A therapeutic riding centre in Blockhouse is the subject of an hour-long documentary to be aired next spring on the CBC's documentary program, Firsthand.
Filming at Hinchinbrook Farm is expected to start on August 7, said the film's producer Erin Oakes, who lives in Mahone Bay.
Horse Sense Inc., a subsidiary of Tell Tale Inc. of Halifax, is producing the program with a budget of roughly $500,000, funded in part by the CBC, the Nova Scotia Film & Television Production Incentive Fund, which has allocated $145,468, and the Canada Media Fund.
Oakes said she's always been interested in people with cognitive and neurological differences. She became aware of the Hinchinbrook Farm Society's Patricia McGill, and the therapeutic riding program she runs for children with autism and other sensory conditions and "felt like this story was a good way to make that topic accessible to everyone."
"She's a really fascinating person and really passionate about what she does," said Oakes. She had the same impression when she met Hinchinbrook Farm Society's board of directors, many of whom are parents of children with special needs.
Hinchinbrook Farm is a registered charity offering therapeutic riding and the trade-marked Horse Boy method, which is said to reduce spasms, atrophy, incontinence and high blood pressure. On a physical level, the activities are designed to increase balance, mobility, body awareness, circulation, strength, co-ordination, muscle tone and endurance.
Oakes hopes the documentary will break down the stereotypes associated with autism, "in terms of what it means to be living on the spectrum, especially that it's a negative thing," she said. "Because it isn't, for everybody."
She describes Hinchinbrook as a "whole world," where kids and families can feel comfortable and secure. "It makes it easier for them to reach out to other people and for other people to reach out to them and actually just kind of communicate as human beings."
While the documentary will inevitably focus on McGill, she's hoping to deflect some of that attention on to her volunteers.
"I belong to a very enlightened tribe of people that make up Hinchinbrook Farm," said McGill in an email she sent last week after explaining she was too busy to meet for an interview.
"I guess Hinchinbrook really is kind of the central character in that it's kind of a world unto itself," said Oakes. "It's made up of the animals, the families - because it's not just therapeutic riding where you drop your child off and you and your other kids go elsewhere and you're not involved. The whole family is integrated into the farm. And it's the volunteers."
She notes that the program operates with the help of about 30 volunteers, including high school students and students from Dalhousie University who are studying neurology, as well as people who simply enjoy being around horses.
Oakes shares McGill's hope that the documentary might spark other therapeutic and Horse Boy programs. While she acknowledges special training is required, Oakes said, "It's not prohibitive. You don't need to have a PHD. They're not prescribing medication, they're not giving out diagnoses ... It's really just about bringing out the human in themselves and these kids and finding that common ground."
Oakes is the former programs coordinator for the Atlantic Filmmakers Cooperative, and the supervising producer of more than 30 short films, including the Genie-nominated "Faire Callum Macleod." In 2011, she produced the award-winning short film "A Night Out."
Oakes says the fact the program received funding from the province is a good sign for the Nova Scotia film industry. However, she pointed out that documentaries are in a different category than dramas.
Still, she says business is definitely picking up, "outside our world as well."
"Last year was really, really, really challenging. We're not really where we would be in our production cycle because of changes. But you know, we've survived and things are definitely better this time this year than they were this time last year."