Last week in Stradbally the unique relationship between horses and autistic children was the focus of Ireland’s first residential Horse Therapy camp.
The driving force behind the camp was horse therapist Maggie Whelan, originally from Kilmurry, now living in Stradbally, who is also the chairperson of Laois Autistic Resource Centre.
Passionate about horses, Maggie has worked as a racehorse jockey, riding instructor and manager of Coolmore Stud during her career. After her son Merrick was born, she found it increasingly difficult to cope.
“I was on my own, and he was very wild. I couldn’t cope, psychologists were telling me nothing was wrong, then someone suggested that he might be autistic. I couldn’t get him diagnosed with the HSE, so I brought him privately to Prof Fitzgerald who diagnosed Aspergers, ADHD and ODD,” she explained.
Aspergers is a form of autism where there is difficulty in social relationships and communication. ADHD stands for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, while ODD means Oppositional Defiant Disorder, typified by anger and defiance of authority.
Things didn’t get any easier with Merrick’s diagnosis, as a range of drugs didn’t work. They were living in a housing estate and Merrick was being beaten by other boys, so they moved out to the countryside, where Maggie noticed an improvement.
“I started to realise his connection with animals, he had the same love of horses I had as a child,” she said.
She noticed the calming effect horses had, and decided to train as a therapist, learning the Horse Boy Method, a technique crafted by Texan Rupert Isaacson, who wrote a book which is now a film, The Horse Boy.
“His son was non-verbal, but as they spent time together with horses, he realised his child was working with the horse, and beginning to communicate more,” Maggie explained, adding that because of the calming effect, the children’s sleep and general behaviour improve too.
Last year she formed Laois ARC in Stradbally, and began work as a horse therapist. Seeing no residential therapy camps in Ireland, she went about starting one herself.
A host of people came on board, not least David Pennefeather who offered his land beside Oughavale Woods for them to use.
“When Maggie approached me and explained what she was hoping to do, I couldn’t not be involved. It sounded really groundbreaking. It’s been brilliant, I hope it’s the first of many,” he said.
Portarlington Scouts came and pitched their tents for the families, staying for a drumming session too, while Tesco provided free organic food, and Brownes Animal Feeds and Frontier gave horse supplies. Hot meals were provided at a discount by local restaurant Stradbally Fayre, again all organic.
She rented the therapy ponies and enlisted experienced Limerick horse therapist and reiki healer Shelly Murtagh, who brought her own trick pony for the children to use. The pony does tricks such as kneeling to one word commands, which encourages the children to speak. Another friend loaned goats and hens, while tame bunnies and chickens provided further sensory experiences.
It all came together last Monday and ran for three days. The families, who each paid E750, arrived from all parts of Ireland. Twice a day they rode into the adjacent woods, and each evening sat around a huge campfire and sang songs and played music before retiring to their tents. Maggie had more activities laid on than necessary, as they took things at a pace dictated by the children, keeping the atmosphere relaxed and laid back.
“We were calling it the Electric Lunch,” Maggie laughed.
The proof of the pudding was the visible improvement in the children. Six year old Danny is almost non-verbal, but sitting on a horse for the first time, he started pointing out colours of the other horses to his astounded mum Vicky, from Kinnegad.
“He struggles to talk. Some days are better than others, one or two words. He started tellimg me the horses had shoes, and last night he sat by the fire and said “I’m cosy”, he is making eye contact too. I will definitely be back,” she said.
They have since been asked to host a therapy camp in Kill International Equestrian Centre, the largest in the country, and Maggie hopes to hold another in Stradbally in September. She has the backing of some very influential people in the horse world, such as Tracy Piggott who visited the camp and hopes to fundraise for them, trainer Jessica Harrington, Con Power and Billy Culbert who is on the board of HEELS, an organisation that brings horse therapists from all around the world to Ireland.
She is bursting with ideas for what could be done.
“We are going to design a course to train parents in simple horse skills. I believe every autistic child should have a pony, we could help them pick one. This could be therapeutic in lots of places like old folks homes and prisons. Many prisoners have conditions like ADHD,” she says, adding that they had lots of interested visitors with different disabilities during the camp. TV3 have been in touch and RTE’s Nationwide will be visiting soon.
Laois County Council donated a two acre site to Laois ARC in Stradbally, and Maggie plans to develop a community organic and sensory garden there, for people of all abilities, beginning in the autumn.
The Autism Resource Centre has an on-line support centre, where parents can learn what entitlements and help they can get.
To find out more or to volunteer help, see www.arc-eireann.org, email firstname.lastname@example.org or phone Maggie at 087 9217467.