We were feeding, grooming and exercising the horses on our farm one hectic Saturday morning when a car pulled into the yard. A woman wound down the window to talk to my husband, Michael. ‘We heard that you have children here to help on Saturday mornings,’ she said. ‘We wondered if you would have our daughter Sophie’.
‘Her father and I are very worried. She’s 13 and has stopped talking — she hasn’t spoken a word for two years. She likes reading books about horses and we heard about you’. Sophie stepped out of the car. She was sullen and overweight, with baggy, ill-fitting clothes and lanky, unwashed hair. She was hunched, as if there was a heavy weight pressing down on her.
Something inside me knew exactly where to take her. ‘Come with me to change the dressings on a horse called Darcy,’ I told her. Darcy Day was one of 30 or so retired racehorses we had rescued and given a home to. She had come to us in a terrible state a few days earlier, saved from a neglectful owner.
Bony and with her head hanging low, Darcy’s coat was matted and discolored. Her eyes were dull and streaming, her bones protruding through her coat, her hind legs swollen and oozing a dreadful yellow discharge. Her tail was a tangled mass of wet hair and manure, her hooves long and overgrown. Sophie started coming every Saturday and slipped into the rhythm of work on the farm, devoting herself to Darcy, laughing and smiling with the other children, but never joining in their conversations.
Darcy was clearly very distressed and had broken out in a heavy sweat. Her temperature was above normal, her hind legs were hot and swollen, and her skin had split in several places. The vet gave her painkillers, antibiotics and anti-inflammatories, and Michael cleaned and bandaged Darcy’s hind legs as best he could, then bathed her eyes and put in eye drops. But the poor horse seemed to have lost the will to live.
However, as Sophie walked into the barn, Darcy astonished me by going straight over to her and lowering her head to be petted.‘She never comes over to me — and I feed her,’ I complained gently. I could tell Sophie was pleased. She held out her hands and Darcy put her nose into them. Despite how ill Darcy was, she was able to make a connection with this silent child. As I changed the dressings, I asked Sophie to help. She seemed bright enough, finding the correct bandages or tubes of ointment, but however much I chatted, she never spoke. When her parents came to collect her, she didn’t even wave goodbye.
The following Saturday, I was surprised to see her parents’ car pulling into the yard. This time Sophie followed me eagerly, and again Darcy came over as soon as she entered the barn, making a gentle whickering sound. She didn’t do this with any of the other children. I showed Sophie how to groom Darcy by feeling the horse all over with her hands, smoothing down in the direction of the hair.
Sophie began grooming and Darcy was enjoying it so much that her eyelids began to droop. She almost nodded off on her feet. That’s a huge compliment from a horse, implying absolute trust, and it was yet another sign of the growing bond between them.
Sophie started coming every Saturday and slipped into the rhythm of work on the farm, devoting herself to Darcy, laughing and smiling with the other children, but never joining in their conversations.
Meanwhile, Darcy continued to recover. Her legs healed, her coat improved, and she started to take an interest in life. They were getting better together. Something must have happened to Sophie two years ago that made her lose her confidence, and she got it back through her relationship with Darcy. Horses are powerful therapy.
Then, one day towards the end of the summer, Michael put his finger to his ear, indicating that I should listen to something. Sophie, who was around the corner from us, was speaking to someone on her mobile phone. ‘I was just walking across the yard,’ she said, ‘which is a long way from the stable, but Darcy knew straight away I was there and she started to whinny. She always knows when I’m coming’. We were both amazed. Her voice was perfectly clear. When her parents arrived, I called out: ‘Bye, Sophie. See you next week!’ and to my astonishment, she called back: ‘Bye!’
Her mother phoned us later. ‘What on earth did you do?’ she asked. ‘She’s talking again completely normally, as if she had never stopped’. Michael said, ‘Something must have happened to Sophie two years ago that made her lose her confidence, and she got it back through her relationship with Darcy. Horses are powerful therapy.’
This gave Michael an idea. We knew of a couple of organizations that used horses to help adults with mental health issues. We wondered if we could offer the same kind of experience to children with emotional, social or behavioral issues.
It was a far cry from our original life plan. We had moved to Devon, helped by a legacy from Michael’s aunt, because we were worn out from running a hotel in the Cotswolds. The idea was to take time out, write a book and decide where our future lay. Michael and I are animal lovers. I grew up on a farm in Wiltshire and Michael had previously owned racehorses. So once we found ourselves in a country setting with barns and fields, it was only a matter of time before we started filling them.
We began with a goat, then chickens, then a chestnut filly called Poppy who rekindled our love of horses. On my father’s farm, we had taken in retired racehorses, so Michael and I agreed to give it a go ourselves. Our outbuildings quickly filled with homeless horses, and we relied on local children to help us at weekends. Our money was dwindling fast, so we became a registered charity which allowed us to fundraise and move to bigger premises at Greatwood Farm in Wiltshire.
We recruited some fantastic staff who helped develop our Horse Power programme for children, inspired by that amazing experience with Sophie. Children were awarded a certificate if they completed the course. They learned about animals and responsibility and, we hoped, gained confidence and skills as a result. They couldn’t ride the horses for safety reasons, but they could take care of them.
Some of the terribly disadvantaged children we were to meet hadn’t been able to express affection for anyone before and hadn’t had anyone to show them love either. Sunny was the perfect horse for our plans. Slightly arthritic, he moved slowly but was placid and gentle. He transformed the life of a little autistic girl called Zoe who came on a school visit when she was 11, but at first was too scared to leave the mini-bus. She shook with fear and wore huge ear defenders to protect her from unfamiliar sounds — some autistic children become distressed by new noises. She clung to her teacher and would speak only through her, hanging back when the other children came into the stables.
On her second visit, she was taken to see Sunny. Elizabeth, our staff member who was in charge of the program, stroked him, and told the group: ‘He’s the softest and gentlest of all the horses. He’s getting old and stiff and can’t run well any more, but he likes nothing more than being stroked’. She spoke to all the children but was watching Zoe, drawing her in until the girl shot out her hand and touched Sunny’s fur. This was real progress.
The following week, Zoe stroked him down his rump then nervously picked up a brush and began the sweep down his sides. Never was a horse quite so thoroughly groomed as Sunny was that day. Week after week, Zoe came back and groomed Sunny. She also learned to deal with her fear of dogs, even reaching out to stroke Bessie, our old farm dog.
More remarkably, she began to answer questions in an audible voice instead of whispering to her teacher, and made eye contact with those of us she grew to know and trust. Zoe no longer wore her ear defenders and, on her last visit, we watched as she skipped around the yard with the other children. ‘Before we came here it would have been unheard of for Zoe to answer questions,’ her teacher said. ‘Now she puts up her hand in class and volunteers information.’
We were still fighting a daily battle with finances, but word was beginning to spread about what we were doing at Greatwood. We don’t work miracles, but we hear from parents and children of the enormous difference Greatwood has made to their lives.
One mother told us it was like watching a light being switched on inside her son. She said, ‘We’ve finally found something we can do as a family. When he comes home from school at the weekend, we can all go to the local riding school’. Even in the few short weeks they came to us, we witnessed some wonderful transformations. We saw children like Bobby who had been abused in a foster home. He had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and swaggered around swearing, but underneath he was sad and frightened. He learned to stand still and calmly groom horses.
We were delighted when Edward, a young man with Down’s syndrome, came to us. He was such a hard worker and so naturally intuitive with the animals that we offered him a part-time job.
Anna came to us after years of being abused as a child by a series of different men. Understandably, she couldn’t bear to be near males, especially ones she didn’t know. With her brightly painted, manicured fingernails, she seemed an unlikely candidate for bonding with horses. But as she groomed and mucked out, cleaned out hen houses and swept up, she began to relax. With small steps, such as being in the same stable as one of the male grooms, she was gradually able to chat and laugh with the different men who worked on our farm.
We know we can’t repair years of damage, but making any sort of difference to these children is why we keep going.
One of our biggest success stories concerns a girl called Amy, who first came to us three years ago when she was 14. I still have a vivid picture of her creeping out of the car, so terrified she was unable even to say ‘hello’.
Amy had had a difficult childhood, moving schools and being badly bullied. She slipped behind in the basics of reading, writing and maths, and when her family moved to Wiltshire, she was taken into care and separated from her siblings. She was just seven. She was at a good school and had wonderful foster parents, but she was crippled by shyness and had developed a fear of strangers. She couldn’t buy things in a shop or ask for a bus ticket, and was behind at school.
Her only passion in life was horses, but she couldn’t go to riding school because she was scared of meeting people. Her teacher suggested she did our ten-week Horse Power course, so she plucked up the courage to come and meet our horses. She was particularly taken by one of our elder horses, old Monty, and the stories of how he would protect vulnerable horses when they first arrived by putting himself between them and the others.
Sometimes children can see a mirror of their own vulnerability in an animal’s behaviour. Amy learned how to groom Monty and was convinced he liked music, so she would turn on a radio and sing to him as she brushed his coat. Week by week she blossomed and was able to talk to Hilary, Michael, me and the rest of the staff.
At the end of her course, she was awarded a certificate by former jockey Willie Carson, and went back to school emboldened by the knowledge she had succeeded at something. The following year, she came back and did some work experience before applying for a specialist horse care training programme. She needed a stable job for a year so she came back here, and it’s given us all enormous pleasure to see this girl flourish and find a proper place in the world because of her experience with our horses.
Of course it’s changed us, too. What started as a bit of time-out has taken over our lives. We have plans to extend the Horse Power program throughout the country and, who knows, possibly overseas as well. For retired racehorses to find a second life helping children who need another chance, that’s a winning ticket all round.
Find out more about Greatwood or make a donation at greatwoodcharity.org. Extracted from When Sophie Met Darcy Day by Helen Yeadon, published by HarperTrue on March 3 at £6.99. © 2011 Helen Yeadon. To order a copy (p&p free) call 0845 155 0720.
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