The two women and two horses walking 500 miles for autism and mental health overcome set back

Two women, two horses and a dog are spending a month walking around Yorkshire. Catherine Scott finds out why.

On Boxing Day, when most people were sleeping off their Christmas dinner or deciding which cheesy festive movie to watch, Sarah Kekoa and Nicki Hall were setting off on a 500-mile walk around Yorkshire,

And this is no ordinary walk. Sarah and Nicki, who are currently two thirds of the way through their 30 days challenge, are joined by two horses Riley and Akua and Sarah’s dog Yume. The aim is to raise awareness and money for two Yorkshire charities – Autism Angels and I Choose Life Foundation – both founded by Sarah. But this is much more than just a walk with two horses.

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“We know that the Christmas period can be a really difficult time for families that have a child on the autistic spectrum and also for people with mental health problems,” says Nicki. “So part of the challenge, as well as walking more than 15 miles a day for a month, is to go into communities where we might be of use. We have been overwhelmed by the response from people all over Yorkshire. People have offered us spare rooms to sleep in and places for the horses to stay. Farriers have offered us their services for free when the horses need reshoeing. We have had so much support where ever we have been.”

However the challenge suffered a major setback at the weekend when their tack – including special saddles and hi-vis for the horses, was stolen from their support vehicle which was parked on Lonsdale Road in Scarborough

“We couldn’t believe it,” says Sarah. “Our van was one of about five vehicles broken into over night Saturday. The hi-vis means people can see the horses when we are on the road, but the saddles are vital as they a special soft ones for the children but are of little use to anyone else. We only had four and now two of them have been stolen. They cost around £1,000 each.”

North Yorkshire police have been informed and the women have been overwhelmed by the offers of help and support from the community. But above all they are determined the theft will not stop them walking and raising awareness of the two charities that are really close to their hearts.

A survey conducted by the National Autistic Society, reported that 74 per cent of people with autism found managing their mental health a challenge. Autistic people are at an elevated risk of developing psychiatric disorders and in particular are at a higher risk of self- harming.

Despite thieves stealing saddles and hi-vis horse rugs Sarah and Nicki are determined to continue their 500 mile challenege Picture james Hardisty

“We know that as a society mental ill health is on the rise and we want to show people how to step away from the stress and demands of daily life, reconnect with self and be able to manoeuvre a fast paced and ever-changing world in a way that supports and improves their mental well being,” says Sarah who launched the I Choose Life Foundation in 2018.

Autism Angels, is a charity which works using equine therapy with children and families affected by autism or other challenges. Autism Angels runs family fun days, inclusive kids clubs family mentoring programmes and lots of other events to support families and enable them to transform their lives.

“The Heart Math Institute conducted a study and found that because a horse’s electromagnetic field is so much larger than our own, by being in their presence they can actually positively influence us and make us feel better when we are around them,” explains Nicki.

“The research has shown that people around horses can experience many benefits including lowering of blood pressure and heart rate, increased levels of beta-endorphins, decreased stress levels, reduction in the feelings of anger, hostility, anxiety and tension, improved social functioning and increased feelings
of empowerment, trust and patience.”

And it is not just people that are benefiting from the 500-mile walk.

Nicki is walking for Autism Angels with the horse Riley who suffers from sensory processing disorder – something experienced by many people on the autistic spectrum.

“It means she doesn’t like sudden noises or changes in things like textures which means it can be challenging taking him out on the road. Lots of things upset him and he starts to shudder even though he is a big Cob. It is really helpful for the children with sensory processing disorder to hear about Riley and to meet him and see how we help him to cope. Rather than moving him we wait for him to learn to understand. It is the same with people. And as the challenge has progressed Riley’s has really calmed down. He has really got used to sleeping in a different yards every night and also changes in textures on the road.”

Sarah is walking with the horse Akua to raise awareness of I Choose Life Foundation that runs free weekly drop in sessions for adults struggling with their mental health who are in need of support.

(left to Right) Sarah Kekoa, (Founder of Autism Angels and I Choose Life Foundation) , walking with horse Akua, and dog Yume, alongside Nicky Hall, Leader Facilitator, for Autism Angels, holding horse Riley, pictured as they heading towards the village of Hutton Cranswick, before stopping in Driffield, East Yorkshire.

“The reason we are walking with horses is to share to connection between mental wellbeing, nature and equine therapy. Although Autism Angels primarily works with people on the spectrum, the main issue autists face is actually around their mental wellbeing,” says Sarah,

The foursome started their journey in Throstle Nest on Boxing Day and have walked up to 19 hours a day. Their FaceBook page has been invaluable. “We have been overwhelmed by the support from the community and we really hope that our tack will be returned so the children can ride.”

■ They have a text donate option for people to give donations and sponsor the walk. Text: Riley500 to 70970 to donate £5 to Autism Angels. Text: ICL500 to 70970 to donate £5 to I Choose Life Foundation,