The gift of hope with Haven’s gift horses

Andrew is delighted to interact with the rescue horses at the ‘Haven’. Pictures by  Ciara Wilkinson.
Andrew is delighted to interact with the rescue horses at the ‘Haven’. Pictures by Ciara Wilkinson.

THERE’S certainly no long faces at Holly’s Horse Haven in Omeath, Co Louth, where rescued animals are repaying their good fortune by delivering smiles and hope to adults and youngsters with special needs.

This is an animal sanctuary with a difference. It’s one of thousands of good causes benefitting from National Lottery funding, and it’s full of incredible, heart-melting stories.

Like the disadvantaged boy with an ambition to be a drive-by shooter who now wants to groom horses and the silent, autistic girl who spoke for the first time in two years.

“She was here for four days when she suddenly just said ‘I need carrots for Brandy, she likes them’,” says Elaine Duffy, who founded Holly’s Horse Haven with husband Joe back in 2008.

“The father was sat here with tears rolling down his face. But what did we do? We did nothing. It was Brandy who deserved all the thanks.”

Holly’s Horse Haven began almost by accident. A consortium of builders had bought a racehorse during the economic boom years but when the financial crisis hit they could no longer afford her upkeep, and it looked like she would have to be slaughtered.

“A member of the consortium got in touch, basically because we were the only ones they knew with a field, and asked could we help them out,” says Elaine.

Joe and Elaine Duffy from Holly's Horse Haven in Omeath

When Joe and Elaine took in Holly she had two fillies in tow and word soon got around the small, rural, border community that the Duffys were rescuing horses.

It wasn't long before animal welfare organisations and Government bodies on both sides of the border began to call looking for a sanctuary for abandoned and neglected horses.

“We started getting phone calls and Alfie the donkey was next to be rescued,” Elaine says. “He was stuck up the mountain, tethered and starving, so we went and took him down and it went from there.”

Seven years later Holly’s Horse Haven now looks after 70 horses as well as a variety of smaller animals ­– including ducks, rabbits and hens. And sanctuary is provided for humans too, through Holly’s Social Haven.

The roots of the social side of the haven began when Elaine and Joe were asked if they could help out with a group of disadvantaged lads recovering from drug and alcohol abuse.

“There was nowhere suitable for them and they just needed somewhere to go and something to do,” explains Elaine. “All I asked them to do was to treat the horses the way they would like to be treated themselves.

“We never had a moment’s trouble with them.”

The HSE found out about Holly’s Horse Haven and asked if Elaine and Joe could adapt the programme they had worked on with the recovering addicts for children with disabilities and special needs.

Holly’s Social Haven now provides a safe space for those who find it difficult to adapt to normal daycare facilities and are at risk of falling through gaps in the system.

Senior clinical psychologist, Dr Mark Harrold, describes the haven as “truly magical” and a place where people with special needs can learn that caring for others is just as important as looking out for themselves.

“For once, people with special needs are learning how to give help and assistance rather than being on the receiving end of it,” he says. “And for each and every one of them, it has proven to be a life-changing experience.”

Elaine says with so much to do around Holly’s Horse Haven everybody is capable of making a valuable contribution.

“We don’t say special needs or disabilities – we call them special helpers,” she adds. “Everybody has an ability. Sitting in a wheelchair for 15 minutes with a rescued horse that needs human contact is ability. In fact, it’s a very special ability.”

One success story from Holly’s Horse Haven is Andrew Kavanagh. The 21-year-old has been working with Joe and Elaine for almost two years now and is a valued apprentice.

With no suitable placements available, he was referred to the haven by the HSE and put on a pilot programme. He’s settled in well and now not only helps Joe and Elaine, but he also volunteers with St John’s Ambulance at weekends.

Andrew with one of the horses at the haven

“He’s a total multitasker and an amazing worker,” says Elaine. “There’s such a variety of work for him to do that there’s no danger of him becoming bored.”

Andrew starts his days at Holly’s Horse Haven with ‘mucking out’ duties. From there, he heads up to the chickens and ducks to make sure everything’s OK with the centre’s feathered friends.

Later in the day he may do some planting around the 300-acre site or head out with Joe in the Jeep to help build and mend fences.

In between he mixes feed for the haven’s horses, and is delighted that his apprenticeship is going so well.

“Elaine and Joe are great to work with and the horses are easy to work with,” he says. “It’s great. We all love it here.”

Last summer Holly’s Horse Haven applied to the National Lottery for funding to run a summer camp. The funding not only allowed Elaine and Joe to host a wonderful experience for children who need it most, it also helped highlight how even more services can be provided.

“The summer camp was coordinated by the HSE and we had the most amazing time,” Elaine says. “The kids had a ball. They learned about horses, they learned about grooming, they learned about caring for them.

“The National Lottery has been a platform that we can leap forward from to have the facilities here we need to accommodate all of these people with disabilities who are coming along and who really, really want to be part of the care and the nursing of these rescued animals.”

Holly’s Horse Haven was featured on Winning Streak after the funding was granted and the show generated a lot of attention.

“We never thought there’d be so much interest or even that we’d be on Winning Streak ­– it was a huge shock,” Elaine laughs.

“Without that National Lottery funding the summer camps wouldn’t have happened, or it would have taken us a very long time to get where we are now.

“It opened our eyes to the vision that we really want to extend. We’re now hoping we can run a respite centre where young adults from around the country can come and stay with us to enjoy a break.”

Despite the wonderful work done by Holly’s Social Haven, the focus still also remains firmly on the abandoned and neglected horses that started it all off.

Foster and full-time carers are badly needed to free up space and Elaine and Joe are always grateful when one of their horses finds a loving home.

Holly’s Horse Haven is a totally non-profit charity and any funding received goes 100 per cent into the feeding and care of the rescued horses.

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