A blind woman’s unique bond with a rescue horse

09/26/2013 5:00 PM |

CARRIE MILLER PHOTO | Loretta Lawlor with Gypsy at North Shore Horse Rescue at Gold Rush Farms in Baiting Hollow. Ms. Lawlor, 26, of Southold was born with retinoblastoma, which has made her blind. Gypsy, a 24-year-old paint mare that had been abandoned at a barn in Southold, is blind in one eye.

When Gypsy first arrived at North Shore Horse Rescue in Baiting Hollow, she didn’t trust a soul.

The 24-year-old paint mare had been abandoned at a Southold boarding barn and then taken in by a local pet store owner, who ultimately turned her over to the Sound Avenue rescue farm.

Easily rattled and scarred from neglect, Gypsy had refused to work with any humans. But Louise Abitbol, a social worker who provides equine-assisted therapy at the farm, knew the perfect person to help break in the horse.

Standing in the center of the ring, Loretta Lawlor waited patiently as Gypsy slowly approached her for the first time. The 26-year-old from Southold had been cleaning, feeding and walking horses at the farm under the guidance of Ms. Abitbol since earlier this year.

Ms. Lawlor dropped to one knee as Gypsy walked toward her. The skittish mare circled around her, sniffing. Then the horse lowered her head and dropped it right on the young woman’s shoulder.

Just as Ms. Abitbol had suspected, Gypsy and Loretta Lawlor instantly bonded thanks to a common thread that joined them — they’re both visually impaired.

Susan Lawlor had always wanted to visit New York City on St. Patrick’s Day, but she never imagined it would be to take her baby girl to an oncologist.

Before Loretta was due for her six-month checkup, Susan had noticed a bright spot in both her eyes.

“It was a silvery reflection that looks like a cat’s eye at night,” the mother recalled.

She took Loretta to a pediatric ophthalmologist in Port Jefferson, who referred her to the New York City physician.

March 17, 1988, is the day Susan learned her baby had eye cancer.

Retinoblastoma is a rapidly growing cancer that develops from the immature cells of the retina. It’s the most common malignant tumor of the eye in children and is almost always diagnosed before the age of 6. Two-thirds of retinoblastoma patients have tumors in just one eye, but Loretta belongs to the other third.

In treating the cancer, doctors try to keep the patient from losing sight and even their eyes. Loretta wasn’t so lucky that way, either.

When she was just seven months old, both eyes were treated with radiation. She received 22 treatments over a six-week period.

Her right eye was so riddled with tumors that it was removed when she was 2 1/2 years old, and soon after that she began undergoing chemotherapy. That lasted two years, nine months and 14 days.

Loretta has now been living cancer-free for more than 20 years, but the treatment took an instant toll on her body. Legally blind in the one eye she was able to keep, Loretta also suffered temporal lobe damage as a result of the radiation when she was an infant. Due to the brain injury, she often has a difficult time processing what’s being said to her. She understands what people are saying, but it takes a while for her brain to get the message and then more time for her to respond.

While the cancer was only temporary, the brain injury will always be with her.

“You pray to overcome [the battle with cancer], but then you have what comes next,” Susan said. “When we tried to get her into the education system it was a whole other ballgame. Given time, she’ll give you the right answer, but she needs that time to process what you’re saying.”

As a result, Loretta’s spent much of her life in isolation, her mother says.

But she found a connection with animals.

“She didn’t play with baby dolls,” her mother said, “but she had hundreds of stuffed animals.”

When she was 7 years old, her mother got her a dog, a sheltie named Pepper.

While some young girls might play outside with a friend, Loretta had Pepper to play with. Considering she spent so many of her early years being treated for cancer, Loretta naturally played doctor with the dog. She’d give her physicals and Pepper would oblige, even laying perfectly still as Loretta took her temperature.

And when it was Loretta’s turn to be the patient, animals were by her side, too. While undergoing chemotherapy, she’d have the television inches away so that as she received her regular IV drip she could watch Lassie.

“Lassie saw me through cancer,” Loretta says.

By the time she was 9 years old and cancer-free for four years, Loretta found another type of animal she loved to be around — horses. That year she visited a local horse farm, where a teacher taught her to ride, assisting her with mounting and dismounting.

“I nearly fell on my butt dismounting,” she said with a chuckle.

Nevertheless, Loretta’s fondness for animals only grew stronger.

“The dog and horses became a way for her to have an outlet to show affection,” her mother said. “They gave her something to hug. Something to love.

“If she didn’t have the disability, I think she would have had a veterinary career.”

“I still would like to … to some extent,” Loretta said.

CARRIE MILLER PHOTO | Loretta Lawlor and Louise Abitbol with Gypsy at North Shore Horse Rescue in Baiting Hollow. Ms. Abitbol, a clinical social worker from Shelter Island, does equine-assisted therapy at the farm.

Amy Cirincione, owner of The Feed Bag, a pet store on Main Road in Cutchogue, received a phone call in October 2011 about a horse that needed to be removed from a Southold property that had been sold.

Gypsy had been boarded there years earlier, but her owner had stopped paying rent and was no longer visiting her.

The owner of the farm had continued to feed her hay for nearly four years after her owner abandoned her, but Gypsy wasn’t getting the nutrition an elderly horse needs. When Ms. Cirincione first took her in, Gypsy was about 250 pounds underweight, and her ribs and hip bones showed through her skin.

“The owner [of the barn] had good intentions and cared for her, but a horse that age needs a special diet,” Ms. Cirincione said.

Ms. Cirincione took Gypsy in for five months and helped her put meat back on her bones. “I gave her lots of senior food on top of all the hay,” she said.

It was obvious early on to Ms. Cirincione that Gypsy had endured some level of abuse. She had scars on her rump and ankles that are typical of a horse who had been injured while stuck on fencing, she said.

She was also blind in one eye.

But Gypsy’s spirit wasn’t completely broken. She had a great appetite and quickly began to get healthy.

Ms. Cirincione brought the horse to North Shore Horse Rescue, where she’s spent the last 18 months, after she heard the barn there had an open spot.

The goal at North Shore Horse Rescue is to find Gypsy, who almost certainly would have ended up at a slaughterhouse had Ms. Cirincione not intervened, a permanent home. Finding a home for an older rescue horse who’s blind in one eye and has a weak hind end is no easy task, though.

“It’s hard enough finding horses in perfect health a home,” Ms. Cirincione said.

In the meantime, Gypsy is being well cared for through donations and the efforts of volunteers at the farm, which was founded by Laurel Palermo and Tom Renzetti in 2002. The farm brought in its first rescue horse a year later and has helped rehabilitate about 20 horses in the decade since.

On a web page dedicated to sponsorship at North Shore Horse Rescue, Gypsy’s story is the first one told among those of more than a dozen horses living on the farm. At the bottom of the page is a link to the stories of a few other horses — ones that, despite all the best efforts of the volunteers, died before new homes could be found.

Even though Gypsy still shows some signs of the trauma she’s suffered, there’s always Monday — the day of the week when she perks up because Loretta takes the bus, sometimes by herself, to visit her.

“We have a trust bond,” Loretta said. “She trusts me that I wont hurt her, and I trust her not to hurt me.”

Ms. Abitbol, who’s been working with horses all her life, said the connection between the blind girl and the blind horse is unmistakable.

“Gypsy knows Loretta’s blind,” she said.

That’s because Loretta uses her other senses more than a sighted person does, Ms. Abitbol explains. Loretta doesn’t just reach for the horse, she talks to her. She doesn’t just pet her, she holds her tightly and makes her feel safe.

At the end of each lesson, Loretta bends down and Gypsy dips her head down to Loretta. The ultimate goal is to get Loretta up on Gypsy’s back, but for now they mostly just walk together.

“And when they do, they compensate for each other’s bad sight,” Ms. Abitbol said. “When they walk together, they walk as if they’re sighted.”

“It’s the blind leading the blind,” Susan says.

AMY CIRINCIONE COURTESY PHOTO | Gypsy on the day Amy Cirincione began to rehabilitate her in October 2011. Ms. Cirincione notes how the horse’s ribs and hip bones were visible and she was 250 pounds underweight.

The disabilities that prevented Loretta from attending Southold High School didn’t stop her from graduating in 2009 from Perkins School for the Blind, the same school that educated Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan. While attending the Watertown, Mass., boarding school, Loretta, who was a member of the swim team and volunteered at a nearby museum, earned a reputation for helping others.

Each year the school presents a “Box of Peace” award to the student who was most helpful to classmates in the cottage where they lived. Each resident in the cottage is asked to submit the name of one person whose efforts they appreciated, and the person whose name is entered the most wins the award. Loretta won two years in a row.

Now four years removed from her schooling days, Loretta still likes to lend a helping hand.

You might have even seen her as she collects cans and bottles around her neighborhood, turning nickels into quarters, which she uses to purchase books from the Southold Library Book Cottage. Or maybe you spotted her volunteering at the library, cleaning books.

After she purchases the books she boxes them up. Once she raises enough for the shipping she plans to send them to the library at Camp Sunshine, a facility in Maine that provides, through donations, week-long vacations for children with life-threatening illnesses and their families at no cost. She currently has more than 300 books she’s hoping to send to the camp.

When she’s not helping strangers, Loretta does what she can to help her mom, who is single and out of work due to a disability. They keep chickens in their yard and it’s Loretta’s job to wash the eggs and fill the good-will box, where they sell them along Main Bayview Road.

Loretta is also actively looking for part-time employment, and she receives job coaching through Consolidated Support Services, a program that helps people with disabilities maintain a healthy lifestyle, find volunteer opportunities and search for paid employment.

It’s through CSS that Loretta became involved with the Equestrian Special Olympics this year.

Feeling right at home around horses, she trained at Saddle Rock Ranch in Middle Island for the event, which featured more than 150 equestrians and was held Sept. 7 at HorseAbility on the campus at SUNY/Old Westbury.

As she usually does, Loretta beat the odds, taking home a gold medal in the equitation ring event and fourth place in the obstacle course.

Though she admits she can’t stand public speaking, Loretta recently gave a speech at a fundraising event for North Shore Horse Rescue, held at Martha Clara Vineyards.

She ended her speech with a quote from the 2003 horse racing film “Seabiscuit.”

“ ‘The little guy who doesn’t know they’re the little guy can do great big things,’ ” she said. “It’s true. I like that quote. It kind of describes me and Gypsy.”

Editor’s Note: A version of this story published in Thursday’s issue of The Suffolk Times said Loretta Lawlor did not attend public school. She did attend special education in the Southold School District for eight years prior to high school. “Many Southold teachers and others over those eight years worked very hard to give Loretta the best they could,” Ms. Lawlor said. the newspaper regrets the error and apologizes for any inconvenience.

gparpan@timesreview.com