Therapy pony helps sick and disabled children

When Dillon instinctively comforted a terminally ill child whose dying wish was to meet a pony, it was clear that there was something very special about him.

Since then, the former Blue Cross pony has gone onto help hundreds of youngsters – and even inspired his owner to set up a dedicated riding school for children with disabilities and special needs.

Dillon, 24, was rehomed by paediatric chiropractor Alison Ramseier nearly 16 years ago and she first noticed his magic touch with children when her young patients would walk past his stable and light up.

“I had treated a few kids with disabilities and they couldn’t raise their hand, but the second they walked past Dillon’s stable, which was next to the chiropractic room, they would be able to. That’s when I first started to think about equine therapy,” she said.

Dillon at work: The intuitive pony has helped hundreds of children.

Then, about seven years ago, Dillon, who started life as part of a herd used for animal vaccine research, was invited to visit to Worcester Children’s Hospital dressed as a reindeer to help Santa deliver presents – a trip that certified the pony’s incredible affinity with youngsters.

“We didn’t know what would happen when we first took him there. But when we arrived the staff brought out a little girl in a wheelchair with drips hanging everywhere. I recall she had leukaemia and possibly not long left with her family but her dream was to see a pony,” Alison explained.

“At first, Dillon took a step back and snorted, and I just thought: ‘Oh no’. But then the girl put her little fragile hand out with a treat, and Dillon just knew.

“He walked up to her wheelchair, took the treat and started nuzzling her cheek. I believe she died a few weeks later but Dillon had at least been there to make one of her dreams come true.”

Dillon brought festive joy to sick patients at Worcestershire Children's Hospital for several years, dressing up as a reindeer and jingling his bells in excitement.

Dillon, who arrived at Blue Cross in 1997, went on to become an annual a celebrity visitor to the hospital – a role he relished.

Alison said: “When we used to get to the hospital he got so excited that he started shaking and then his bells would start jingling and the children would just love it.

“During his visits all sorts of children would come out – those excited and happy, and those wheelchair-bound, drips in arms and possibly experiencing their last Christmas. 

“Dillon gave his all to every one of these kids. He was sometimes a little worried by the machinery, but he understood his job and still offered kisses and cuddles, bringing a smile to their face at Christmas, and a tear to all those watching.”

[Above: Dillon with fellow Blue Cross pony Sky, who also helps out with therapy work.]

At the ripe old age of 24, Dillon has now hung up his hooves on the hospital visits as travelling is difficult for him – but he continues to help children at the equine therapy school he calls home in Staffordshire.

Dillon and his companion, fellow Blue Cross pony Sky, take on a range of roles at Parklands RDA (Riding for the Disabled Association), depending on the needs of the children they are helping.

“They do therapeutic and sensory work for those with more advanced disabilities; this can involve the children feeling the horses and grooming to working with those on the autistic spectrum who are ready to learn a bit more responsibility – helping with mucking out, as well as handling the ponies,” said Alison, who opened the school in April last year.

“Dillon does a little bit of riding but is an old boy now, so not much. He does a lot of the groundwork.

Dillon inspired owner Alison (pictured) to establish her very own RDA school after seeing his magic touch with youngsters.

“The ponies are currently being trained to take children along a sensory trail through fields, where they can look to enhance all of their senses whilst feeling the freedom of riding through the fields.”

Trying to pinpoint what makes Dillon such a talented therapy pony, Alison, who is a former international show jumper, said that it was mostly his “cheeky character”.

“When he needs to be calm around a child he senses that, and will be really calm. But when the children are a bit bubbly like him, he picks up on that and his cheeky side comes out, which they relate to. With a more cheeky kid he will nibble at their pockets, for example.”

When he needs to be calm around a child he senses that, and will be really calm. But when the children are a bit bubbly like him, he picks up on that and his cheeky side comes out." Owner Alison Ramseier

And the benefits that the work of Dillon, along with Sky and the other RDA ponies at the centre, bring to children are huge – both for mental and physical wellbeing.

Alison said: “We have kids that can’t walk very well, but the movement in the pelvis that horse riding can bring means they build up strength, developing their core and finding their centre of balance.

“The movement, as well as the contact with the horse, also stimulates oxytocin (a hormone alleviating anxiety) in the brain which will also calm children.

“We’ve had a child with Down’s Syndrome with no inclination of walking or anything. Now he’s not walking yet, but he’s managing to pull himself up on the sofa which is a huge milestone for him.”

The treatment has even been lauded by one patient’s hospital consultant, who said it had had a "huge benefit to overall tone and core stability" and had demonstrated how equine therapy could be used to help others with coordination and balance problems.

Lottie Dronfield, Equine Coordinator RDA UK, said: "The therapeutic benefit of horses and ponies for people with disabilities has been central to RDA’s work for almost 50 years.

"The activity of riding is fantastic for building muscle strength, flexibility, coordination and balance for people with physical disabilities. In addition, RDA’s activities have been shown to improve communication, relationship building, concentration and enjoyment for people with learning disabilities or autism.

“People often think we need old or ‘bomb-proof’ ponies – but actually we need fit, healthy, forward-going horses and ponies to enable our riders and carriage drivers to reach their goals.

As Dillon has reached the age of 24, he is not ridden very often and mostly does the 'groundwork' at the riding school.

“This partnership with former Blue Cross ponies is a fantastic opportunity for us to offer a new life to some very deserving ponies who will spend many happy years helping hundreds of disabled riders to find out what they can achieve.”

Sally Forskett, Horse Welfare Coordinator, said: “Alison is Dillon’s fourth – and final – Blue Cross home and he has thrived in her care over the years. It has been lovely to see the difference he has made to so many children’s lives. 

"We are very pleased that Alison has agreed to take ownership of Dillon and he will stay with her for the rest of his days continuing to help children.”

When Dillon and Sky are not helping children, they play the role of ‘grandma and grandad’ to other younger ponies at Alison’s stables – they include cobs Ernie and Rummy, who have recently been rehomed from Blue Cross and are now in training for therapy work to follow in their footsteps.

— Page last updated 15/05/2017