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How horses break down our barriers



Eileen Bennett and Mary Mitchell of Horses Connect. “There isn’t an awareness of this kind of work yet in Ireland,” the women say of Equine Assisted Learning and Therapy. Photo: Joe O'Shaughnessy.

Lifestyle –  Judy Murphy meets the women behind Horse Connect which offers a range of unique equine therapy services

A large paddock on a farm to the west of Galway City occupied by just a horse and pony might not seem like an obvious place to learn more about human behaviour. Nor does it initially look like a place that might help children and adults with physical, sensory and intellectual disabilities.

But this yard is home to a new business called Horse Connect Enterprises, which offers a range of training and therapy services, based around horses and humans working together to break down barriers and change people’s behavioural patterns

Eileen Bennett and Mary Mitchell of the organisation explain that the services offered depend on clients’ need. They include Therapeutic Riding, Equine Assisted Learning and Equine Assisted Therapy.

But before the interview proper begins, the women invite me to join the horse and pony in the paddock. Cue a brief lesson into Equine Assisted Training.

A little grey-white pony called Polly has her head over the gate as we approach, consumed with curiosity about the stranger – me. The other creature, an elegant bay mare, pays little attention.

We enter. Acting as though I were a client, Mary and Eileen suggest that I select the animal I want to engage with and approach it. I head towards the bay. She has no interest in me. Polly, however, does nuzzling and playfully pushing her head into my hand.

Eventually, too, she moves off, but we remain inside the paddock.

A few minutes later, there’s drama. The bay mare has become curious and moves closer. The minute she does, Polly goes ballistic, neighing and head-tossing and kicking her heels to beat the band.

We stand and watch as the animals repeat this pattern of behaviour several times.

Eventually Eileen turns to me, and asks, ‘what do you think was happening there?’ I offer my impressions and she nods.

In a short few minutes, Eileen and Mary have observed how I reacted when I was rejected by my chosen animal while being pursued by the animal I didn’t want. By asking for my opinion, they are encouraging me to draw my own conclusions about the incident.

Meanwhile, the rivalry between the horse and pony as to which is dominant offers a metaphor for the way humans behave towards each other.

After that brief experience, we humans leave the arena, but had it been a real training session, I would have had further exercises with the horses to provide even more insight into human behaviour, according to Mary and Eileen.

Both are passionate horsewomen and both have first-hand experience of how horses can benefit humans.

“Horses respond with unique insight into who we are in the moment. They are profoundly gifted reflectors of our true selves because their very survival depends on reading us right. Horses know when we’re grounded, focused and real.

“And they know immediately when we’re not – even if we don’t know it ourselves. Also, the horse never sees a person with a problem, challenge or issue. The horse only sees a person,” they say.

Mary is a riding instructor and the mother of a teenage daughter with special needs. To help her daughter, Mary trained as a Special Needs Assistant some years ago. And started integrating her new knowledge with her equine work – her daughter loves horses and is now a Special Olympic rider.

Mary then got an opportunity to train in Therapeutic Horse-riding, via the Connemara Pony Breeders Society, Forum Connemara and Paving the Way (a support group for people with disabilities).  Therapeutic Horse-riding used for children and adults with a variety of physical, cognitive, emotional and developmental disabilities. This was the beginning of Mary’s journey to co-establishing Moycullen-based Horse Connect.

For Eileen, the realisation that horses could help people with a range of problems went back even further.

For more, read this week’s Connacht Tribune.

Connacht Tribune

West has lower cancer survival rates than rest



Significant state investment is required to address ‘shocking’ inequalities that leave cancer patients in the West at greater risk of succumbing to the disease.

A meeting of Regional Health Forum West heard that survival rates for breast, lung and colorectal cancers than the national average, and with the most deprived quintile of the population, the West’s residents faced poorer outcomes from a cancer diagnosis.

For breast cancer patients, the five-year survival rate was 80% in the West versus 85% nationally; for lung cancer patients it was 16.7% in the west against a 19.5% national survival rate; and in the West’s colorectal cancer patients, there was a 62.6% survival rate where the national average was 63.1%.

These startling statistics were provided in answer to a question from Ballinasloe-based Cllr Evelyn Parsons (Ind) who said it was yet another reminder that cancer treatment infrastructure in the West was in dire need of improvement.

“The situation is pretty stark. In the Western Regional Health Forum area, we have the highest incidence of deprivation and the highest health inequalities because of that – we have the highest incidences of cancer nationally because of that,” said Cllr Parsons, who is also a general practitioner.

In details provided by CEO of Saolta Health Care Group, which operates Galway’s hospitals, it was stated that a number of factors were impacting on patient outcomes.

Get the full story in this week’s Connacht Tribune, on sale in shops now, or you can download the digital edition from You can also download our Connacht Tribune App from Apple’s App Store or get the Android Version from Google Play.

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Connacht Tribune

Marathon Man plans to call a halt – but not before he hits 160 races



Loughrea’s Marathon Man Jarlath Fitzgerald.

On the eve of completing his 150th marathon, an odyssey that has taken him across 53 countries, Loughrea’s Marathon Man has announced that he is planning to hang up his running shoes.

But not before Jarlath Fitzgerald completes another ten races, making it 160 marathons on the occasion of his 60th birthday.

“I want to draw the line in 2026. I turn 57 in October and when I reach 60 it’s the finishing line. The longer races are taking it out of me. I did 20 miles there two weeks ago and didn’t feel good. It’s getting harder,” he reveals.

“I’ve arthritis in both hips and there’s wear and tear in the knees.”

We speak as he is about to head out for a run before his shift in Supervalu Loughrea. Despite his physical complaints, he still clocks up 30 miles every second week and generally runs four days a week.

Jarlath receives injections to his left hip to keep the pain at bay while running on the road.

To give his joints a break, during the winter he runs cross country and often does a five-mile trek around Kylebrack Wood.

He is planning on running his 150th marathon in Cork on June 4, where a group of 20 made up of work colleagues, friends and running mates from Loughrea Athletics Club will join him.

Some are doing the 10k, others are doing the half marathon, but all will be there on the finishing line to cheer him on in the phenomenal achievement.

Get the full story in this week’s Connacht Tribune, on sale in shops now, or you can download the digital edition from You can also download our Connacht Tribune App from Apple’s App Store or get the Android Version from Google Play.

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Galway ‘masterplan’ needed to tackle housing and transport crises



From the Galway City Tribune – An impassioned plea for a ‘masterplan’ that would guide Galway City into the future has been made in the Dáil. Galway West TD Catherine Connolly stated this week that there needed to be an all-inclusive approach with “vision and leadership” in order to build a sustainable city.

Deputy Connolly spoke at length at the crisis surrounding traffic and housing in Galway city and said that not all of the blame could be laid at the door of the local authority.

She said that her preference would be the provision of light rail as the main form of public transport, but that this would have to be driven by the government.

“I sat on the local council for 17 years and despaired at all of the solutions going down one road, metaphorically and literally. In 2005 we put Park & Ride into the development plan, but that has not been rolled out. A 2016 transport strategy was outdated at the time and still has not been updated.

“Due to the housing crisis in the city, a task force was set up in 2019. Not a single report or analysis has been published on the cause of the crisis,” added Deputy Connolly.

She then referred to a report from the Land Development Agency (LDA) that identified lands suitable for the provision of housing. But she said that two-thirds of these had significant problems and a large portion was in Merlin Park University Hospital which, she said, would never have housing built on it.

In response, Minister Simon Harris spoke of the continuing job investment in the city and also in higher education, which is his portfolio.

But turning his attention to traffic congestion, he accepted that there were “real issues” when it came to transport, mobility and accessibility around Galway.

“We share the view that we need a Park & Ride facility and I understand there are also Bus Connects plans.

“I also suggest that the City Council reflect on her comments. I am proud to be in a Government that is providing unparalleled levels of investment to local authorities and unparalleled opportunities for local authorities to draw down,” he said.

Then Minister Harris referred to the controversial Galway City Outer Ring Road which he said was “struck down by An Bord Pleanála”, despite a lot of energy having been put into that project.

However, Deputy Connolly picked up on this and pointed out that An Bord Pleanála did not say ‘No’ to the ring road.

“The High Court said ‘No’ to the ring road because An Bord Pleanála acknowledged it failed utterly to consider climate change and our climate change obligations.

“That tells us something about An Bord Pleanála and the management that submitted such a plan.”

In the end, Minister Harris agreed that there needed to be a masterplan for Galway City.

“I suggest it is for the local authority to come up with a vision and then work with the Government to try to fund and implement that.”

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