By Jim Wrobel
Special to GoHolyCross.com
There is nothing better than being able to help people in need by doing something that you love to do and have a passion for. With the help of her sister and her teammates, Holy Cross senior women's lacrosse captain Annie Boylan (Andover, Mass.), who is also a champion horseback rider, is doing just that as a volunteer at Wings and Hooves.
Wings and Hooves Therapeutic Riding, Inc., is a non-profit organization that is located in Kingswood Farms in East Kingston, N.H., and is run by Karen Cuneo and Annie's sister, Colleen Boylan. This program relies on volunteers and fundraising to meet its mission of enhancing the lives of individuals with physical, emotional and developmental challenges by building confidence through equine-assisted activities and partnerships.
Boylan, who because of her sister started horseback riding when she was four years old and started competing at five, knows how therapeutic riding can be. "No one realizes just how therapeutic horses are and it's been amazing to share that with people," said Boylan. "I've been riding for about 18 years now and it's made me who I am today. Whenever I'm stressed, I usually find a way to get out to the barn and just let go for the day. My horse, Memory, is who I turn to when I am really stressed or upset. Being able to watch families with their riders do the same has been unreal."
Some of the results of the relationships between the riders and the horses that Boylan has seen are amazing. "One of the strongest and toughest riders I've seen is an eight-year old non-verbal autistic girl with a cerebral visual impairment," said Boylan. "Doctors told her mother that she would never be able to feed herself, or even talk. Last month the rider not only held reins while riding Khlassic (her horse), but also told volunteers she was "happy" when she got on the horse which was her first verbal communication with Wings and Hooves volunteers! By learning how to hold reins, she may even be able to learn how to hold a spoon or a fork! A lot of parents talk about how much the riding lessons translate over to differences at school. For example, a rider diagnosed with ADD has had much more success in school because of her developing patience and focus. It's incredible to watch these riders grow and develop because of the relationship with the horses and lessons."
Boylan's favorite thing about volunteering at Wings and Hooves is interacting with the riders and watching the riders react to the horses. "I absolutely love the riders!" said Boylan. "It's hard to make it out there during school, but there is one lesson I try to make every week to see one of the little girls. Whenever I see her every week, I end up leaving the farm with a big smile on my face without fail. One day she wasn't feeling well, so she and I picked dandelions in the fields for about half an hour and it was one of the best lessons I have ever been a part of. I love watching riders interact with the horses, too. The horses adore the riders just as much as the riders love the horses, and it's really a special relationship to watch. There's no greater feeling than hearing a rider come giggling and squeaking into the barn and running to their favorite horse's stall to say hello."
Because of her busy schedule as a student-athlete at Holy Cross, Boylan can't always make it out to New Hampshire, but knowing that her horse Memory is making a difference in people's lives when she is in Worcester is a great feeling. "One of the little girls who takes lessons is diagnosed with Down's syndrome and rides Memory," said Boylan. "She's a very talented rider and it's been awesome to watch her improve. One day I received an e-mail from her mother thanking me for letting Memory be in the program and letting him touch her daughter's life the way he has. It was really a great moment for me because although I can't be there every day, I know that a part of me is making a difference."
One of the keys to making this program so successful is the volunteers, so having the Holy Cross women's lacrosse team volunteer has been a huge help. For the last two years, members of the team have volunteered at open houses doing various jobs including helping kids decorate pumpkins, horseshoes and cookies; learning to groom horses; and being a friendly, welcoming face for all those who visit. This year with the help of the Holy Cross field hockey team, the Crusaders made several dozen cookies for the kids to decorate. Also several members of the team have occasionally been able to go up with Boylan to help with a lesson, or just to be another hand around the farm. Some of the members of the team are looking forward to becoming certified volunteers in the near future so that they will be able to help out even more.
Senior lacrosse captain Amy Martin (Bloomfield, Mich.) loves volunteering at Wings and Hooves and is blown away by the effects of therapeutic riding. "My favorite thing about volunteering at Wings and Hooves is easily the kids," said Martin. "Seeing their demeanors change when they get near the horses is incredible. Hearing the stories that Annie, Colleen, Karen and even some of the parents have recounted are simply unbelievable. To hear that kids who were previously non-verbal are now speaking sentences because of the therapy and love they receive at Wings and Hooves is tremendous and truly inspiring."
Martin's experience at Wings and Hooves has really put her own life in perspective to her. "Another thing that Colleen has told us is that many of these kids will never be able to participate in a team sport like we are lucky enough to be able to," said Martin "It really makes us think twice before we complain about doing that third set of squats in the weight room, or going the extra mile to run through the line during sprints. Our physical abilities are truly a gift and these kids have the ability to remind us of just how lucky we are. One of the things that really sticks out to me is when the kids begin their lesson they always say 'Walk on,' to get the horses to get going. To me this is the way a lot of these kids live. Despite the challenges they face they move forward using the abilities that they can, showing great strength and heart."
Martin, who is roommates with Boylan, has really seen the passion that Boylan brings to this cause. "It's always so fun to see Annie in her element," said Martin. "When I met her freshman year, one of the first things I remember her talking about was the barn and her horses with such a clear passion for it. The joy and enthusiasm that she radiates when she is around the farm is contagious."
Helping out at Wings and Hooves has been a very meaningful experience to Martin and to the entire women's lacrosse program. "It's obviously such a special place to Annie, and to be able to support her in something that is so meaningful to her will be a part of my college experience I will never forget," said Martin. "Any member of the team would agree that it is always so great to be able to help the community, especially considering how lucky and fortunate our lives have been. But to be able to help in a capacity that is so close to the heart of one our teammates, makes our service there 10 times as meaningful. Whenever the word 'Hooves' is even mentioned around the team, ears perk and everyone gets excited. I can't say enough about what a special place it has been for us."
Boylan is so appreciative of the support she gets from her teammates. "For my team to get involved in an aspect of my life that not many people from Holy Cross get to see or even know about means the world to me," said Boylan. "During my freshman year, a few of the girls thought I had a second life somewhere because I would disappear to the farm, and now they're disappearing with me! The cause is really special to me and I'm glad I can share it with them. Plus they are meeting my horses, who are the better half of me!"
Boylan not only gets to share this special experience with her teammates but also with her sister. "I'm so proud of all the hard work my sister has put into this program," said Boylan. "She's my best friend and I look up to her for a lot of things. It's been awesome to watch her make Wings and Hooves into what it is today. She's put so much of her heart into this program and I love being able to help her in whatever way I can. She's wonderful to work for!"
Being a part of Wings and Hooves has really been a family experience for Boylan. "The founder, Karen, is like a mother to me and she's just as great to work for!" said Boylan. "I love to do whatever I can for them from Worcester, especially since the farm is a place that is close to my heart. Colleen, Karen, the staff, the volunteers, the riders and the horses all make for a great family at Wings and Hooves."
Boylan loves the fact that Holy Cross athletic teams have a strong reputation of volunteering in the community. "Our athletic teams have a lot to offer different charities and groups," said Boylan. "One of the reasons we love for our team to come to Wings and Hooves is that a lot of our riders have never or will never be able to participate on team sports. Having Division I athletes arrive to encourage and support their athletic endeavors means the world to our riders. I don't think a lot of people realize how even the littlest of actions from one person can mean the world to someone else. Watching my team interact at the open house is definitely a tribute to the importance of supporting meaningful causes."
Being a competitive horseback rider takes a huge amount of commitment and time which Boylan is excited to get back to after graduation. "It took a few falls, a lot of mucking of stalls, hours of riding and a lot of frustration to get to a national championship, but it was worth every second," said Boylan. "It was a little more difficult in high school, but I refused to give up my horses or my sports so I still made sure I was able to do both. At college it got far more difficult, but I've kept it up and look forward to diving right back into competition when I graduate. My wonderful trainers down in Georgia make it possible for both my sister and I to compete and without them I wouldn't have earned two reserve national championships and my Canadian national championship. I wouldn't have been able to get there without a wonderful, supportive family and my sister riding next to me!"
With the help of her teammates, her sister and her horses, Boylan has demonstrated the true meaning of using your unique talent to help make peoples' lives better.