Therapeutic Riding and other stories with Nicola Heanue

My family spent their summers in Connemara for as long as I can remember. My parents had a holiday home in Claddaghduff where my Dad now lives full time. I worked in various pubs in Clifden during the summers when I was in College. I have always loved Connemara and felt more at home here than I did in my native Dublin. I qualified as an Agricultural Scientist (Animal Science) in 1994 and met my now husband in the same year. He is from Clifden and has lived here all his life.  I moved here permanently in 1996 and worked as an Agricultural Consultant initially. We married in 1999 and moved into our home in Ballinaboy shortly afterwards.

From a very early age I adored horses and had riding lessons in Dublin since I was about 10 years old. I studied Agricultural Science in UCD and specialised in Animal Science. My first job after college was as an AI (artificial insemination) technician and veterinary assistant at a stud farm in Kildare. My family thought this was hilarious!! For my 21st birthday my parents bought me a Connemara Pony and this was how I initially met my husband as he was tasked with the job of sourcing the right one. My husband (Padraic) has kept and bred ponies since he was a child. There is a huge history of Connemara Ponies in his family. His father and his grandfather before that bred them. So when we built our house in Ballinaboy the stables were finished before the house!! We have been breeding and showing ponies under the Lough Fadda prefix since before we were married.


Right from when my children were born I loved reading them stories. I adore children’s books and even now that they are a bit older I still browse the children’s section in book shops. As a child I was a big reader as were all my family. I still have all my books from when I was a child.

I have always loved the way animals have very distinct characters. I love writing and ponies were my obvious choice of theme. I also felt it was sad that there was no illustrated children’s book with a Connemara Pony and Connemara itself as it’s centre. Milly was also an obvious choice for me when it came to deciding which of our ponies would be my main character. Milly is full of personality. She was also our first Clifden Show winner and myself and Milly were pregnant with our first babies together too! We nearly lost her to colic during her first pregnancy and she spent 10 days in a veterinary hospital in Kildare.  I love all our ponies but Milly has a very special place in my heart. She is also a bit of a drama queen!

I was approached to become involved in Connemara Therapeutic Riding right at the very start. The initial stages involved getting funding, with the help of FORUM Connemara and the Connemara Pony Breeders Society, to train a number of therapeutic riding coaches. We are a social enterprise run by a team of very dedicated volunteers. In 2017 we became a registered charity. Our goal from the offset was to create a therapeutic riding service for the people of Connemara, based in Connemara. Thankfully this has been achieved. We are based in the wonderful setting of Errislannan Manor Riding Centre. Here we have access to their stables, arena and of course their fantastic Connemara Ponies. We have also created a truly unique Sensory Trail there which leads through a wooded area and down to the sea.


(photography by Laurence Hoffman)

Therapeutic Riding is an equine assisted activity which can be effective in improving balance, co-ordination, emotional control, self confidence and self esteem. It can help develop muscle tone, support the development of fine and gross motor skills, help promote efficient sensory processing and aid with social skills. It benefits people of all ages with a range of conditions including Cerebral Palsy, Multiple Sclerosis, learning disabilities, Autism, Down’s Syndrome, acquired brain injury and sensory impairments. It is a highly recognised form of therapy.

(photo by Laurence Hoffman)

My interest in the project stemmed from many things – my horse background, my belief in the healing power of animals, my love of this area but primarily my interest was because of my son Adam. Adam was diagnosed with Autism when he was nearly 4 years old. He is now 12. Right from his diagnosis I became aware of how far people in this community have to travel to access services for their children with special needs. I was often travelling to Galway once or twice a week with Adam to access speech and language therapy, psychology and occupational therapy among other things. The lack of any services in this area for families and both children and adults with special needs was frustrating to say the least. But I was also aware of how lucky we were to be living in such an amazing place as Clifden. Adam loves the outdoors, we have daily trips to the beach regardless of the weather or time of year. I recognised instantly the importance of community when you are raising a child with special needs. The community at large have been a huge source of support for Connemara Therapeutic Riding and also for me and my family.

Ponies have always been my ‘therapy’ so it made perfect sense to me that they could provide therapy to others. Adam has always loved animals. From an early age he would potter around the garden with our Labrador. She was always at his side. He would sit on the wall behind the house and feed chocolate digestive biscuits to my daughters little Dartmoor pony. He was never nervous of the ponies and loved sitting up on them behind his sister. It seemed like Therapeutic Riding was the obvious next step for him. From the offset he loved it. It was of particular comfort to both him and us as a family when he was really struggling with his anxiety levels. He would sit up on the pony and his anxieties seemed to just melt away. His face would relax and all he wanted to do was trot faster!!

Several of the local primary schools are now sending children to Therapeutic Riding as part of their school curriculum. This is something I am particularly proud of as Adam was the first child in the area to attend during school time. It is so important to think outside the box when it comes to therapies for children with special needs. Follow your child’s interests and likes and you are starting in a good place.




(The Novelty Pony Show 2018 photos courtesy of Sean McAleer)

Like everyone I know I could do an awful lot more to contribute to the wellbeing of our planet. In my life the things that I do to contribute to sustainable living mostly involves recycling. Recycling helps to preserve the resources available to society and to reduce the impact of processing these resources on our planet. One of my recycling projects provides a source of income for Connemara Therapeutic Riding also. We create Fairy Doors from horse shoes but we use some of the hundreds of thousands of horseshoes that are discarded every year in Ireland after just a couple of months use. Traditionally when horse shoes are removed from the horse/pony (if they are not taken by the farrier to be recycled) they are discarded and left to rust. Yards throughout Ireland are full of them. We have collected horseshoes from all over Ireland, cleaned them and turned them into something really beautiful. I suppose every little helps.


(photography by Laurence Hoffman)

I dislike how many everyday items are now disposable, how quick we are to throw things away once they are no longer of use to us. I hate the amount of plastic we use in every day life. I always try to find an alternative use for things. I am a bit of a hoarder. We also used a lot of discarded items to create installations for our sensory trail in Errislannan. I think most things have an alternative use!

(photo by Laurence Hoffman)

I never take Connemara for granted. I am a country girl at heart. I didn’t enjoy living in the city. It just wasn’t for me. I do miss the shopping sometimes!

I like the sense of community in this area, the feeling that people are looking out for you. I like being able to spend my days outdoors, taking the dog for a walk on the beach, or my pony for a hack. Regardless of the weather, Connemara is an amazing place to live and for children to grow up in. I like the countryside in general but I never grow tired of the amazing scenery that surrounds us here. Having grown up in Dublin I always appreciate that I can just step outside into fresh air and take a walk in some of the most beautiful places that Ireland has to offer. Connemara itself is truly therapeutic.

I think I would have to say that the person who has had the greatest influence on my outlook in life would be my Mum. She passed away when she was just 59 years old and I was just 22. She had a great outlook on life. She was very fair, a huge believer in always doing the right thing. She didn’t judge people. But my greatest memory of my Mum was her sense of fun and her infectious laugh. Our house was always full of laughter and to this day I believe that when times are hard it is always better to laugh than to cry. I try to find humour in the strangest of circumstances.


My brother passed away when he was 39 from a brain tumour, obviously an enormously difficult time for all of us but throughout he maintained a sense of humour. When he died my aunt commented that she was so glad my Mum wasn’t alive because my brothers death would have killed her! I knew both my Mum and brother would have appreciated the humour in that.

Family was the most important thing in the world to my Mum and in that way we are very alike. At the end of the day there is nothing more important than the ones you love. And there is no sound nicer to me than hearing my kids laughter. It is my greatest regret that my Mum never got to meet her grandchildren.

Do you have ethical and sustainable criteria the clothes you wear?

Again, I could be more aware. I do prefer organic materials. Both of my children would be very tactile sensitive. Sensory issues are not just limited to those with special needs. So a lot of the ethically produced clothing is more suitable for kids (and adults) with these issues – no scratchy tags, rough materials. They are more naturally and carefully produced and comfort is high on the list of priorities.

I also believe in recycling clothes, again something I inherited from my Mum. If you buy good quality clothes they will last forever but with children’s clothes as soon as they grow out of them I like to pass them down to the next in line (cousins etc.)

Always leave the countryside like you found it. Respect the beauty of nature and don’t pollute it. And treat animals with the utmost care and respect.


Name one thing you are good at, one thing you could be better at, and one aspiration.

I am an ideas person! I wish I was more patient and I want to help make the world (or just this part of it) a better place for people with special needs to live and work in.

Horseshoe Fairy Doors in aid of Connemara Theraputic Riding are available instore.

1 comment

  • Pam mcnulty

    What a beautiful way with words, you have.

    You have put on paper my heart felt beliefs about life and the importance of a community especially for the most vulnerable.

    Fingers crossed very tight I may get to escape the city too

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