Centre shows positive impact of therapeutic horse riding programme

Grace Herbert during a session with Bean is accompanied by Jacqueline Boulger, coach, and volunteer Kathriona McHugh, at Connemara Therapeutic Riding. Photo: Joe O'Shaughnessy.

For many rural areas, the provision of adequate services for people with disabilities can be a major obstacle.  A committed group in Clifden has found an imaginative and creative way to provide an alternative on their own doorstep – setting up Connemara Therapeutic Riding in Errislannan.

The project, which uses Connemara Ponies, is centred on the concept of using horses to the benefit of people with a range of conditions including cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, learning difficulties, autism, Down Syndrome, mental health challenges, brain injury and sensory impairments.

Based in Errislannan Manor Riding Centre with the support of the Brooks family, Connemara Therapeutic Riding was founded when local disability support groups began seeking activities they could run locally, as Coordinator of the project, Colette Laffey explains.

“Connemara Therapeutic Riding started going back about six years ago. The local disability family support groups, Lámh Linn and Paving the Way were having a look at what kind of activities they could put on during the week on a regular basis.

“They wanted to meet a need that wasn’t being met out there and where we are in Connemara, we are at least an hour, if not more, of a drive out to many of the services – whether that’s physiotherapy or occupational therapy.”

As they put in research, they found that the relatively new idea of using horses for therapy was an ideal fit – not least because of their location in Connemara.

“They started putting in research and they came back with the idea of therapeutic riding as the ideal fit. Not only did we have the ideal equines – the Connemara Ponies have the perfect temperament – but we were also in beautiful surroundings.

“From the start, Therapeutic Riding has been a collaborative, community based project. Paving the Way approached the Connemara Pony Breeders; they approached FORUM Connemara who have been the backbone really in terms of supporting a lot of the funding and grant aid.

“They got grant aid to train 22 coaches who qualified in 2014 and 2015. It really has gone from strength to strength,” says Colette.

The practice has been developing for some time in the US and the benefits to those participating are stark.

“Once you put the child on the pony, there is physiotherapy happening because you have got the warmth of the pony so if there is anything with the legs, it is working with the muscles – then it starts to engage your core and it starts to strengthen the core.

“The pony will do 80 per cent of the work but the child or adult is starting to sit in properly into the pony and it’s righting their gait with the pony’s gait,” says Colette.

See full story in Community Matters – only in this week’s Connacht Tribune. If you would like your community to feature in a future Community Matters, email stephen.corrigan@ctribune.ie