th-century converted farmhouse and barn complete with 56 acres of land. It ticked all the boxes and allowed them to realise their dream of providing a sanctuary for the hard-working horses. Now a fully registered French charity with 17 horses, The Police Horses and Friends at Brantôme is open to the public. Naturally, it wasn’t going to be an easy ride. The horses originally come from the London Metropolitan and the Avon and Somerset Mounted Police forces.

“While in their care, they have the best of everything,” explains Roland. “They’re beautifully cared for and want for nothing. But when the time comes that they are no longer fit for service, there are no funds available for a comfortable retirement.”

“There are very few places that can afford or have the room for these magnificent animals,” adds Alison. “All the police horses now living at La Grange are retired through age, injury or ill health, and in most cases would have been destroyed without our help.”

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Caring for horses is a family tradition. As a girl, Roland’s mother Sylvia dreamed of owning her own pony and years later her wish came true when she moved to Dartmoor and rescued an abused ex-racehorse once belonging to the Aga Khan. Word spread quickly and the Devon Horse and Pony Sanctuary (DHPS) was founded in 1976.

After 30 years’ toil, Sylvia found running the sanctuary overwhelming. Alison went to help with the increasing office work (which proved a great help for her future move), while Roland, a retired Scotland Yard detective, took over. He says, “One day a former colleague from the Mounted Branch in London called and begged me to take in his beloved horse, due for retirement and certain death. We never dreamt our decision to take him in would change our lives so drastically.”

The Devon Horse and Pony Sanctuary is now run by Roland and Alison’s daughter Debbie, with the help of dedicated volunteers and staff, and plays a role in sending the horses out to Dordogne. “The police horses all start their retirement in Devon for assessment,” Debbie explains. “Then they are relocated to their new home in Dordogne which leaves space for other neglected and rescue cases to be taken in.”

Going back to the pre-France days, more grateful police riders were placing their horses at the Devon Horse and Pony Sanctuary until the place reached capacity at nine horses. Then, the global economy took a nosedive; small charities were going to the wall but there were still hungry mouths to feed. And so the Phillipses moved to France. It was a country they had started visiting in 2000 and, having toured all over with their children, fell for Dordogne, loving the wine, food, climate, scenery and relaxed, slower pace of life.

Their decision to move here was also fuelled by the fact that they could afford to get a larger sanctuary to rehome retired British police horses in France than they could in the UK. After deciding to move to France, they spent 18 months, looking at more than 50 houses before finding La Grange.

They planned to operate the sanctuary as a private enterprise: they had no desire to go public. However, times were hard, labour and materials cost money; there were vet’s bills, special diets and tons of hay to be paid for. Then the drought of 2011 in France caused havoc for the year’s wheat crops and the price for a roll of hay rose by over 50%.

“[The question of] where to get the extra money needed caused us a few sleepless nights,” sighs Alison. “In the end we had to sell our horse box, furniture and two cars to buy enough food and hay. During the winter we lived in the gîte as the big house uses a lot of heating. We thought we might have to give up.” In the face of impending disaster, many would have faltered, but the Phillipses are made of sterner stuff.

Running out of options, Alison had a brainwave: to set up a charity for the horses. It worked. In 2010 the sanctuary opened to the public. However, the couple realised they also had to ‘market’ these horses as deserving cases.

“I knew if I said to people, ‘I have some old brown horses in a field, would you like to see them?’ no one would come but when I explain that they are police horses, people are curious,” explains Alison.

“We are a non-profit-making organisation: guests of the gîte are asked to pay directly into the charity, we organise fundraising events throughout the year; cream teas are popular, during summer and autumn we hold themed balls and carol services at Christmas. Every penny raised is spent on the horses.”

In October 2012, the arrival of Michael and Johnston, two new equine residents from England, was filmed for part of ITV1’s Little England series. There was an air of anticipation and excitement from the crowd, including the other horses. For the animals, the arrival of a lorry can signify a new friend or even an old one, as many of the horses have previously worked together. On that day, when a huge, dark bay horse walked down the ramp, a collective gasp of awe and admiration rose from the crowd. Michael is 17.3 hands and weighs over half a ton.

Roland gently strokes him. “What a big, beautiful horse. He couldn’t be anything but a police horse,” he smiles.

The expression on Roland’s face, his tone of voice and body language around horses seems to relax them. They trust him and there is no shouting, pushing or regimentation. All the horses have histories; when they were working on front-line duties they were exposed to danger, noise and injury. Some did only ceremonial work such as Royal Weddings or school and street patrol.

When visitors drop in, Roland gives a talk and shows distressing footage on YouTube shot during the summer riots and student protest of 2011. The scene shows a kettled mob break through a cordon of ground police as the line of mounted police waiting at the rear move in. One horse, Lewis, a gentle 18.3 hand, chestnut giant with a broad white blaze, who’s lost his riot head gear, suddenly becomes the target of hate and anger: bottles, sticks, slabs of concrete, even a barrier are viciously thrown at him. He is now visibly distressed and highly vulnerable but his extensive training and trust in his rider means he will stay put. But in the end it all proved too much: Lewis lost his confidence and had a mental breakdown. And so he came here to La Grange.

It’s a sad sight indeed to see a bright, strong animal reduced to a nervous wreck: he will seek out the darkest corner of his stall, head hanging, eyes dull, his broad, strong back turned away from the world. Lewis is now almost recovered and a bit of a crowd puller at the sanctuary. “After people pat the horses, or get over their fear of them, and learn what they go through, it gets to them in a strange, primal way.” Roland explains. “The horses do affect people deeply. An elderly gentleman came to visit, he wasn’t a horsey type but before he left he thanked us and, with tears in his eyes, said it had been one of the best days of his life!”

The future is looking bright at La Grange; there is enough hay to see out the winter, a hydroponics grass centre and a visitor’s centre are under construction, Facebook fans are increasing and travel website TripAdvisor has rated the sanctuary four stars for ‘A Good Day Out’. Many of the old horses suffer with breathing and arthritic problems, however the drier weather in France has been incredibly beneficial. Consequently the vet’s bills have dropped dramatically.

When not looking after “the boys”, goats, sheep, chickens, dogs, cats, grandchildren, guests and friends as well as doing the building work and managing daily life, Roland and Alison admit it is an ongoing battle to raise enough funds every year. “We offer various courses, events, talks on good horsemanship and we have the gîte. If our new membership scheme is successful, it will certainly give us more credibility as an association with the French authorities.”

As long as it’s in the power of Roland, Alison, Debbie and their friends and supporters, horses like Lewis and Michael and their stablemates will have a loving home for the rest of their days as will as any others who find their way to La Grange in the future. “We feel privileged to be able to do this, and we thank everyone for their help and support,” says Alison. “It’s been overwhelming.” LF