On Sunday mornings, you can find Hiatt O’Connor ’20 feeding the horses at Brook Hill Farm, a local nonprofit equestrian center that focuses on therapeutic riding and horse rescue. O’Connor, a Westover Honors fellow and the 2019 Sommerville Scholar, started volunteering at the Bedford County, Virginia, farm when he was in the Bonner Leader Program at the University of Lynchburg.
After graduating from Bonner, a national program that emphasizes community service, leadership, and social justice, O’Connor kept showing up at the barn. There, on Friday afternoons, the political science and philosophy major also helps with riding lessons for the intellectually disabled, one group Brook Hill Farm serves.
“Hiatt has been a wonderful, dedicated volunteer at Brook Hill Farm,” Jo Anne Miller, the executive director, said. “He helps us in so many ways, from feeding rescue horses to helping clean the barn, and he helps in our therapeutic riding program.”
One rider in particular that O’Connor has worked with is on the autism spectrum and riding is helping him learn to focus. “He’s severely autistic and has trouble focusing,” O’Connor said. “We use horseback riding to help him focus on his actions and be more mindful of where he is, and to focus and then maintain that focus afterwards. The progress is slow, but there is progress.”
O’Connor said what he gets out of helping at Brook Hill goes well beyond the obvious — helping horses and people. “While I do think it’s good that I’m giving back to the community and helping youth and animals I’m deeply passionate about and care to be around, what keeps me coming back are the benefits I receive from giving my time and efforts to the farm,” he said.
He added that while he sees the positive effects his work has on the clients and horses, “those people and those animals give me so much. They’re so generous to me. It’s more than dumping grain into a bucket. It’s hard to describe.”
O’Connor grew up riding western style on a 20-acre Maryland farm with about a half-dozen horses. He said his mom “loves horses, and every time we could get our hands on a horse” she did. While that might sound idyllic, O’Connor said he also grew up with some of the same issues he sees in many of the at-risk kids who ride at Brook Hill Farm.
“When I was growing up, there were substance abuse problems and poverty in my family,” he said. “A lot of the at-risk youth at the farm have similar issues. I didn’t know it at the time, but I found a lot of solace in those things with animals.
“Now that I’ve grown past that time and matured intellectually, I can see that more clearly in myself and the kids at the farm. … I can see myself there in the people and the animals. The perspective you gain is fantastic.”
That O’Connor has had this kind of experience at Brook Hill doesn’t surprise Miller. “Coming to the farm is a stress relief from school — out in the fresh air, the calming effect that horses have on all of us,” she said. “Working with the participants gives us all a great sense of helping to make their day better. Small successes are rewarded and our clients always leave with a smile on their faces. It makes all of us feel really good.”