BLOG: Mini ponies bring big smiles visiting patients on the ward

Tiny Shetland ponies Peanut and Wizzle spread a huge amount of joy when they trotted into St Luke’s specialist unit at Turnchapel last week.

Patients and their families were surprised but delighted when the knee-high young therapy ponies turned up on the ward, brought in by Charlotte Pine of Dartmoor Carriages at Shaugh Prior in a special visit organised with Sister Karen Thorrington.

“We have a lot of very, very poorly patients but the looks on their faces and the enjoyment they got from the visit was amazing,” says Karen. “I think some of them thought they were hallucinating!

“Peanut and Wizzle went right up to the patients and nuzzled them, and they were able to give them a good smooth. They had their heads right in the bed with one patient and he was feeding them carrots.”

Rachel Marriott, a care assistant on the specialist unit who has a lot of experience with horses, was thrilled to be there to help the visit go smoothly and witness the uplifting effect on patients and family members, as well as staff.

“It was really lovely and a huge success. Something like this brings happiness even if just for five minutes,” she says. “Animals do have a therapeutic effect on people and the ponies were so gentle, placing their noses in the patients’ hands. One man had a lot of tubes coming out everywhere and we were a bit worried the ponies might disturb them, but his face just lit up when they came in and he could feel their breath on him.”

One of the most moving responses came from the mother of a younger patient who almost missed Peanut and Wizzle. She got back to the hospice from a hospital appointment just as Charlotte was about to load them on the trailer to go home. But she stopped so the patient could spend time with the pint-size pair and it had a profound and heartwarming effect.

Rachel recalls: “The mother turned around to me and said it was the first time she’d seen her daughter smile in a long time. And that smile made such an impact on her. She said it had made her day.”

Patients on the unit will often have visits from their own pets – cats, dogs, rabbits and even, on rare occasion a lamb or a full-size horse – but this is the first time the therapy ponies have been in, and it’s something Rachel and Karen would love to see repeated regularly.

Karen says: “We were doing a lot of extra little things like this, but Covid put a stop to it all. I see this as a starter to us getting back to normal.”

Charlotte was also delighted by the response on her first visit to St Luke’s. She says: “It just gives people a little bit of sunshine, lets them see something different and it gives them something to talk about. Even if they haven’t touched the ponies personally, if they’ve seen them walk through the corridor or seen someone else with a smile on their face it can brighten their day up. It’s just lovely.”

Peanut and Wizzle joined the Dartmoor Carriages team last year and, as well as continuing their therapy work, the sturdy little ponies will be trained for carriage driving and take part in some of the other special moorland experiences Charlotte offers, including cream tea and pub outings by horse and carriage, children’s parties, weddings and proms. And they are sure to be back on the ward at Turnchapel before too long.