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‘When you master a skill, then you believe that you can master other things as well’

Equine therapy has provided physical benefits for a young horse-rider along with boosts to her confidence and self-esteem

Sarah Burns was keen to find an activity that might help her daughter Rachael Doak, who has cerebral palsy, with her strength, balance and flexibility. But she never imagined that equine therapy would be an option available to her daughter from the age of just two.

Now 14, Doak is a keen rider and has been attending Festina Lente for 12 years. “It’s like a fun way to do physio exercises,” she says. “I’ve been going there so long now, it’s like a second home,” she says of the equestrian learning centre in Bray run by the charity.

“I use a walking frame for short distances and for longer distances I use a wheelchair. I use wheelchair full-time in school now, because it’s easier to keep up with all my friends. I find it really hard to balance and I fall over quite a bit,” she explains.

She says horse-riding has made a big difference to her. “When I first get off the horse, I’m a lot looser and I can walk a bit better for a little while, and that’s great. It’s helped my balance over the years.”


Equine therapy has also helped Doak with the other sports she participates in, she explains. “I’ve gotten stronger in certain areas, and that helps with other sports like swimming. I can kick my legs stronger now because of how much better my flexibility is from getting on a horse every week.”

It has helped Doak’s confidence too, she says. “I believe I can do things now. When you master a skill then you believe that you can master other things as well. When it comes to people seeing other people with disabilities, they might think, ‘Oh there’s no way that child can do that because they’re in a wheelchair’, but when it actually comes to it, you can do whatever you want.”

She has always had great determination and she likes to be independent, and I think she’s got that from starting at such a young age

—  Sarah Burns on daughter Rachael Doak

She believes horse-riding is definitely something she’ll keep up as she gets older “because it’s just so good for me”.

Burns says she never dreamt her daughter would start horse-riding from such a young age. Along with the physical benefits, Burns can see the clear benefits to her confidence and self-esteem. But she has also seen benefits for herself.

“When you have a kid with something like cerebral palsy, you’re worried for them. You’re worried for the future. You’re worried about them going to school and all the other kids are playing tennis and doing ballet and gymnastics. That worry was taken away because Rachael has always had the riding in Festina Lente, and you feel so proud of her and what she’s achieved. She’s won rosettes and she’s entered different competitions.”

There’s “also the people you meet there, the other families, the other parents. You often learn more from other parents than the professionals that you meet.

“As a mum I could [say], at age two, ‘Well if she was able to sit on a horse and ride a horse, well then I didn’t need to be worrying about her’. She was going to get on. She has always had great determination and she likes to be independent, and I think she’s got that from starting at such a young age.”

In seeing the huge benefits that the opportunities to ride horses has offered her daughter, Burns reflects on the obstacle that the costs involved could put in the way of other families in need. “It’s not cheap,” she explains. She feels regular equine therapy should be Government-supported so all children who might benefit can access such therapy, irrespective of their family’s financial situation.

This year, the Dublin Horse Show in the RDS (August 9th-13th) is partnering with Festina Lente, show director Pat Hanly explains. “They do incredibly valuable work, and they do it in an area that’s of interest to everybody. The work they do, at the centre of it, is the human-horse relationship, and that applies to everybody who has a love of horses and who has an interest in horses.

“For most people who start off horse-riding, the key piece is that bond with the animal, that interaction. The horse reacts to everything that you do. If I go home in the evening and I’m stressed and I go down to my horse, well he’ll read me immediately.

“They live in the moment. They don’t live in the past. They don’t have a grievance about what happened yesterday.”

Festina “will be on site every day” for the horse show, Hanly explains. “Anyone who has a need or interest will be able to interact with them every day and then they will be doing a series of demonstrations [and talks] on the Friday, Saturday and Sunday.”