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I Can Ride A Horse (and I’m Blind)

Marie Keane and Team Marie
Picture of Julie Hahnke
Julie Hahnke
Julie is the President of Cecropia Strong and is a stroke survivor, who was finally found after three days. She's a bagpiper, an author, a management consultant, and a nature enthusiast.

This is the story of Marie Keane. She wrote this for our blog and her courage is amazing!

At the tender age of five, I learned that I had a problem with my pancreas and my need to pee constantly was a symptom of Juvenile Diabetes. That disease has left lasting scars on me to this day.

During my thirteenth year, a visit to my brother in Merrimack, NH, proved to be a transformative experience. A trip to the Anheuser Busch Brewery introduced me to the majestic Clydesdales, igniting an instant passion within me. However, back in my hometown of Pittsburgh, PA, where city life predominated, I found myself devoid of peers who shared my equestrian interests.

My academic journey led me to Indiana University of Pennsylvania, where I pursued a major in teaching. I was doing well there, but darkness descended as my retina tore – a symptom of the diabetes. Over the next year my other retina tore, and I lost all sight. I persevered, returning the following year to complete my degree, albeit with a change in focus to business studies following a brief stint in cane training.

In 2004 I met my fiancé, Dean, and moved to Massachusetts.  I worked for him and then started managing my own small business.  Life was good, we thought.

The trajectory of my life shifted once again when I had a diabetic ulcer on my left foot. This is a devastating complication and it’s typically linked with infection, amputation, and sometimes death. I didn’t die, but I had an amputation of my left leg, below the knee. While recovering from the amputation, I was in Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Charlestown. It was there, amidst the process of healing, that fate intervened. Overhearing a conversation about horseback riding, my curiosity was piqued, leading me to seek out opportunities at Windrush Farm with the assistance of my Physical Therapist and Adaptive Sports Specialist Kathy Salas.

My initial companion at Windrush was Judge, a stalwart and patient equine partner. Together, we navigated obstacle courses, sharing moments of triumph and even the occasional mishap. (He stopped once and wouldn’t continue. When I asked what was up, I was told he was eating a plastic flower atop a barrel.)

Swifty and Team Marie
Swifty and Team Marie

For a period of two years, I formed a deep bond with Swifty, a horse whose intuitive understanding matched my own. Our connection transcended mere communication: Swifty anticipated my needs before they were expressed, solidifying our partnership on and off the saddle. His untimely death left a void in my heart, and I bid him farewell with gentle caresses and whispered goodbyes.

During the Autumn ’23 session, I rode Reyna.  We did a show called Threading the Needle with our classmate Sal and his horse Judge.  It was a lot of repetition, but we did a final show amongst an audience.  The horses didn’t want to perform with all the pressure, but when the people left they had no problem! It is fun to experience the different personalities of the horses.

Saul riding Judge, and Marie riding Reyna.
Saul riding Judge, and Marie riding Reyna.

Presently, I find solace and joy in the company of Cordo, a former Argentinian polo pony at Windrush Farm. Despite her towering stature, she exudes grace and gentleness, making me feel like royalty in her presence. Like me, she is sensitive yet fiercely loyal, enriching our rides with mutual understanding and companionship.

I am often asked how a visually impaired person rides a horse independently, and the answer lies in spatial awareness. I have discovered that each horse has its own unique steps and pace. During exercises in the indoor arena, there are letters posted on the walls, and individuals stand beneath them, calling out as we pass. The instructor might instruct me to ride from point A to point C, and by listening to the voices around me, I guide the horse in the right direction.

Windrush Farm is a haven where my physical and mental well-being are nurtured. Each session strengthens my legs, clears my mind of troubles, and enhances my balance. Trail rides offer moments of serenity, as I immerse myself in the beauty of nature, inhaling the scent of flowers and listening to the rustling of leaves. I’m so grateful for the grants of Cecropia Strong, so folks like me can cherish Windrush Farm. It remains our sanctuary—a place where challenges fade away, and the bond between rider and horse flourishes.

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