Waking hours with Victoria Lacey: 'when you gain the trust of a horse that starts building up your confidence

Victoria Lacey (43) is the director of Ability Equine Assisted Therapy and a therapeutic riding coach. She lives in Clogherhead, Co Louth with her husband, John, and their children - Molly (16), Madeleine (14), Leila (12) and Finn (nine)

Victoria Lacey. Photo: Steve Humphreys

I get up at 6.30am. I live in Clogherhead with my husband, John, and our four children. My mother is in a little granny flat beside us.

John usually works long hours in the IFSC. He's in the office for 8am, and he might not get home until 9pm. So I'm pretty much on my own with the kids during the day.

My son Finn has autism and global developmental delay. It takes him a bit longer to learn things. He needs help in the mornings, but having said that, he is pretty good. It's the girls who won't get out of bed.

I'm up and at it straight away. I'll go into my mother. She has multiple sclerosis and dementia. So I leave her medication there and make sure that she has everything she needs. She has a carer who comes in shortly afterwards.

I have two Shetland ponies, tortoises and dogs. They all have to be fed. My daughter deals with our rabbit. We get in the car at 8.10am to do the school run, which involves three different schools. In total, I do about 130km a day. Then the rest of my day begins. I haven't got too much time, because I have to be outside the first school at 2.30pm for pick-up.

I've got a busy home life, but then there is the charity side of my life, too. I'm the director of Ability Equine Assisted Therapy (AEAT) in Navan, and I'm also a qualified therapeutic riding coach. I oversee everything that happens at the yard, including staff, and then I coach there as well.

All of this began when a friend's son was going to a riding stables. He had epilepsy and dyspraxia, and she told me how much he loved equine therapy. I thought that I'd love Finn to do it. He loved it and so did I. It was an activity that he could do. He is very sensory-seeking and straight away, I noticed how calming it was for him. I loved being around horses, too. I got on board with the fundraising for the charity, and eventually I learned to ride a horse and trained as a therapeutic riding coach. I struggle with my anxiety and I found it a great help - all I had to do was stand in the yard and look at the horses.

I started to notice how sensitive horses were and not just when someone was riding them. Horses are hyper-sensitive, and they pick up on people's emotions.

We have five therapy horses - we have different sizes to match the rider of the horse. We generally go for calm horses that are native to Ireland. One of them is a Shire horse, and she is quite special because she can do tandem rides. This is for people who have poor muscle tone and can't support themselves on the horse. So the coach sits behind the rider and they are still able to do a workout.

A huge variety of people avail of our services. Some might have mental-health issues, low self-esteem or confidence issues, anorexia, right up to those with rare genetic physical disorders. Our centre specialises in therapeutic horse-riding. We put a lot of our time and resources into the therapy side of things because it's very much therapy. It's not just a ride on a pony.

We work with lots of adults from residential services, and children and adults with autism, Down syndrome and epilepsy. One of our clients is blind. She loves the movement and the sensation and the sound. Another has epilepsy. If he has a seizure while he is riding, the horse senses it and stops. Many of our clients are in wheelchairs, and we have a hoist in the yard.

We remove the saddle, so you just sit on a saddle bag. You are in very close contact with the horse and you can feel the horse breathing under your thighs. From a sensory point of view, you are getting that deep pressure impact straightaway and you are able to mirror the movement of the horse much more than if you were in a saddle. We use a roller, which is strapped around the horse, and it provides handles which the rider holds on to. We have somebody who leads the horse and a coach who delivers the lesson.

Each lesson is tailored to meet the needs of the individual. It's not just about the riding, it's about the bonding. When you gain the trust of a horse, that starts building up your confidence. The horses each have their unique personalities.

We get clients to do stretching exercises. They sit on the side of the horse and backwards, so they are exercising different muscles. Then, you are also taking in all the other sensory stimuli - the trees and the sound of the birds. Tests have shown that being around horses lowers blood pressure. You don't have to have a diagnosis for the service, you just have to have a need.

I also do fundraising for our charity. We operate out of Bachelor's Lodge, so we have to pay livery every month. The farrier has to come every six weeks for horseshoes and to file down hooves. And the chiropractor has to come twice a year to do the horses' backs. Then there are the bills for the vet and the dentist. We are a registered Irish charity, but we don't get any government funding. Horses are our biggest expense. If somebody, or a company, could sponsor a horse for a year or give a regular donation, that would be brilliant. I love what I do. I find it very rewarding. I don't know how we are going to survive Covid-19. We are temporarily closed but unless we get donations, we may have to close for good. I would hate for that to happen.

After I pick up the kids, I go home, check on my mother, cook the dinner and do the washing and cleaning. I enjoy spending time with my kids. At night, I watch some telly, just to have some adult time. But I usually fall asleep on the couch, wake at 2am and then go to bed.




In conversation with Ciara Dwyer

To donate to AEAT - IBAN: IE36BOFI90350964894197 BIC: BOFIIE2D