lady maggie houghton, kevin gray, general sir nick houghton

A former soldier, who learned how to make a rocking horse on a Help for Heroes course, has completed his first commissioned work.

Kevin Gray spent 150 hours making the unique piece for a very special customer - Lady Maggie Houghton, wife of General Lord Houghton, the former Chief of the Defence Staff of the British Armed Forces, now Chief Constable of the Tower of London.

The couple had visited the wood workshop at Help for Heroes northern Recovery centre, Phoenix House in Catterick, at the time the Rocking Horse course was being held. Lady Houghton fell in love with the one being made by ex-Gunner Kevin and asked him to make one for her.

“The craftsmanship and care that he had taken was wonderful,” said Lady Houghton, a keen horse rider. “At the time he didn’t have a commission and I wanted to be his first.”

Kevin, 47, studied a photograph of Lady Houghton’s own horse, Mingle, to ensure that the wooden version resembled its colouring and marking. And, according to its new owner, he got it just right!

“With his expert eye, Kevin has managed to emulate her well – not with paint but with layers of wood,” said Lady Houghton.

“She is very tactile – I love the feel of the wood – and now has pride of place in our hall.

 “None of this would have happened had Kevin not found his way to Phoenix House and received support from Help for Heroes. That support comes in many forms and I hope the Charity is able to continue helping many more wounded veterans as part of their recovery.”

Kevin was medically discharged from the Royal Artillery 23 years ago after being diagnosed with PTSD and, until contacting Help for Heroes, had struggled to find a new purpose in life.

He travelled from his home in Fleetwood to Phoenix House every week for six months to complete last year’s Rocking Horse course on which he and the other students – all wounded, injured or sick veterans – learned how to transform a piece of plywood measuring 8ft x 4ft into a stunning, highly polished rocking horse, complete with main, tail, saddle and stirrups worth well over £1,000.

lady houghton on mingle

Their workmanship was of such a high standard that all were made honorary members of the Guild of Rocking Horse Makers.

The achievement put a smile back on my face and, more importantly, gave me a skill that I can now use,” said Kevin.

“To then get a commission – and such a special one with it being from a Lady – was a massive confidence boost.”

Not only does Kevin suffer from PTSD but he wears a back brace and calipers and needs morphine patches to help him cope with the pain.

“Had I been fully fit, I would have been able to produce the horse in fewer hours,” he admits.

“But I felt such a sense of pride when I presented Lady Houghton with the horse and saw that she genuinely was over the moon, that it made all those hours of labour worthwhile!”

Since receiving his first commission, Kevin has had orders for three more rocking horses – all of which need completing before Christmas. Which means that his wife Gillian, who ‘dressed’ Lady Houghton’s horse with appropriate saddlery, will have to wait a few more months until her husband can fit her long-awaited new kitchen!

Bob Marshall, the Help for Heroes volunteer who runs the wood workshop, said although the course attended by Kevin had taught them to make a rocking horse, in reality it was about far much more.

Every individual that Help for Heroes supports was highly-trained in order to serve their country, and courses such as this allow them to rediscover that pride and self-esteem that may have been dormant for some time and once again become a Force for Good,” he explained.

“This is measured not only in terms of learning new skills and techniques and working to a set plan but also in their subtle and discernible changes in outlook, attitude and ability to interact with others.”

See the Help for Heroes Phoenix House details