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Ashlynn is thriving with her therapy horse

Tuesday 16 February 2021 in Patient stories

Ashlynn wished for a horse, but in River, she got much more. The cream coloured mare is not just a pleasure to ride and a loving friend but also an important part of her therapy as she works towards growing stronger and overcoming challenges.

In 2016, just after her 11th birthday, Ashlynn was diagnosed with neurofibromatosis, known as NF2, a rare genetic condition that causes tumours to develop. A few weeks later major surgery at The Children's Hospital at Westmead removed a tumour the size of a small mandarin on the right side of her brain.

Since then, Ashlynn has learnt to adapt to significant physical limitations including brain injuries with loss of hearing and sight, but has flourished surrounded by the farm animals and rural lifestyle she loves.

When Ashlynn, 15, first saw River, a nine-year-old mare, at a distant farm in 2018 she had no idea the horse was from Make-A-Wish Foundation. On being told it was hers she burst into tears and her life changed as she gained a companion and a physiotherapy partner.

Ashlynn bonded with River immediately and their connection can be seen in beautiful photographs taken earlier this year, as a special occasion, that was organised by a good friend who knew a photographer. 

Photo: Shannon Smith 

Photo: Shannon Smith

“Physio got her strong enough to do more with River because it got her muscles working the way they should and built them up,” said Ashlynn’s mother, Tamara.

“We used to strap her into a special saddle, and I walked by River’s side. When you’re on horseback every muscle moves and, like riding a bike, there is a right and left movement. She had the right and left sides of her brain starting to communicate with each other which helped her fine motor skills, gross motor skills, muscle building, and psychological wellbeing.

“She also had to remember to use her left hand, as she favoured her right one, because you can’t even brush a horse without using both hands. Everything you do with a horse you need both hands for. It was really the best thing that happened. River has changed her life.”

There are days when Ashlynn is unwell, such as after a chemotherapy session, but she has learned to adapt and is working towards getting stronger, riding River with more independence, and walking her dog without the fear of tripping over.

“You have to make certain changes. I still walk around with my vision cane in busy places but we’re getting a guide dog soon which will be nice,” said Ashlynn, who recognises diversity is a part of life.

“It’s really not such a big deal when you’re used to it. It’s just getting you, and everyone else around you, to be okay and understand that if you go to the land of normal no-one will be there.”

Ashlynn and River bonded quickly        Photo: Shannon Smith

Ashlynn is slowly building her stamina by riding River and is less exhausted through the day as horseback is less tiring than walking. She has opened a poultry business, selling chickens and eggs, and is learning about her Aboriginal culture by studying at TAFE. River has also provided Ashlynn with opportunities to meet people which led to the images being taken by professional photographer Shannon Smith and a story in the Daily Telegraph.

The therapeutic and emotional benefits of animals, like River, cannot be underestimated said Ashlynn who wants to work with children with special needs and therapy animals in the future.

“I don’t think I would be where I am now without my animals.”

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