EXCITED: This young boy’s eyes light up as Lennon La Fortune gives him the horse’s reins. At Healing with Horses, children with special needs are empowered to achieve their full potential through therapeutic interactions. —Photos courtesy Healing with Horses Foundation

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Healing with horses

By Kimberly Castillo

PICTURE this: a young boy, unable to walk, visits the Tobago-based Healing with Horses (HwH) Foundation every week. He can’t physically sit astride a horse like others can unless he’s assisted. Eight months later he makes dramatic progress. Today he walks and runs, revelling in activities that were once impossible. Try to imagine another scenario: a young man comes to HwH, he is autistic, overweight and withdrawn. Fast forward two years later, he is fit, assists with the horses and at the age of 22 he is also earning his own income by taking pictures of tourists who come to ride horses through the bay. 

Call these miracles if you will but they are real life examples — just two of the many ‘feel-good’ stories the HwH Foundation churns out and which they also keep documented in a special book at their office in Buccoo, Tobago. Creative director at HwH, Elspeth Duncan shared these and more stories with the Express, including the story of a student with Down Syndrome who was shy, unwilling to communicate and was very fearful of the horses. Today that same person is a proud leader and mentor to his classmates as he leads the horses for his friends, wearing his trademark smile.      

These true life experiences and the work being done by Veronika Danzer-La Fortune, her husband Lennon and the team at the Healing with Horses Foundation is nothing short of inspirational. In 2006, the La Fortunes introduced horse therapy to the local population with a special emphasis on the differently-abled. At HwH children with special needs are empowered to achieve their full potential. Every day of the week, HwH hosts integrated after-school sessions where children from the Yahweh Foundation, the Child Adolescent Centre, the Happy Haven School and the School for the Deaf, Speech and Language Impaired groom, feed and ride the horses and take part in other activities like art and craft, nature walks, yoga classes and creative gardening. The life changing work that is done at HwH has been the inspiration for many articles. 

“Healing with Horses invests time and energy in touching the souls of differently-abled children with love, attention and opportunities to bond with the horses and caring volunteers”,said Duncan who has been working with the foundation since 2012 when she moved to Tobago. For someone who always wanted to apply her talent to something meaningful, it was a natural fit for her.

Before she joined the foundation, Duncan was already acquainted with Veronika Danzer-La Fortune, a trained equestrian in her native homeland, Germany, before she eventually moved to Tobago. For five years, she performed in a horse musical in a travelling circus which took her and her fellow performers throughout Europe with 65 horses. It was a gruelling schedule—performing twice a day on stage before crowds of as many as 2,000 people. But disillusionment soon set in.

“To make lots of money is great but the horses were suffering and I was suffering, I was working like a machine. And the horses didn’t have a life,”she said.

 When Veronika and her husband founded HwH, she knew she wanted to give the horses the kind of life which those she performed with back in Germany were deprived of. Healing with Horses uses a very balanced, holistic approach when it comes to their horses. For one thing all eight horses, which were rescued by HwH, are not kept in stables all day long. For the majority of the day the horses are liming outside, said La Fortune. The foundation got its start with its first horse—Jennifer—a beautiful chestnut mare. 

Veronika found Jennifer years ago when she was told there was an abandoned horse wandering about with a herd of sheep on an old estate about five acres behind the Blue Waters Inn in Speyside. Every Friday Lennon took her there to commune with the horse. Eventually she gained its trust and one day in 2007 she walked the mare from Speyside to Buccoo — a 20 hour journey. Today Jennifer’s companions at HwH include Mr Divo, Princess Julie, Zimbu, Kalakunjin, King and Shawari. 

With Healing with Horses, the La Fortunes have achieved what they initially set out to do — they’ve given rescued horses a new purpose in life. And they’ve witnessed the powerful therapeutic effect that bonding with horses can have on children who are differently-abled or traumatised.  

The couple also run ‘Being with Horses’ which is a trail ride and swim experience whereguests are taken for a stroll around the village, through the mangroves and on the beach. Finally, both the horse and its rider go for a swim along the bay. 

“If you were to take a photo of yourself before and after your experience with our horses, you would see a difference. Even after two hours of cantering through the mangrove and ploughing through the turquoise ocean on horseback, you will experience an inevitable degree of transformation. The person you were when you first walked through the stable gates could never be the same person who walks back out”, said Duncan. 

‘Being with Horses’ is so popular said Duncan that it is currently listed as the number one activity in Tobago on Tripadvisor. To make your booking, call 639-0953.

If you are interested in connecting with Healing with Horses, you can become a volunteer. Twice a week (Tuesdays and Thursdays) volunteers come to Buccoo to spend quality time with the children of Happy Haven School, the School for the Deaf and the Yahweh Foundation.    

But if you’re not in a position to volunteer, you could still lend your support by making donations to the Healing with Horses Foundation Branch ID/Transit Number: 12005, Account Number:1200518, Scotia Bank, Lowlands, Tobago.   

All contributions will go a long way toward helping the team at HwH provide water and healthy snacks for the children, safety riding gear, yoga/gymnastic mats, lead reins, balls in all sizes (football, tennis ball, basketball), equipment and toys for their therapeutic sensory playground, office supplies, small wheelbarrows, small rakes & shovels, gardening tools and all kinds of art and craft supplies. 

Donations will also assist the Healing with Horses Foundation in their preparations for their fourth consecutive Summer Camp which will run from July 7-18. Therapists from abroad will be in Tobago to work along with the children at HwH. As in previous years, the children will also enjoy music, dance, sports, acting, arts and crafts, nature walks, yoga, steel pan, face painting, reef excursions, cooking and the unique experience of being with horses.

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