Hazel Southam - Journalist

The healing power of horses

Horse magazine: spring 2016
A cold wind is blowing over the South Downs and straight through the fields where 11 horses and ponies are grazing.
But the chill winter air is not stopping seven people who’ve gathered there from grooming the horses, grazing them in the long grass and feeding them carrots.
It’s a scene repeated nationwide at the moment, as we all hunker down and wait for the rain and mud to come to a natural end. But there’s something different here. This is therapy.
In the heart of rural Hampshire, Abigail Withey (44) uses a herd of veteran horses to work with older people (among others) who are house-bound and suffering from chronic illnesses. Quietly, and today, muddily, lives are being changed. I went along to find out more.
Abigail has had ‘a passion’ for older horses since childhood. Then, she and her older sister, Carol, helped look after a neighbour’s veteran mare, Sally, who lived to the age of 37.
‘We lived very rurally,’ says Abigail, ‘so she was my playmate. I loved everything about her. But I knew even then that older horses are good for older people as I’d see elderly people from the village come to the field at weekends to give her carrots and simply spend time with her.’
A seed was sown in Abigail’s mind. Two years ago, she founded Helping Hooves UK with the aim of connecting older horses and older people. The goal, she says, is quite simple: that the horses should encourage the people, and the people should love to care for the horses, who still have so much to give, despite their years.
‘I think that there has been a negative attitude towards veteran horses in the past,’ says Abigail. ‘But they still have so much to give. Older horses teach us about self-preservation. In the same way that older people sometimes aren’t respected by younger people, older horses can often inadvertently be overlooked by younger herd members.
‘For older people, seeing this can help them to accept the ageing process, because that’s what the horse is doing.
‘So, older horses bond with older humans well, perhaps because they know that they need a little bit of help.
‘Older people and older horses have a lot in common,’ she adds. ‘Sometimes it’s arthritis, or sugar intolerance, or simply pain. Older people can relate to the health issues that older horses have.’
There are plans to hold a series of workshops for customers on issues such as diabetes, arthritis, nutrition and pain management. In those classes the experience of both the horse and the person will be discussed.
And so we find ourselves, on a blustery day, with ponies Marmite and Mouse (both 18 years old) and horses Honey (29) and Tasha (30). Two faded wicker baskets are brought out, laden with brushes and everyone sets to work on grooming.
The horses and ponies allow themselves to be groomed while continuing with the serious business of the day: eating the long grass near the sheds and car park that edge their fields in the village of Swanmore.
Fifty-five year-old Teri comes every week. She’s recovering from two strokes and lives with depression. She’s first to grab a brush and start grooming Mouse, though she’s particularly pleased when Tasha, the Arab, is brought in from her field, as Tasha is her favourite horse.
Sixty-five year-old Mandy [not her real name] has come to the group for just the second time. She says she is nervous of horses and doesn’t want to groom one. ‘They kick don’t they?’ she asks. But after a quick introduction to the pleasures of grooming a horse, she’s soon brushing dried mud off Marmite and beaming.
Sitting quietly to one side is former air steward, Stuart Perkiss. Stuart isn’t old by any stretch of the imagination, but two years ago aged just 32 he had a life-changing stroke, and now requires round-the-clock care, has lost the use of his right hand, and has largely lost the power of speech. With his left hand he is chopping carrots up to feed to the horses. He comes every week with his 64-year-old mother, Marie.
The whole group lives in Portsmouth and for all of them, this is the only time each week when they get out into the countryside. For some, it’s the only occasion they get out of the house. Abi has around 100 clients, and their ages vary, but today’s group include a 71-year-old former labourer and a 57-year-old former road sweeper. They are enabled to come to Helping Hooves UK through the NHS’s Better Care Fund which is intended to bring social care and health together. Most people are referred by either the Stroke Association or the Red Cross.
There is an air of relaxed chatter, people encourage each other to groom, help lead the horses and put on their rugs ready to go back out into the fields.
‘A lot of our customers have had strokes,’ says Abigail, ‘and so for them to get out into the countryside and breath some fresh air, that can be the biggest thing. Simply moving around and grooming the horses gives them confidence.
‘They relax when they are with the horses and have the chance to come away from the city.
‘Because of their age, illness, or both, being with horses can be something that they’ve not done in a long time, if at all. In some people it evokes memories of being evacuated during the Second World War, living on farms with working horses.
‘I’ve seen people change. Not only do they relax, but they talk and they make friends. If you live alone and are isolated that’s so important.’
But she adds, it’s not just the people who benefit, the horses do too. ‘The aim is to give the horses the best quality of life possible,’ she says. ‘Working with people keeps them going and they love getting cared for and fussed. I say that this is an alms house for horses. In return for living here, they allow themselves to be fussed and petted. It’s not a bad life, is it?’

Case study: ‘Coming here is the highlight of my life’

Fifty-five year-old Teri Gibson has lived with depression for more than 30 years. Last year she suffered two strokes and now lives with chronic pain in her back and neck.
‘Coming here is the highlight of my life, not just my week,’ she says. ‘I love getting out of town. It feels so good up here,’ she adds, looking at the view across the fields to rolling hills shrouded in woodland.
The horses are her ‘saviour’ she says. ‘I used to go riding a lot when I was young. Being with them lifts me up. Horses do something for you, really. Being with them helps me to cope with the physical pain.’
She is in permanent, persistent pain and cries as she talks about how it stops her sleeping. ‘People think I’m OK,’ she says. ‘But the only time I’m OK is when I’m here. This is fantastic. It makes me get out of bed, because the rest of the time, normally, I don’t.’

Case study: ‘It is the first time he has smiled all week’

Stuart is a former air steward with Virgin Atlantic. He loved flying long haul flights, though they were busy. New York was his favourite destination. He had a full and interesting life.
Then one day, two years ago, he had a stroke. His mother, Marie (64) found him on the floor of his flat two days later. ‘I don’t know how he survived,’ she says.
He did. But Stuart has largely lost the power of speech and is unable to care for himself. Now, he and his mum, Marie (who is his full-time carer) come to Helping Hooves UK every week.
Two years ago, Stuart flew round the world every week. Now, his parents bring him the 22 miles from Portsmouth to Swanmore once a week. It is the only time he gets out of the house.
‘Stuart’s not been well this week,’ says Marie, ‘but he’s been telling me since 7am that he’s ready to come here. And now he’s smiling and that’s the first time he’s smiled all week.
‘It brings me such pleasure to see him smile. It’s the highlight of the week for him, but as a family it’s great, because we can all relax here. It’s very therapeutic for me as well,’ she adds, grooming steadily.
‘I am with Stuart 24/7 and I haven’t got time for anything else. It’s physically and mentally exhausting. As well as that, I’m having treatment for liver cancer.
‘I’ve never had anything to do with horses before, but I find it really wonderful here. I love it. I love the fresh air.’
Stuart is able to convey what he feels about being with the horses. He smiles, looks less tense than when he arrived, chops up carrots and offers them to the horses. He can’t speak, but he’s making it plain that he wants to be here.

Case study: ‘The horses have a calming effect’

Seventy-one year-old Tom Doe is a former labourer. He’s lived with chronic fatigue for the last 20 years, sleeping for 15 hours a day.
‘It’s very isolating. I haven’t been on holiday for 14 years. So this is very nice.
‘I used to be around horses when I was young. My aunt lived in the New Forest and had horses.
‘I likes [sic] any animal. But horses have a good, really calming effect.’

Case study: ‘I feel better when I’m with the horses’

Mandy [not her real name] is 65 and has suffered from depression for many years. She says that she went ‘doolally’ when her 14-year-old daughter was raped and bore a child as a result.
‘I thought I would get well,’ she says. ‘But even now when I am on my own I cry a lot. The doctors say I will never be well. That’s very hard to take in.’
She started to attend Helping Hooves UK after visiting Age UK Portsmouth, who recommended she join the group.
‘I really enjoy it,’ she says, busily grooming Mouse, the 18-year-old Icelandic pony. ‘I love animals. Not having my own transport, I wouldn’t normally get this kind of opportunity. So it’s really wonderful to come out here.
‘I feel better when I’m with the horses. They are lovely. It’s very calming.’

For further details contact: Abigail@helpinghoovesuk.org or call 01962 771441.


About Hazel

Hazel Southam is an award-winning journalist who reports on religious affairs, international development and the environment. She has covered four G8 Summits.

She wrote for The Sunday and Daily Telegraph for 10 years. Her work has also appeared in The Guardian, The Independent, The Independent on Sunday, The Daily Mail and The Evening Standard.

Reporting assignments have taken her to places including Bosnia, Zimbabwe, Mongolia, Albania, Nagorno-Karabakh, Senegal and the Arctic Circle.

In the UK, she has also delivered media training to the MOD and leading businesses.

Contact Hazel