For ponies so small, Dame Maggie and Princess Rose have had an enormous impact on many lives.

A patient kissing Maggie on the nose
Maggie comforting a sick patient

The Shetlands rehomed by Blue Cross work as therapy animals, comforting terminally ill patients at hospices, inspiring children and adults with learning difficulties and even helping to steer troubled youths away from crime.

The mother and daughter, aged 18 and six respectively, were rehomed by Blue Cross Burford to Alex Taskin in January 2016 and she soon noticed their incredible ability to calm and soothe those in their presence.

So having seen on TV the profound benefits that therapy ponies can have on people, Alex was inspired to launch an equine therapy arm to her people development business, with the help of friend Suzanne Halsey.

The pint-sized ponies’ first outing as representatives of Equilibrium for Life was to one of their local hospices in Kent early last year, which proved beyond doubt their remarkable affinity with those in need.

“They’re incredibly sensitive to people’s emotions and feelings. So when we take them to meet patients, they know when someone is really ill or dying. They’re completely quiet and just stand there, and they will nuzzle the person.

“It’s amazing to see. I’m not sure you can ever understand the science behind it, it’s just incredible,” said Alex.

Alex and Suzanne now take Maggie and Rose to various hospices at least once a month. And when Blue Cross first caught up with them, the ponies were the star attraction of the Wisdom Hospice open day, standing statuesque still as a queue of eager children took their turns to pet them and brush their manes.

Rose meeting visitors at the Wisdom Hospice open day

In one particularly touching moment, Maggie rested her head in the lap of a young disabled boy using a wheelchair who was on his way to visit his sick grandmother – and his parents couldn’t believe how his face immediately lit up.

“On one visit there was a gentleman, who did not have much longer to live, and Rose just went straight up to him and nuzzled him. He kissed her on the head and was so happy to see her.

“It’s nice for people to have these touching photos of their loved ones, who they know will sadly die but it hopefully gives them a nice memory of them smiling,” said Alex.

The ponies also travel all the way to Guy’s Hospital in central London for its annual Cancer Survivors Day each year and are one of the main attractions.


Katy’s story

In between outings to comfort the sick, Maggie and Rose also have regular visitors, who they help with a range of learning challenges – improving their quality of life and helping them to build a brighter and more confident future.

One of their longest-standing visitors is Katy Shaw, aged 21, who has autism and very limited communication skills.

Her support workers from charity KASBAH have been taking her to see Maggie and Rose every Friday for nearly two years.

Katy holding onto the ponies on their ropes
Katy with the ponies at Equilibrium for Life's base in the Kent countryside.

The initial aim was to give Katy a new experience away from the supported housing scheme in which she lives and to spend some time outdoors being active, but it soon became clear that the connection she has with the ponies runs even deeper – and would go on to have far more reaching benefits.

“The visits are giving Katy so much more confidence and making such positive differences to her life. She is learning new skills that, in turn, are also helping her to gain life skills and the enjoyment she gets from her sessions is obvious for all to see,” said Suzanne, who runs Katy’s weekly sessions.

Katy can now put the ropes on the ponies, lead them around on walks, take them through obstacle courses and helps to muck out their stables, all of which greatly improves her coordination and engagement.

Katy leads Rose along with Suzanne

“Katy also helps groom Maggie and Rose. Before she started coming here she wouldn’t brush own her hair and didn’t like anyone else doing it for her, but after brushing the ponies’ manes and tails it’s something she likes having done to herself now,” said Suzanne.

“Recently, Katy has developed a way of greeting the horses with what we fondly call the ‘Katy nose rub’. She likes to rub her nose on the ponies’ noses to say hello, promoting interaction between them and it has also helped her interaction skills with us and her carers. Her attention span is developing and can be sustained for a little longer at each session. It’s incredible to see the progress we’ve made.”

Katy’s support worker, said: “Katy enjoys the time she spends with Suzanne and the ponies and it is proving to be very therapeutic. She shows a real interest in their needs and genuinely cares for them. The sessions have been invaluable to Katy and are teaching her to be responsible for the wellbeing of the horses.”

Katy grooming the horses
Katy grooming the horses; since brushing their manes she is comfortable with her own hair being brushed.

Noah’s story

Four-year-old Noah Smith is another person whose life has been touched and improved by having Maggie and Rose in it. Also autistic, his fortnightly sessions with the ponies have helped him to come out of his shell.

He has gone from simply interacting with Maggie and Rose to riding, with huge confidence.

His mum Nic said: “We don’t know yet exactly where Noah is on the autistic spectrum, but he has lots of sensory issues and I have read and watched on TV a lot about how good equine therapy can be. I always wanted to do horse riding as a child too, but never did, so I wanted Noah to have that. I looked online and found Alex so went out for a taster session, and we haven’t looked back since.”

Since starting his sessions with Maggie and Rose a year ago, Noah’s attention span has greatly improved and the hour he spends with them each time has a calming influence on him.

Four-year-old Noah Smith with Maggie and Rose. The ponies have helped build his confidence.

“It gives him a great attention span because he’s got nothing else to think about, and he’s concentrating on what he’s doing. It’s the enjoyment of it, and he gets that hour just to enjoy the moment and not worry about anything.  He doesn’t take the smile off of his face the whole time that he’s there. It’s time out for him.”

“It’s time out for us as well, really,” said Noah’s dad Paul. “We turn up and watch him, and get to see how much he has progressed in such a short space of time. It’s amazing to see.”

Nic added: “‘It is also helping Noah in other areas of his life, especially his speech and he talks about them all the time. He did a show and tell at pre-school and took in photos and told all the other children all about Maggie and Rose.

“It’s good for improving his balance as well. He has problems with his muscles so it helps that.”

“We wouldn’t be without it now, Noah absolutely loves it,” Nic said.


Inspiring

Maggie and Rose continue to astound Alex each and every day with their ability to relate and adapt to any situation.

She now offers programmes on team building, wellbeing and personal development incorporating work with the ponies, as well as using them to inspire youths on the brink of a life of crime at pupil referral units.

Alex said: “At the beginning when we get there, the kids have an attitude and don’t understand why the horses are there. But by the end, they’re caring for the ponies and there is a complete change in their behaviour. It’s a very powerful thing to do, and it’s incredibly rewarding.

Maggie being led into Wisdom Hospice by Alex
Maggie heads into the Wisdom Hospice to greet people with Alex on the open day.

“People often ask me why I have Shetlands, as I can’t ride them. But I wouldn’t be without them now. I was initially looking for companion ponies but they have just become so much more. They’re little saints!”

Ruth Court, Horse Welfare Manager for Blue Cross, said: “Maggie and Rose are very special little ponies and we’re extremely proud of them here at Blue Cross. The work they’re doing and the comfort they are bringing to so many people is just remarkable.

"They have proved that the calming, therapeutic benefits that ponies and horses can have on people should never be underestimated.

“We couldn’t have dreamt of a better home for them and are so grateful to Alex and the team for realising their full potential as hero ponies. They are inspirational.”

Maggie and Rose grazing in the field where they live in Kent