My Little Pony

5 November 2019 | Scotland

Therapy Ponies

Meet the miniature ponies helping sick and disabled Scots

When Elaine and John Sangster took their miniature pet ponies to a rehabilitation care home for the first time they were astonished at the immediate reaction the new visitors had.

The patients - many with brain injuries - immediately bonded with the ponies and the care home asked if the couple would come back. Since that day, the couple have made it their mission to bring joy to sick and disabled children as well as elderly patients and dementia sufferers across Scotland.

Elaine, from West Lothian, recalls: “We had been keeping miniature Shetlands as pets for around ten years. We loved them and took them everywhere we went. We even took one, Wilson, on our honeymoon as he was too young to be left alone.

“Back at home, when we went shopping they came with us too. Often there were dogs bigger than them and they always generated huge interest everywhere we went. 

“But after that first visit to the rehabilitation unit we were asked to visit several care homes and hospices. It made us realise that we wanted to share the joy and love that we got from the ponies and do this full time. As soon as we made that decision, we were inundated with requests. In fact we have not stopped, we are always travelling.”

The couple now visit care homes, nursing homes, hospices, day-care centres, sheltered housing facilities and out-of-school clubs for disabled children across Scotland for around four years.

“There is nowhere that we won’t go but we make it a particular focus to visit those who can’t otherwise get out,” says Elaine.

They have specially trained the ponies to be gentle and quiet. And only those small enough to travel in a lift are allowed to visit.

“The ponies do go into lifts to reach bedrooms where people are too unwell or just don’t want to leave. It’s amazing to see the reaction from both young and old. Our ponies are so small that their heads are the same height as someone’s lap. You will see someone who had seemed emotionless, suddenly respond and kiss and hug a pony. 

“The ponies have also been known to trigger speech. One elderly gentleman who had dementia and had hardly said anything in a long while started to talk after being with the ponies. He talked about growing up on a farm with his dad, and working with Clydesdale horses, which are huge animals. It was obvious that the little ponies had sparked something and unlocked a memory. It was so extraordinary that his nurse started to cry.

“It is also really special to see the children. But it isn’t just the poorly children that we help but their siblings and families too. I would say that if we do anything, we provide a distraction. While we are there all worries and concerns go out the window.

“We had one little boy called Fergus who was about to go for heart surgery. He was only three, and it was touch and go. His mother told us that he had a bucket list, which included being on a pony. So we brought our ponies over to him. He couldn't speak but he was squeaking with happiness.”

Elaine says they have made more than 650 visits since they first started. They now own 15 miniature ponies but only take two at a time on a trip.

“We are always on the road, and make at least six visits a week and travel the length and breadth of Scotland. It is tiring but so worth it to see the happy smiles when we arrive with the ponies.

“And the ponies love being with people and they adore the attention. So it’s a win-win for all.”

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