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‘Horses changed everything for him’: life of boy with special needs transformed by riding

If anyone can vouch for the huge impact horses can have on a person’s life, it’s Ryleigh Perkins and his family. Nine-year-old Ryleigh, who has ASD (autism spectrum disorder), had his life turned around less than two years ago when he learned to ride.

“Ryleigh has always been a serious child, and very quiet — he could talk but he was very selective of who he would speak to,” explains his mother Sarah-Jane. “But he has always had a love of animals, and a particular connection with horses.”

Sheffield-based Ryleigh, who also has dyspraxia and hypermobility, first learned to ride in 2018 on a 14hh Dales pony, Spirit, at the livery yard Sarah-Jane worked at, but it wasn’t until 10hh mare Willow came into his life in November 2018, that the life of the family changed forever.

“A friend of mine is a Western rider known as the Yorkshire Cowgirl, and Ryleigh has always been fascinated by all things Western,” says Sarah-Jane. “She sent us a Western saddle that fitted Spirit and I took the pony, her owner Bev Houghton, Ryleigh and a tent to a Western riding weekend, where he learnt cowboy games and absolutely loved it. We went to another Western event at Four Strides Equestrian little while later. The owner Sally Heron told us about Willow — she was Ryleigh and Willow’s matchmaker.

“She is an awkward, sassy little mare — a real matriarch — but she and Ryleigh just clicked,” continues Sarah-Jane. “When Willow arrived, everything improved; Ryleigh was three years behind at school, but now he is only just skimming below average. His confidence soared — now, if you’re horsey, he’ll talk to you.”

“Willow is my best friend,” says Ryleigh, who says the pony makes him feel “good, excited and happy”.

Ryleigh now focuses on Western riding, competing in barrel racing all over the country with Four Strides, as well as participating in TREC and recently, going trail hunting for the first time.

“He wore tweed to be respectful, but went out in full Western tack,” laughs Sarah-Jane. “I was very tearful watching he and Willow leave with the hunt, accompanied by a friend of mine, but Ryleigh came home four hours later with a huge smile on his face.

“He is so passionate about Western riding, even though it’s a totally new world for me — I’m into dressage,” she adds.

“Ryleigh thinks like a horse in a way — he likes things done quietly, and loud noises and sudden movements frighten him like they would a horse. People with ASD often need a passion like this — for Ryleigh riding and being around horses is his therapy.

His conditions affect his balance, which could have made it difficult to ride, but horses really relax under him, and I can even see him working with horses as a career.”

To help fund his riding and competing, Ryleigh has also discovered his entrepreneurial side, and now works with equestrian companies such as hoofcare company Fiske’s, rug brand Ponyo Horsewear, and local clothing company Love & Unique, earning commission by helping sell their products, as well as selling secondhand tack and equipment from a stand in the back of the family’s trailer.

“He is hoping to work with more companies in the future, and maybe even bring out his own ‘Life of Ryleigh’ range,” says Sarah-Jane.

“Horses have changed his life completely.”

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