Heather has cerebral palsy, which affects her gross motor skills. Technically a quadriplegic, Heather started at Pegasus when she was just five years old. When she arrived for her very first session at Pegasus, her leg muscles were so tight she was unable to stretch them wide enough to sit on a horse. After practicing the leg stretches the Pegasus’ coaches had given her, the second week she attended, Heather was able to sit on the horse.
“Never in my life have I been so eager to do my stretches!” says Heather.
“Looking back, riding a horse for the first time should have been a terrifying experience. But it was the complete opposite. It was invigorating and uplifting and joyful.
“The volunteers helped me feel completely safe and secure, which allowed me to relax and enjoy the experience,” says Heather.
Working closely with parents, teachers, carers and therapists, Pegasus coaches and volunteers expand a participant’s capabilities to shape personal goals and develop activities specific to their individual needs.
“Pegasus staff and volunteers were always extremely astute and were able to tell when I need to progress to a bigger horse. They set me goals that pushed me but which they knew I was able to achieve. They also noticed when I was ready to take on new challenges during my lessons.
“I remember I was told quite early on, if I could just kind of rock my pelvis as the horse moved, that made it more comfortable for the horse, and I really wanted the horse to be comfortable!
“I was also told, “try and lower your heels in the stirrups”, which is actually a stretch for me, but that’s not how I saw it. I saw it as being a better horse-rider.
“I always left Pegasus feeling proud of myself,” says Heather.
Towards the end of her time at Pegasus, Heather had a session with a hippotherapist – physiotherapy involving activities on horseback.
“On a horse, I wasn’t thinking about the pain in my legs. I was thinking about how much fun I was having and I was enjoying the moment. As a result I was able to stretch my muscles for longer – because I wasn’t distracted by the pain. The warmth of the horse played a key role in this respect – warm muscles are always able to stretch further and sitting on a warm horse provides constant heat directly into the leg muscles,” says Heather.
Heather’s mum, Ann, remembers their physiotherapist telling her that the physical benefits Heather got from riding would have been almost impossible to replicate with traditional physiotherapy.
“The physio said, “the equivalent exercises are so difficult”, and Heather would have had to do them for half an hour every day to have any effect whatsoever, and most children just can’t do them,” says Ann.
“Heather’s pelvis was also locked in the wrong position, so the movement of the horse gradually moved it back. It was just quite incredible. So although Heather was enjoying all this, I could see all these subtleties happening all the time,” says Ann.
For Ann and her husband, who were told their daughter would never walk, Pegasus helped give Heather the freedom they thought she would never have.
Ann recalls a defining Pegasus moment – when Heather and her horse started to trot.
“For a while it was just walking, walking, walking, and then one day, she did this trot, and I remember standing up in the arena, and I went “oh my gosh”, you know?” says Ann.
“Again, that was not so much the therapy, but that was horsemanship, and that was really something. And I knew how much that would mean to Heather, to have progressed to that. It was an emotional thing for her – and for us. It was a huge achievement,” says Ann.
“It felt incredible to have something that was a physical sport that I was good at,” said Heather.
Not only did riding make moving around easier but it also helped Heather feel more confident. The fact that Heather still has the ribbon she won at a Pegasus dressage competition says a lot about her experiences and achievements.
Heather fondly remembers developing a rapport with Pegasus horses.
“One of the things I really enjoyed was brushing down the horse at the end of each ride, because I felt that was sort of a special moment between me and the horse, and that we kind of understood each other. So that was really special as well.
“Riding at Pegasus had a profound impact on my life,” says Heather.
“My experiences at Pegasus gave me a self-assuredness that has served me extremely well later in life and given me the confidence to take on challenges,” says Heather.
“At high school I decided to run for school captain and I was elected by my peers. Then I decided to study law at university. In 2013, I decided that I wanted to experience overseas travel on my own. So I travelled around New Zealand for two weeks without friends or family to help me. This trip left me with a profound sense of achievement and I will always be happy that I set myself that challenge,” says Heather.
Listening to Heather and her mum, Ann, it warms my heart to know what an essential part Pegasus played in Heather’s childhood and her physical, emotional and mental development. It makes me so proud to see the strong, confident, accomplished young women she is today.
Your support and participation helps ensure other people with a disability, like Heather, benefit from therapy that is as good for muscles as it is for the head and the heart.
This Christmas, please help us give the gift of Pegasus to another child – so that they get to experience our horse-facilitated programs and the many benefits they offer.
Chief Executive Officer
PS – Please remember that your gift to the Pegasus Christmas Appeal is tax deductible, so please be generous as you make your year-end gift.