It’s not every day you see a pony in a lift – but then Alfie and Spot are not your everyday ponies.
The British Miniature Spotted Ponies, which are 36in or nine hands in height, are regular visitors to care homes, day centres, hospitals, hospices and centres for people with disabilities and special needs. They happily trot into communal lounges and go up in lifts to residents’ rooms.
Alfie and Spot belong to Pat A Pony, a small charity providing therapeutic visits to people who are unable to get out and about.
The idea is that patting a pony offers benefits, such as sensory touch and relaxation, as well as prompting reminiscence.
Alfie and Spot are owned by Susan Dunne, who runs Pat A Pony. “A lot of people think they’re Shetlands but they’re an unusual breed, native to Britain, and vary in height from very small to nearly horse size,” she said.
“They have a lovely nature and don’t get fazed being around people. Their size and gentle nature make them ideal for the work we do, and their distinctive spots are a big attraction.”
Susan had the idea for Pat A Pony – the only scheme of its kind in the country – while working in a nursing home.
“I’d heard of schemes like Pat Dogs, which takes dogs to care homes, and wondered if the same could be done with Alfie, as he was so friendly, quiet and still. The manager was open to the idea, as we’d had animals in before, so we brought him in. He was a great success – the residents loved him. When we took him inside he wasn’t bothered at all.”
Word filtered through, and other places started asking for visits from eight-year-old Alfie. Before long there were two pat ponies.
Susan had bought Alfie as a companion for her horse, then realised he wanted to be with one of his own size so she got Spot, now six.
The ponies, who are stabled at St Ives in Harden, have become local ‘celebrities’, making guest appearances at open days and on TV shows, such as Emmerdale.
They reached the final of last year’s British Animal Honours, hosted by Paul O’Grady, winning a certificate for ‘outstanding contribution’ to animal therapy.
Alfie and Spot have appeared at care homes district-wide.
Festive appearances have included Keighley’s Christmas lights switch-on.
The ponies even turned up in a pub, when Susan gave a talk about Pat A Pony at the Old Silent Inn at Stanbury.
“We get invited to all sorts of events,” added Susan, who works with volunteers. “The ponies are a fantastic attraction – they’re treated like film stars!
“Horses are easily spooked by noises, but these are calm, placid ponies, who take whatever comes. A few weeks ago we took them in a lift to the top floor of a care home and the fire alarm went off. They were the only ones not startled by it!
“They’ll happily walk into buildings and along corridors. When they go into a room they know they’re with people who are unwell, and they’re gentle with them. Our criteria is visiting people who can’t get out to see the ponies.”
With their fluffy manes and pretty spots – Alfie’s are black, Spot’s are brown – you can’t resist the urge to stroke these friendly ponies.
“The physical contact increases relaxation and well-being,” said Susan. “Older people sometimes feel a bit redundant – they’re the ones receiving all the care but their own instinct to care doesn’t go away with age.
“Stroking a pony and giving them a treat makes their day.”
The Pat A Pony scheme also plays a role in reminiscence.
Susan, who plans to set up reminiscence groups, added: “Coming into contact with the ponies stimulates memories.
“People in their 70s and 80s often grew up with horses and used to ride them.”
When they’re not making public appearances, Alfie and Spot relax in a field at St Ives.
“They’re not domestic animals – they need to have time in the field just being ponies,” Susan said. “Their breed was initially a wild woodland pony, and there aren’t many in this country. Their spots are a camouflage in the forest.
“There are pat schemes with dogs, donkeys, chickens, reptiles and birds of prey, but not this breed of pony. They’re very sociable and like to meet people, especially if there’s a carrot involved!
“They’re the right size for someone in a wheelchair to pat, and people with sight problems often manage to see their spots.”
The ponies are bathed and groomed before each visit, and are each fitted with a specially-made ‘bun bag’ to catch any droppings!
Pat A Pony is trying to raise £1,500 for a field shelter for Spot and Alfie. Call 01535 690329 or 0771 8905036, visit patapony.com or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org for details.