Andy Spencer says every day is a happy day for his daughter with special needs, 10-year-old Cora, a rider at Guelph, Ontario’s Sunrise Therapeutic Riding and Learning Centre.

Instructor Tiffany Mast describes Cora Spencer as “fun, outgoing and energetic,” while the facility’s managing director Lynne O’Brien calls the young equestrian “friendly and bubbly.”

With Cora’s positive outlook and successes despite a rough start in life and many ongoing challenges, it’s no wonder she was chosen to be featured in an episode of Collar of Duty, a 12-part documentary series on Discovery Channel’s Animal Planet Canada.

The show is “about how animals can improve the quality of life for people who have unique needs,” explained Laura Lillie, owner of Summerhill Media, the Toronto-based independent production company that created the series.

At the heart of Cora’s segment, which premiered February 10, 2017, is her relationship with her pal Max, the big but gentle lesson horse that has helped the youngster blossom in so many ways.

A Difficult Start

“She’s been through a lot,” said Andy, who, with his wife Daphne, adopted Cora as a two-and-a-half-year-old not long after they had immigrated to New Brunswick from the United Kingdom with their three sons, Ben, now 25 (who was also a special-needs child), Chris, 23, and Thomas, 19.

Cora was abandoned by her birth mother – an addict – three days after being born. Having suffered a stroke and the effects of drugs and alcohol while in the womb, she was left with many challenges, including Asperger Syndrome (AS), several learning disabilities, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and issues with her fine and gross motor skills. However, her IQ is “through the roof,” said Andy, adding his daughter is extremely well-read and loves soaking up information.

After moving from New Brunswick to Ontario in 2012, the Spencers discovered Sunrise. Cora started lessons just over three years ago and has thrived thanks to the centre’s programming and, in no small part, to her deep connection with Max, a 16-hand, bay 25-year-old Morgan/Thoroughbred/American Saddlebred gelding.

Cora faces some tough days, said Andy, particularly at school, where she can be the target of bullying, but her demeanour changes during the 25-minute drive to the barn. “When we arrive, if you’re not careful, the [car] door’s open and she’s running across the parking lot and she’s into the barn looking for Max, no helmet on,” he said, laughing. “She hangs off his neck, she’s kissing his nose, she’s brushing her hands through his eyelashes. I mean, she’s forever hugging the poor thing.”

But it wasn’t always the case. The usually joyful Cora used to experience what Andy calls “meltdowns,” essentially stemming from her frustration with her own inabilities. If she was triggered by something before her lesson, she would fixate so much on what was bothering her she couldn’t focus on riding or the horses. These days, the bond and contact with Max puts Cora in a “really positive space,” said Andy, and that translates to regular life where she’s calmer and more relaxed. In fact, he can’t recall her last meltdown.

Keen to Canter

Riding has also helped develop Cora’s balance and motor skills. She’s progressed from needing two side-walkers and someone leading the horse, to now walking and trotting on her own – a huge boost to her self-esteem and confidence.

“She can steer the horse and everything all on her own. Her coordination has definitely improved as far as using her hands independently of each other and using her hands and legs to control the horse,” said her instructor, Tiffany. “It’s beautiful to watch Cora ride. When she gets into the groove, when she gets nice and focused and into what’s she’s doing, it’s really awesome to see.”

While her riding skills are never measured against other children, Andy said Cora will sometimes compare herself to her peers. He’s actually thrilled to see this aspect of her personality emerge. “Another girl she was taking riding lessons with is now onto a canter. So, for the longest time Cora’s wanted to get past the trot and go straight for the canter. And that’s really neat because there were a lot of people who said she would never process, think or have the same desires as normal people,” he explained. “We do have to calm it sometimes, but we’re sort of waving a little flag underneath because that’s something they said she’d never do. For her to have desires to want to progress and move onto the next thing is really cool.”

And, formerly afraid of heights, Cora is proud to tell everyone she rides Max, the third-tallest horse in the barn. “Before she would never go up steps to go down a slide. She wouldn’t sit on my shoulders. She wouldn’t play on furniture and now she sits on Max without batting an eyelid,” said Andy, describing a scene from Collar of Duty where Cora tested her comfort with heights at the towering cliffs of the nearby Elora Gorge. “And there she’s sitting in the middle rail, looking over the top.”

How Cora was “Discovered”

In spring of 2016, Summerhill put the call out to various Canadian therapeutic riding centres for participants who might make compelling subjects for the show. Sunrise responded with a short-list that included Cora. “Her story was pretty incredible,” said Laura. After phone and Skype interviews with Cora and her parents, it was quickly decided Cora would be their feature rider.

The first day of filming – September 8, 2016 – was at the Spencers’ home and surroundings. Action moved to Sunrise the next day.

At first, the Spencers didn’t know how Cora would react to the goings on. “Because Cora’s so black and white and because things have to be done is a certain order, we did wonder if it would cause frustration being asked to do things repeatedly,” said Andy. “But she was incredibly calm. She was amazing.”

Instructor Tiffany was also impressed with her student’s response. “It was interesting to see how patient Cora was with the whole thing. And the film crew was really awesome with her. They got to know her and make it fun for her. She had her own inside jokes with the crew.”

That his daughter and the crew shared some laughs was heartening for Andy. Experts had also said she would never understand humour. “It was a real confirmation of how far she’s come, to do something like that,” he said.

Collar of Duty episode six, featuring Cora, launched February 10th. Andy said they were a tad nervous about how the segment might be edited, but their worries were soon allayed. “It was incredibly refreshing to watch it and it be true to what we actually filmed over the two days. They remained true to her story and all that Sunrise has done.”

Cora was fascinated by the episode, but her TV appearance hasn’t gone to her head. “A lot of kids could become involved in something like that and become a little above their station, but she doesn’t mention it,” said her dad. “She’ll talk forever if somebody asks her about it, but she doesn’t volunteer the information. She’s very grounded about it.”

Collar of Duty: Animals Helping Humans

Collar of Duty debuted on Animal Planet in early January 2017. It’s only aired in Canada and has been “doing very well,” according to executive producer Laura Lillie. “It’s a show that everybody who has been on it or involved in it has loved being part of it – the crew, all of us here. It’s been a very positive, experience.”

In addition to Cora Spencer and her therapeutic mount Max, the show also features a couple of other equines: a teen trains a therapy donkey to help her brother with Down Syndrome and an Appaloosa improves the life of a veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder.

New episodes premiere on Animal Planet every Friday night at 10:00 p.m. EST and are repeated at noon and 5:00 p.m. EST on Saturdays, through May. Check the schedule on AnimalPlanet.ca for an updated broadcast days and times after that. The series will also be available on the Discovery Go app. Producers are currently researching stories for the second season.