Real-life HERO: Tanya McDermott

Horse culture, In the spotlight

Tanya McDermott is spearheading a new project by Harness Racing Victoria that aims to help Standardbreds transition to new lives and careers after retiring from the racetrack. Tanya very kindly took the time to answer some questions for us about her life by the track, the HERO project and some favourite memories.

What is your earliest memory of horses?
Harness racing was a huge part of my life growing up. Many of our family outings involved trips to the trots, it was an interest we all shared. I was horse mad for as long as I can remember and had posters all over my bedroom walls as a teenager. There’s a photo of me standing with my dad holding the end of a lead rope when I was probably two or three and that’s the earliest evidence of the path I would follow.

What impact have horses had on your life?
As an adult, my horse journey has been very personal. In 2003 I had a beautiful baby boy named Will who sadly passed away when he was two weeks old. I struggled for the following two years to pick up the pieces and in search of a new focus, decided to fulfill a lifelong dream – to learn how to ride. With only basic practical horse skills and no ridden experience, I took a three-year-old Standardbred directly off the track, broke him to saddle and learnt to ride at the same time (with the help of an incredibly supportive and talented instructor). It was the beginning of a love affair and changed my life focus forever. His name was Sinatra Castle, aka Frank, and he went on to spend seven years working with Riding for the Disabled.

What is it about harness racing that captivates you?
Two things – the people and the amazing horses. Harness racing is a family and I love the spirit that encapsulates the industry. The people work so hard and are so passionate about what they do. The financial rewards could never compensate for the blood, sweat and tears. Standardbred horses are extraordinary. Granted I’m biased, but they are the kindest, most willing, adaptable and intelligent creatures. I’m fortunate to understand both sides of racing as my husband is a trainer, and it’s an absolute joy to spend every day surrounded by such knowing, insightful and entertaining animals.

Can you give us a brief run-down of the HERO project?
HERO (Harness Education and Rehoming Opportunities) was established in 2015. The Program operates under the auspices of Harness Racing Victoria with additional funding support from the State Government via the Victorian Racing Industry Fund. HERO creates positive life after racing pathways for retired Standardbreds (trotters and pacers) catering both for horses which have concluded their career and those which do not make it to the track. In the past 12 months, almost 60 percent of HERO graduates did not race, or raced but did not win. The Program works directly with the harness racing industry, its breeders, owners, trainers and drivers.
HERO facilitates opportunities for Standardbreds to transition from racing or race training to appropriate long-term retirement homes, primarily as ridden or pleasure harness horses via a network of Registered Retrainers.

Do you have a favourite HERO success story?
It’s a horse called The Culture (aka TC) who was gifted to HERO by one of Victoria’s biggest stables. He had been very successful on the track but lost his zest for racing. It took a while but TC grew to love being a riding horse and once his retraining was completed, he was offered for sale. At a HERO Open Day a little girl called Emilia fell in love with him, and TC fell in love with her. It was like a scene from an old Hollywood movie, their eyes met across the room and it was fate. Emilia went home that night and refused to wash the TC kisses off her face. That horse has the most amazing home with a family who absolute adore him. He is truly living the life after racing dream and it’s a story that epitomises what the Program is all about. Happy endings.

 Which disciplines are retired Standardbreds suited for?
There is a perception that Standardbreds are only suited to trail riding and while it’s true they excel in that discipline, with patience and training, they can adapt to an unlimited number of recreational and pleasure pursuits, both in harness and under saddle. We are seeing some fantastic success stories in adult riding and pony club, dressage, jumping, endurance and therapeutic roles like RDA. There are presently two Standardbreds in the Victoria Police Mounted Division too, and we’re exploring Extreme Cowboying which is becoming very popular.

What’s the biggest lesson horses have taught you?
Horses are the most amazing teachers but I think the biggest lesson is to live life simply.  Standies, particularly, are low maintenance horses. They enjoy routine. Prefer to have company. And if they’re fed regularly they’re pretty content with their lot in life.

And finally, if you had to choose one horse riding holiday, which would it be?
How to choose just one? I do have a very special place in my heart for New Zealand as we honeymooned there, so I think perhaps to return two decades later to do the Glenorchy Back Country Ride would be amazing. Although Irish castles via horseback sounds incredible too!

A huge thank you to Tanya for taking the time to talk with us about her life and work with Standardbreds – truly inspiring stuff! I just might have to take one for a test ride…
To learn more about the HERO Program, you can visit the website, email hero@hrv.org.au, or phone 0407 413 156 during business hours. You can also find HERO on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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