Northern Ireland news

Video: 'Horse therapy' project transforming lives of disabled children

The amazing bond between a Co Derry pony and a little girl battling severe learning disabilities has produced life-changing results in a unique animal therapy project. Health Correspondent Seanín Graham talked to one family about the joy it has brought to their lives.

Maisie Colhoun (5) and her mum Dawn get ready for a ride-out on Smokey the pony as part of a special therapy project in Co Derry. Picture By Hugh Russell.
Seanín Graham

BEFORE meeting Smokey the pony, five-year-old Maisie Colhoun couldn't sit up properly and was barely able to walk.

But the Co Derry child, who has Down's Syndrome and cannot speak, has developed an extraordinary bond with the placid animal who has helped her and dozens of other children overcome their disabilities as part of a unique therapy on a special farm.

'Hippotherapy' - derived from the Greek word for horse - has been introduced in Northern Ireland for the first time by an occupational therapist at Gortilea social farm in Claudy and families are crediting the specialist treatment with transforming lives.

Using the movement, rhythm, and repetition of horse riding, the young patients are receiving intensive therapy - with as many as 2,000 movement 'inputs' through their core muscles in 30 minutes - while having fun outdoors. Only one other health professional offers it in Cork.

Maisie, from the village of Newbuildings, was born with two holes in her heart and spent the first three months of her life in a neo-natal intensive care unit in Altnagelvin Hospital following life-saving surgery.

The little girl, who communicates using Makaton sign language and loves Mr Tumble, had very low muscle tone which caused her body to be floppy and led to problems with balance and coordination.

But everything changed when she met Smokey.

Despite having never been in contact with a horse before, the wheelchair-bound child went up to the 21-year-old Connermara Cross pony and began patting his nose.

After 10 weekly sessions with her "best friend", Maisie can now sit up properly on horseback - and has pedalled a bicycle for the first time due to the dramatic strengthening of her core muscles.

Her mother, Dawn, said she is also "very close" to walking independently.

Young Maisie Colhoun (5) with her "best friend" Smokey in Co Derry. Picture By Hugh Russell.

She described the experience as "life-changing" and paid tribute to therapist Clare McMonagle who has driven the project, which is also helping children with autism, spina bifida, cerebral palsy and other challenging conditions.

"Maisie had a very rough start and this impacted on her development and led to serious learning difficulties," Mrs Colhoun said.

"She had lot of physio and occupational therapy but still had problems. A friend told me about Clare and the work she was doing. Maisie had never been near a horse or pony before and I was amazed from the first hippotherapy session last year.

"From the minute Maisie met Smokey they had this bond.

"Because she was so floppy, Clare sat on the pony with her at first and held in her place. But by the end of the 10 sessions she had come on so much and was able to sit upright on her own. She has this smile on her face that lights up the whole arena - she's just beaming every time she gets on Smokey."

Maisie Colhoun works out on Smokey with Clare McMonagle, Occupational Therapist. Picture By Hugh Russell

Maisie's visits to the farm took place a year ago, and were funded with a National Lottery grant from the Big Lottery Fund as part of a £273,000 scheme.

The Colhouns have learned that they are to receive a further 10 funded sessions, beginning next month.

"We are thrilled we have got more funding for Maisie," Mrs Colhoun added.

"By the end of last year she had got so strong and we honestly thought she was going to walk by herself.

"She had also learned to groom Smokey and brush him down, something she loves doing and which helped her motor skills. We had a refresher session in the summer and it was if she had never been away."

The therapist at the centre at the project comes from a farming background and grew up with horses.

Clare McMonagle described hippotherapy as the "best therapy tool" she has ever worked with over the past five years. Such is its success that the western health trust is now making referrals to the farm.

"The beauty of it is that children like Maisie are so engaged that they don't see it as therapy, they see it as play. We had a wee eight-year-old boy with autism recently who was completely non-verbal - he spoke his first words a few weeks ago," Ms McMonagle said.

"We have different horses and you match them to the child's needs. Smokey is angel who is so relaxed - when he sees Maisie he knows she's coming for him. He loves his job."

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