Humans, horses and horticulture make a soothing garden

At Bray’s Festina Lente, the fun of horseback riding is enhanced by the sheer joy of flowers

Rider Jamie O’Brien with therapeutic riding coaches Arina Jozwik and Rachel Ardagh as they follow Festina Lente’s new therapy trail past a border designed by Oliver Schurmann. Photograph: Richard Johnston

Rider Jamie O’Brien with therapeutic riding coaches Arina Jozwik and Rachel Ardagh as they follow Festina Lente’s new therapy trail past a border designed by Oliver Schurmann. Photograph: Richard Johnston

 
Humans, horses and horticulture – or the three “Hs” – is how the team based at Festina Lente in Bray, Co Wicklow, sum up their work. To understand exactly what they mean, you need to pay a visit to this not-for-profit organisation’s equestrian therapy centre, and in particular its two-and-a-half-acre historic walled garden. Squeezed inside those high brick walls lined with ancient pear trees is a colourful grid of productive allotments (54 of them), a flower-filled double herbaceous border, formal tinkling fountains, velvety-green lawns, a terrapin sanctuary, a small coffee shop and a pretty little garden centre.
 
Oh, and a spanking new therapy trail, designed for horse riders, which formally opened earlier this week. The trail wends its way past a 60-metre-long shady sensory border, laid out last year by award-winning garden designer and nurseryman Oliver Schurmann. It continues meandering past lines of fiery dahlias and through a freshly sown pictorial perennial mini-meadow, frothy with the delicate flowers of wild carrot, musk mallow, knapweed, toadflax, verbascum, field scabious, evening primrose and Carthusian pinks. 
 
It’s quite a set-up, made all the more impressive by the fact that much of it has been funded through generous donations. Some are from EU and governmental bodies such as Pobal, some from charities such as the International Charity Bazaar, and still more from anonymous donors. This summer more than 240 riders, including 70 schoolchildren with learning, emotional and physical disabilities that range from autism to brain injury, dyspraxia, dyslexia and cerebral palsy, paid these unique gardens a visit. Some came as part of the Department of Education’s DEIS (Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools) programme, others as part of the weekly Triple-H camps that run in the gardens throughout the year. 
 
Few of them had ever sat on a horse before. Others, in particular the schoolchildren on the DEIS programme, came from socially disadvantaged backgrounds that contributed to their learning and behavioural difficulties. 
 
“Lots of these children don’t have their own family garden, many of them have never even walked through a garden,” says Festina Lente CEO Jill Carey. “But within a short time of arriving, they’re rolling down the grass slopes and sniffing the flowers.”
 
For children participating in the weekly Triple H camps, a typical day in the gardens would include a morning spent horse-riding with a team of experienced therapeutic riding coaches. This is followed by nature-based workshops, where they learn how to identify herbs, go on nature-walks and bug-hunts, make soap using ingredients harvested from the gardens, and build flower boxes, bird houses or bat boxes. 
 
Their ride along the new therapy trail helps build core strength and co-ordination skills and affords them a sense of physical autonomy and independence, as well as one of companionship, an experience underscored by the particular way in which the trail integrates the sensory experiences of colour, scent, sound and touch. 
This might be the sight of the deep red flower spikes of Persicaria ‘Fats Domino’, the wine-purple stars of Astrantia ‘Gill Richardson’ or the lilac-pink lacecaps of Hydrangea ‘Anthony Bullivant’, now flowering in nurseryman Schurmann’s shady mixed border. 
 
Or it could be the smell of cut grass, or of wet soil, or of the sweet lemony perfume of the giant cream flowers of Magnolia grandiflora growing in one sunny corner. 
Sound? That might be the buzz of insects in the perennial mini-meadow, the watery splash of the fountain, or the gentle rattle of a harness. 
 
And touch? That could be the reassuring warmth and heft of a horse’s broad, strong back, or the wispy featherlight stroke of the ornamental grass known fittingly as Stipa ‘Pony Tails’ . Anyone who has watched the children being led on horseback along this trail will also vouch for the movingly empathetic response of the animals to those who ride them .
 
As for those children taking part in the DEIS programme, their involvement with the gardens of Festina Lente is spread out over many months. It includes their very own allotment, where, under the expert eye of a team of trained gardeners that includes garden manager Anne Gleeson and fellow horticulturists Bobby Smith and Patrick Howlett, they learn how to sow, grow, harvest and cook their own food. 
 
“We have far more boys than girls taking part in DEIS,” says Carey, “which is probably a reflection of the way in which boys externalise their problems, sometimes causing them to fall back or drop out academically.” 
 
She adds that children are often referred to Festina Lente by home school liaison officers or school completion officers. 
“Tending the allotment together instead helps them to acquire a new and hugely important set of life skills,” she says. “It promotes social and emotional well-being, teaches empathy, trust , confidence, resilience and respect, and shows how being part of a team can be a productive, beneficial, conflict-free experience. The equestrian element underscores all of this.”
 
Festina Lente also runs workshops for those new to allotmenteering, who find the kitchen gardener’s yearly ballet of sowing, weeding, watering, hoeing, and harvesting something of a challenge to master. Families with young children will also be delighted to discover that the gardens offer a welcome alternative to the soul-sapping experience that is the playbarn birthday party. 
 
“We provide the venue, cooking facilities and a choice of five to six different nature-based workshops, where the children get to bring home what they’ve made, as well as personalised treasure-hunts through the gardens,” describes events co-ordinator Andrea O’ Donoghue. “It’s all great fun; the only thing parents have to do is supply the food.” 
Festina Lente, as you can see, is a very special sort of walled garden. But don’t just take my word for it; instead find out for yourself.
For details, see festinalente.ie
 
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