Joys of free rein on day for sick children

Festina Lente centre offers horse riding as therapy to children with serious medical conditions


Bubbles are floating up from behind a tree in a large Victorian walled garden. Ribbons from which coloured papers flutter are suspended from the branches. It is midsummer, not Christmas, but for the children, many of whom are regular patients of Temple Street Hospital, this is a celebration.

They are the guests of the Festina Lente riding school in Bray, Co Wicklow, and the family day activities centre on the horses and ponies.

Standing 18.2 hands high, Samson, a Shire/Clydesdale cross, is too big for any of the riders. But he is content to oversee the proceedings as his smaller colleagues, cobs and ponies, are ridden by the children.

Also present are Sponge Bob and Barney, neither of whom is brave enough to ride a pony. But Chanelle, known as Nelly, is more than brave. She is a hero. She is six years old and suffers from cerebral palsy; she is blind and has already won three certificates at her school for riding.

Her lively aunt and foster mother, Carla Greene, is as always by Nelly’s side, cheering on Devlin the chestnut pony. Carla has no fingers but it does not prevent her from urging Devlin to greater efforts.

“Nelly rides at St Joseph’s School for the Blind – she loves it. But it’s hard when the summer comes and school closes. Then there’s no riding.”

The cards and drawings hanging from the tree are wishes. It might seem likely that Nelly would ask for a pony, but that isn’t the case. “No, she just wanted the sun to come out.”

Nelly would outshine the brightest sun as she poses for the camera and a team of helpers cheer her on. Carla would love to be able to pay for riding lessons over the summer, “but it’s very expensive and I have Nelly’s brother and my son to look after. But we make the best of things, don’t we Nelly?”

Young Eanna Kelly is a handsome three-year-old who is big for his age and very funny. He has decided that his mount, Maxwell, is a suitable steed for the adventures he is intent on pursuing.

Last December Eanna contracted meningitis. It cost him his lower leg but he has already mastered his prosthetic foot. His brother Iarla is with him and feels at ease on Bella, a pretty grey pony who could have a career in the movies.

Siblings were also invited by Festina Lente for the day. Jill Carey, the chief executive of the riding school, which was founded in 1988, is committed to special needs riders and horse welfare, yet still operates from a rented premises.

“Parents of children with serious medical conditions and special needs are under so much pressure dealing with hospitals and daily medical situations their other children get used to waiting. This is our way of giving the entire family a day together,” she says.

A young girl sits on one of the garden benches. She looks tired. Tríona Priestly is 15 and has cystic fibrosis. Earlier she rode in the sand arena with two friends who came to share the day with her. Tríona has been an active rider since childhood, but her lungs now only function at 35 per cent capacity, and she tires quickly.

“The horses are great for the children,” says Tríona’s mother, Bernie. She has five children and her son Colm, now 27, also suffers from cystic fibrosis.

“As he is an adult he attends Beaumont for treatment; Tríona is still with Temple Street. It’s our second home. The staff are great but it’s an old building not geared for dealing with modern medicine.

“There is a cystic fibrosis unit there now but it is closed at the weekends. So if there is an emergency, Tríona has to go to the A&E, which is always busy at Temple Street. So far this year, she’s done very well; she’s only had three stay-in admissions.”

Many of the children are too intently engaged with the tactile, responsive ponies to bother with the human with the notebook.

The parents make jokes about greedy bankers and watch their children enjoy an outing that for once has nothing to do with life-threatening emergencies, treatment or hospital queues.

No one complains about medical staff, particularly nurses who are attempting to perform miracles in cramped, outdated conditions.

“It would be great if every day was like this,” says Bernie Priestly. “The entire Temple Street staff, from the dinner ladies to the consultants, are wonderful and try so hard to make every hospital stay as easy possible.”

She has learned a great deal about the inadequacies of the medical system through her personal experiences. Politicians and healthcare executives should listen to her reasoned observations.

“Basically we need a system that has a child-centred approach. Never mind bailing out bankers – where is the long-promised children’s hospital? Tríona was born in 1998. Next year she transfers to an adult hospital. It makes you think.”