ILWACO — Maia Webster started riding horses five years ago. At first, she was terrified of them.

The 12 year-old Ilwaco girl still fears mounting a horse. But once she is settled on top, she exudes calm and confidence.

The fear exists in part because Webster has Down syndrome, her mother, Moe McLeod, explained. After attending horse camp every summer, she said her daughter has become more comfortable and has developed motor skills she didn’t have before.

Above all, she found a sense of community.

“We’d been talking about buying a horse and taking the horse to horse camp because a lot of the girls that she knows have their own horses,” McLeod said.

“And so when she would come back from horse camp, she would say ‘so and so’s horse’ and how she really liked one horse and not another horse. So I talked a lot with the trainer about what she thought our needs were.”

McLeod said she and her husband, Vince, began searching for a horse that would be patient and allow Webster to learn.

“Willow,” a 17 year-old quarter horse, was on the family’s list.

When the previous owner in Mount Angel called McLeod and told her Willow needed to be evacuated from the wildfires, the family borrowed a trailer and drove down to a fire-ravaged Marion County to pick her up.

They brought Willow back to Wil-Mar Stables in Knappa, a nice, quiet atmosphere for her and Webster to get to know each other.

The family visits Willow every morning, and Webster helps with the chores and grooming.

McLeod said it is fun and teaches life skills, motor skills and keeps her daughter connected to people while she is home-schooled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“She can do some things that girls at her age [can’t], but her having proficiency gives her an in to her peer group,” McLeod said. “And my experience is with the girls that have been in horse camp, they have been very welcoming to Maia and I haven’t experienced the ... bullying that I see in other places.”

McLeod described Webster as competitive and said she gets a giggle out of whenever she can perform better than a peer. “She knows that she belongs,” she said.

McLeod said public school helped Webster connect to others, but now that schools are closed to in-person learning over the virus, the horse community has filled the void.

“I needed the public school, but now we don’t have it,” she said. “And so now we have to have a community. We cannot live without community.”

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