A lifetime caring for horses
Simon Knapp MRCVS lives in Sonning with his equestrian wife Posy. Aged 68 he has upped sticks and left his previous vet position of nearly 40 years and started his new veterinary business based locally and called Berkshire Equine with one of his sons Jamie Knapp.
Henley Life’s Amanda Stewart met up with the man who is not only a royal vet, but also an Olympic vet, who was awarded the honour of Lieutenant of the Royal Victorian Order (LVO) in 2007.
Born in Ireland to a military family, Simon Knapp spent the younger part of his childhood riding ponies in Malaysia, before returning to the UK aged nine. He says: “I had an early fascination with horses and ponies and knew that I wanted to be a vet when I grew up.”
Yet it took intervention from his mother before that aspiration was to be realised. Simon attended Wellington College in Berkshire and then a polytechnic securing a degree in biology. His first job was surprisingly as a statistician for ICI.
However, unbeknown to Simon, his sidesaddle riding mother had befriended a registrar at London University. A quick phonecall later and Simon was instructed to pack his bags and join their veterinary school. There was just a slight catch. He’d be joining the course during the second year. Simon shot off into the next stage of his life and into a level of hard work he’d never previously known.
He still ponders whether he actually could be the vet who took the shortest time ever to qualify. Hard slog followed by more hard slog. Simon had arrived literally as the class were discussing a horse’s pharynx. He didn’t know what a pharynx was, let alone how to spell it. It was going to be tough, but he knew that was where he wanted to be and he was determined to succeed. Later and perhaps unsurprisingly, Simon gained the university’s prize for surgery. Now, newly qualified he had to find a job.
Berkshire-based royal equine veterinary surgeon Peter Scott Dunn was looking for a new vet. Simon drove to the interview, only Peter wasn’t there. A disappointed Simon stayed with a friend and thought he’d call back the next day. Peter, clearly impressed with Simon’s determination, gave him the job.
Simon had barely been in the office five minutes when he was offered the chance to be a racecourse vet at Kempton. Roll on another few years and Simon made the bold suggestion to United Racecourses (owners of Kempton, Epsom and Sandown) that really they only needed one main senior vet?
“Good idea”, they said and in true Alan Sugar style added “You’re hired”. Simon was asked to take on the role of royal equine vet after Peter Scott Dunn stood down in 2006. He took on the care of the ceremonial horses in London, the Duke of Edinburgh’s driving horses, the Windsor carriage horses and HM the Queen’s stud horses at Hampton Court. He smiles as he says: “It was a huge honour and privilege to have been made an LVO in 2007.”
Simon became renowned for his welfare interest both on and off the racecourse. Later he became a member of the Jockey Club Vet Committee and many more. Committees seem drawn to his decisive and professional personality, particularly as he was very instrumental in the foot and mouth disease procedures, and it could be argued that it was his safe-practice strategies that kept racing on the road. He soon earned the reputation of being known for his influence on the welfare of the racehorse. Softly spoken Simon explains: “The screens around a horse on a racecourse are no doubt a good thing. All we want is a little privacy. I have pushed and won the battle for ‘silencers’ on the course.
“No one wants a death and no one wants to hear a gun.”
Simon has personally not used a gun in 20 years on a racecourse.
“The aim is to move the horse off the racecourse and treat accordingly. There is so much a racehorse can now do, even if it can no longer race.
“Go back 30 years, if a horse broke a leg it was sadly but usually destroyed. I’m pleased to say that around 15 years ago, we started to save horses.”
Aside from the welfare side, Simon sits on other key committees that are predominantly instrumental in deciding where finance collected from racing is allocated. These monies are usually derived from book-makers, sponsors and have largely changed the welfare of the horse for the better. Indeed, £35million has been invested in equine research since 2000.
Simon, who was co-ordinator of the veterinary team at the London 2012 Olympics and remains co-founder of the Association of Racecourse Vets, is joined at Berkshire Equine by his son Jamie who has returned from working in Ireland, where he was based in a top equine hospital serving one of the most prolific racing establishments in the world.
Ask why he chose now to set up Berkshire Equine, Simon’s reply is fairly simple: “I wanted to go back to old fashioned non-corporate vetting. I wanted to offer a more personal vet service, with less financial emphasis and I wanted to work with my son.”
Simon has still retained quite a number of his old clients, race-horse trainer Ian Balding had around 70 horses when Simon started as his vet and now has well over 200.
“I had to have some hard conversations with some clients. The Baldings were immediately supportive and of course I had to inform the Queen too.”
Simon was taken into a drawing room at Windsor Castle and the first thing he noticed, sitting on a chair opposite, was a cushion with the slogan ‘This castle was built for the comfort of the dogs’. Simon admits to enjoying the obvious humour, but nevertheless he ruefully and with certain trepidation had to explain his new work situation to Her Majesty. The Queen listened and then stated that she hoped that he would continue to do her work.
“That was a special day,” he says.