Leeds Donkeys Help Clara Find Her Smile

A heartwarming tale of companionship and resilience has emerged from The Donkey Sanctuary in Leeds, where a young teenager found solace and support among the gentle, four-legged residents.

Clara Bowers, a 15-year-old from Halifax, faced mounting anxiety as she approached her GCSE exams. Diagnosed with autism at the age of nine, Clara struggled with the pressures of school, feeling overwhelmed and finding it challenging to concentrate.

In a bid to ease her daughter’s stress, Ana, Clara’s mother, sought unconventional avenues for support. Aware of Clara’s affinity with animals, Ana discovered the Donkey Assisted Activities programmes offered by The Donkey Sanctuary Leeds. Clara eagerly attended a taster session at the centre in Eccup, where she experienced an unexpected transformation.

During her inaugural encounter with the resident donkeys, Clara’s mother witnessed a sight she hadn’t seen in a long time – her daughter smiling radiantly. Clara confessed, “I find it difficult to read human facial emotions and feel that I connect better with animals, as they listen unconditionally.”

Under the guidance of Samantha Butcher, Equine Coach at the Leeds sanctuary, Clara embarked on a journey of self-discovery and tranquility. Initially reserved, Clara gradually formed a profound bond with the donkeys, illuminating with joy in their presence.

The sanctuary staff noticed a remarkable connection between Clara and the donkeys, observing how these gentle creatures were drawn to her, offering comfort with gentle nudges. One poignant moment etched in memory was when a donkey named Harry chose to lie beside Clara during a mindfulness session, evoking tears of happiness from Clara’s mother and a lasting impression on all present.

Week by week, Clara blossomed in confidence, aided by the unwavering support of both human and equine companions. Her newfound skills in emotional regulation not only transformed her school experience but also left a lasting impact on her education, as noted by her teacher.

Beyond her academic journey, Clara’s encounter with the donkeys sparked a newfound passion for animal care. Inspired by the sanctuary’s mission, she aspires to advocate for the welfare of animals and contribute to their well-being in the future.

Clara’s transformative journey extended beyond the sanctuary gates, enriching her interactions with her own menagerie of pets at home. Her mother, Ana, reflects on the profound emotional journey Clara embarked on, expressing gratitude for the sanctuary’s role in her daughter’s mental well-being.

Cathryn Hampshire, Centre Manager at the Leeds sanctuary, commended Clara’s resilience and adaptive skills, noting the profound impact of mindfulness practices on her emotional regulation.

“Hearing how Clara was able to take the learning and techniques and apply them to her emotions in a stressful situation is brilliant.

“Emotional regulation – or exploring how we think and feel about something – is a form of mindfulness practice. By learning this tool in her weekly sessions, it helped Clara to use her five senses and focus on her breathing to remain calm and in control.” 

As Clara and Ana continue their advocacy for autism awareness, supported by organisations like The National Autistic Society, their journey serves as a beacon of hope and inspiration. Samantha Butcher, deeply moved by her experience with Clara, acknowledges the invaluable lessons learned and the profound impact of embracing neurodiversity.

In the tranquil embrace of Leeds’ donkey sanctuary, Clara found not only her smile but also a renewed sense of purpose and belonging, illuminating the path towards a brighter future.

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