As a storyteller, I’ve always been drawn to outsiders and unusual people. When producer Erin Oakes approached me about an idea to do a documentary about 63 year-old equine therapist who was known to give her horses a bath at the kitchen sink, I knew I had to learn more. So I went to Patty’s farm, Hinchinbrook and met a woman devoted to, as she puts it, “going to where the child is”.
I also met families dealing with many disabilities — all while battling a lack of resources and programs, as well as judgement from society at large. To me, Free Reins became the story of an outsider and the family she has created: a diverse group of children with special needs who are also seen as outsiders. They come to Patty’s farm for her love, her acceptance and her highly unconventional brand of horse therapy.
Patty is a maverick on a mission. She believes the connection kids form with animals can help them make better connections with people. Roze, a young autistic girl who struggles with obsessional thinking is featured in Free Reins. Roze is obsessed with horses — to the point where she thinks, eats and trots like a horse — but in the outside world, she’s been punished for her horse behaviour. The public school system has suspended her numerous times for acting like a horse. Patty is convinced that Roze, given the right support, could be as great an animal scientist as Temple Grandin.
Seeing Patty’s drive to help Roze succeed made me think about the unique perspectives that society misses out on when we don’t help kids like Roze realize their full potential.
Kirklind, a young autistic man is totally non-verbal and constantly flaps and twitches, except when he is on one of Patty’s horses. Unlike many in the medical world, Patty believes Kirklind is “in there”, that he is not intellectually incapacitated. I was really moved by Patty’s commitment to find a way to help Kirklind communicate. If one method doesn’t seem to work she tries another. What she doesn’t do is give up.
What makes Patty unique is that she doesn’t believe that people with disabilities need to be fixed. In Patty’s world, neuro-normative thinking is the concept that needs fixing — the idea that there is only one way to do things and that people with disabilities need to join our world, rather than the other way around. Patty's own disability — a neurological condition called reflex sympathetic dystrophy — keeps her in constant pain. But it's also given her a profound empathy and insight needed to relate to the children who come to her farm. Everyday, she pushes herself past the pain and the poverty she lives in to keep Hinchinbrook going. Her mission to give these kids a place where they belong is her life’s work.