When we started our Tea With A Pony sessions in May, the idea was simple. We wanted to adapt the Riding for the Disabled Association’s Tea With A Pony scheme – a meaningful activity to help those living with dementia to enjoy time in an equine environment – to meet the specific needs and skills of our community. We could never have imagined the impact it has had in such a short space of time.
As one carer said: “It seems to have helped her memory, I’m not sure how, but it has, and, more than anything, it’s been like a light has turned back on again. It’s the warmth of an animal, an animal that trusts you – the present fades away and it takes her back to just warm memories.”
We’d already done some pre-pandemic work with an organisation called Community Circles to invite residential care homes and nursing homes to My Life so they could experience what we do. So when it came to Tea with a Pony, we were really excited to welcome people with dementia into Thompson House Equestrian Centre, give them a cup of tea and watch the horses being led around the arena. Once they’d watched the display, we’d bring the horses to them so they could stroke them, spend time with them and hopefully unlock memories and experiences.
What’s made My Life’s Tea with a Pony sessions so special – and important – is that the people leading the horses were our My Life Learning students taking part in equine studies, and our members in My Life Opportunities enjoying their bespoke equine programme. We’d done a lot of preparatory work with these groups of people so they would not only be competent at leading the ponies but also confident in directing them in a display.
Our students and members therefore had the opportunity to give something back to their community – and the results were spectacular. There was something incredibly powerful at work when they brought over the ponies – all of a sudden young people were interacting with old, the common bond of the horse sparking off incredible conversations and encouraging the kind of meaningful engagement that is so important for both groups of people.
Such experiences led a couple of the students from My Life Learning to think about what they might want to do after college. One person in particular began to consider how they might work with older people in a care setting, and we’ll certainly be using our connections to suggest that idea is followed up with some work experience.
So from a simple cup of tea with a pony, numerous doors begin to open for everyone, doors that we want to lead people through to a meaningful future. And opportunities for My Life to grow too – we have begun some work with people with dementia, and as a result of this Tea with a Pony series of events, we’ve struck up a quite incredible relationship with Linda.
Linda has owned horses all her life. When her last one passed away earlier this year, it was telling that her dementia began to have a significant effect on her quality of life. It was as if the horse had given her a purpose, a firm rooting in life. So when she was introduced to us, we began with some gentle grooming, although it was pretty evident that she just wanted to ride!
Once she got on and we began the lesson something quite amazing happened. It was like a switch had gone on and she could just ride. And not just ride, trot! The positivity that comes with riding is a true joy for Linda – and wonderful for us to be able to facilitate.
Once the lesson is over, she’ll talk about the horses she’s had and dig out old photographs she’s taken. Meanwhile her husband is sitting with his friends, watching, but getting a much-needed break.
It’s important to note that our young people are also leading these lessons, developing a relationship with Linda themselves and also gaining an understanding of dementia. It arms them with the skills they might need to approach the condition in their own family environments, as well as the confidence to consider how they might use the skills they’ve learnt in a suitable career.
Sometimes, people ask us how the experiences we offer make an impact. We think Tea with a Pony is our mission to work in a person-centred way with people of all ages who may need support in action; from a nice idea we are able to give people skills, confidence, a meaningful activity and connections with their community.
As we always say, these sessions allow people to think about what matters, rather than be constantly asked “what’s the matter.”