What’s the only thing that usurps Lois Keays’ love of horses? Sharing that affinity with others.
Her bond with equines dates back to her early school days, times when she would find herself glued to the television set, her eyes firmly focused on the biggest names in racing, both horse and human.
“I was always horse-crazy and my parents bought me a pony when I was seven,” Keays recalled. “I’ve watched the Kentucky Derby, the Queen’s Plate and all the Triple Crown races since I was six. I owned my very first off-track thoroughbred, to ride, when I was 21. And once you’ve ridden an off-track thoroughbred, there’s no point in looking at anything else, in my opinion.”
For the past 30-plus years, Keays’ and her horses have resided at Hales Farm, situated just north of Wiarton, Ontario (about 220 kilometres northwest of Toronto).
Many of the horses there are familiar faces.
“I bred horses to race and I raced for myself, so a bunch of the horses I have on the farm are horses I bred and kept. I’ve rescued horses as well. Last September, I had to put my Mosella, my broodmare, down. She was 28. It was hard to do because you form such a bond with these horses. She had such character. She was bred in the U.S., raced in France, came back to the U.S. as a broodmare, and then came to Canada. She raised several foals for me. She was pretty opinionated and aloof to a certain extent because in her eyes, humans weren’t up to snuff. I have four of her kids here. Right now I have 13 horses in all.”
It’s enough to keep her busy 24/7. But for Keays, a lifelong passion for horses has motivated her to dedicate time to helping others experience that same joy.
All it took to get it started was one simple request a few years ago.
“My daughter is a teacher,” started Keays. “There is a First Nations community that is quite close to us and my daughter was working in the Adult Learning program. One of the girls that works for the local health centre was engaged in a therapeutic horse program. She had never been around horses, so she came to my daughter and asked her if there was anyone she knew that she could go visit and spend time with horses, so that she could get the skills that would help her get through this program. This lady came to our farm and I mentored her through a program that went from March until June so that she could pass her own program, which was called FEEL (Facilitated Equine Experiential Learning). She got her accreditation. That was amazing.”
Keays’ mentoring had only just begun.
Soon enough, a program was developed for children that were identified as needing help. Keays immediately thought of how her horses could play a role in helping them.
“It was thought perhaps this would be a good option for them,” said Keays, who in 2012 started the Ontario Retired Racehorse Program (ORRP), to advocate for the racing breeds in alternative careers, including sport, pleasure or therapeutic/learning programs.
It didn’t take long for Keays, who had nine kids in the first program and eight in the second, to discover the answer.
“There were a lot of changes in those kids,” she recalled. “We did two separate programs with that. Marleen Vogl, the one I mentored, was the facilitator with the kids. I was teaching them basic horsemanship. Dressage is my thing and it has been since I was very young. I believe in developing horsemanship skills before they can ride. This program - both of them were 10 weeks in length - it was basically to teach them skills. But in doing that, they have to confront issues of their own. It’s quite remarkable to see the interaction.
“The first time the kids came, they all came here together. I let them go out with the horses and the horses picked each kid. By that horse choosing the child, I had a pretty good awareness what that child was thinking, how they were reacting and feeling. The horse would mirror them. The kids had to learn how to groom and learn how to pick up feet, lead them around, what tack was, how to approach them. It’s a lot of labour with the horses, but their relationships with the horses grew.”
Keays discovered just how impactful her program had been after she opened a letter from a young girl.
“She wrote me a poem. She was only 10. It was absolutely amazing. I cried… it was just so well written. She felt confident enough and creative enough to express what the horse program meant to her. To me, it’s the absolute ultimate thing. The horse allows them to be who they are without any judgment. They will interact with those kids on whatever level that child wants to interact upon.”
One child in particular stands out for Keays.
She noticed the kid, who stood much taller than most kids his age, was very withdrawn when he came to the farm.
“He learned that if he used his size, he could intimidate other kids,” recalled Keays. “He felt he could create space for himself through that. He tried it with one of my horses and it didn’t work. What happened with him, it really surprised me. At the end of the program, I have this picture of him hugging this mare named Miss. He has the biggest smile on his face. Every time I look at the picture, it just amazes me. It was a remarkable transformation. That’s the power of horses.”
Five of the Youth & Horses Program graduates committed to three weeks of preparing four of Keays’ ex-racehorses to participate in the Wiarton Fall Fair Horse Show.
“Their courage and dedication to accomplishing that feat, having never attended a horse show, let alone compete in one, as well as being advocates and spokespeople for the program by manning a booth in the exhibit hall was remarkable,” she said. “It further demonstrated the confidence they acquired through their work with the horses and how they applied it in demanding situations.”
Keays, who held the first program in 2016, would like to see more opportunities for people to connect with horses.
She’s considered opening up the farm during the popular “Doors Open” initiative that takes place across Ontario each year.
“I wanted to create that environment for kids, where they can learn about horses and gain confidence,” she said. “We need to make ourselves access to people. When people get involved, they realize the benefit. The horse racing industry is a leader in so many avenues.”
Keays is hopeful the therapeutic side of the horse industry receives the recognition she believes it deserves.
“It’s just so important. I can’t imagine what my life would be like if I wasn’t around horses. I just can’t imagine that. I’ll do the best I can to keep pushing these connections forward. Ever since I was a child and to this very day, I believe there’s nothing more beautiful than a thoroughbred.”