Some amazing therapy animals are making a real difference to people throughout the county. We find out more

Great British Life: Alexis with her best friend cockapoo Rudy. Photo Paul WilkinsonAlexis with her best friend cockapoo Rudy. Photo Paul Wilkinson

Hearing dogs

When three-year-old cockapoo Rudy arrived on the doorstep of 11-year-old Alexis Tim in 2021, it was to prove life-changing. Born with microtia, a condition that causes hearing loss due to the ear being underdeveloped, Alexis, from Bushey, faced significant challenges growing up. But with Rudy by her side, she has a new-found confidence.

Rudy was provided by Hearing Dogs for Deaf People. Founded in1982, the charity currently provides over a thousand working hearing dogs, each of which not only provides an extra pair of ears but valuable friendship. Training puppies and supporting a hearing dog throughout their lifetime is estimated at £40,000.

‘From the second Alexis first met Rudy at The Grange, at Hearing Dogs head office, you could see the love and the bond,’ says Alexis’s mother, Sam.

The dog helps Alexis in practical ways, from waking her up in the morning to keeping her company as she studies and sleeping by her side at night. ‘There’s always laughs in the morning when Rudy alerts Alexis to her alarm clock with big kisses and cuddles,’ say Sam.

‘He alerts me to lots of sounds,’ explains Alexis. ‘If I’m in my bedroom, my mum can tell Rudy to get me, he runs upstairs and nudges me.’

However, it is being by Alexis’s side at night and listening for her that has made one of the biggest impacts, allowing Alexis to finally get a good night's sleep. ‘Alexis can’t sleep with her implants. At night it is dead silent for her and she became petrified of the dark,’ explains Sam. ‘Her main worry was that she wouldn’t hear the fire alarm.’

‘When I take my hearing aids off, I know that Rudy is listening,’ adds Alexis. I used to always sleep with the light on, which made me tired and I found it hard to concentrate at school. With Rudy sleeping close to me in my room, it makes me feel safe.’

The debilitating anxiety that affected Alexis’s life has also lifted. This was always severe when attending the many hospital appointments at London’s Great Ormond Street Hospital. ‘He’s not only made a difference to her wellbeing and confidence, Rudy helps her feel calm,’ says Sam. ‘At the last appointment she had he even sat on her lap!’

Having Rudy has also transformed Alexis’s life at school. ‘She is much more confident communicating. She can talk about her hearing loss and now does lots of after-school activities. She’s really got into tennis and speech and drama, even recently acting in the school play. It is something she would never have done before.’ adds Sam

‘Rudy has brought so much love and happiness to our family, but especially for Alexis. She is so much more relaxed with Rudy by her side, she is a different child. They really are best friends.’

Great British Life: Building trust with the horses builds trust humans again. Photo SLTHBuilding trust with the horses builds trust humans again. Photo SLTH

Learning through horses

Frustrated by youngsters either not turning up to appointments or not wanting to talk once there, clinical psychologist, Dr Jemma Hockley, decided there must be a better way. Along with Rosie Bensley, a horse trainer working with horses with behavioural problems, they founded Strength and Learning Through Horses. ‘I was finding that when I was working with the horses and owners, the owners were saying that their relationships outside had changed,’ explains Rosie. ‘They were more confident at work and had better relationships with their families.’

The charity now has a large 30-acre site in Barnet with nine horses and is inundated with referrals. Currently, the team sees around 500 young people in a year, with another 700 on the waiting list – they are currently raising funds for a purpose-built equine therapy centre to double capacity. ‘Young people will be referred for all sorts of different challenges: anxiety, difficulty managing their anger, not attending school,’ explains Rosie. ‘But what you find underlining all of it is worry and anxiety.

‘A lot of them have had traumatic experiences, and don't feel able to trust and talk to adults, typically professionals,’ says Rosie. ‘But they will come to us and when starting to trust the horses they start to trust humans again.’

Unlike conventional therapies equine therapy is experiential, all the work is ground based, the horses are not ridden. ‘Talking isn’t the main part, it's about doing,’ says Rosie. ‘It's working with the horses in a very loose and unstructured way. We have conversations about the horse’s behaviour and how that may be similar or different to their lives. For example, “that horse is just like me - when it gets scared it runs away” or “that one’s just like my Dad - it's bossy.”’

The horses respond to what someone is generally feeling, even for those trying to hide their emotions. 'When someone is projecting confidence but feeling something completely different, the horses will respond to what's really going on in the inside,' says Rosie.

‘Coming here working with the horses, young people leave their labels at the door. They are no longer that young person who has ADHD and is always getting in trouble, they’re not the difficult one in the family. They are the one that’s patient, the one that has loads of energy and can really motivate the horses when others can’t, so it’s about their strengths. It’s looking at the horses and what they struggle with and normalising it; we all find things difficult at times and it’s about finding a way of managing it. The horses teach people to look at their behaviour.’

Therapy sessions involve two or three horses in a big arena and after a health and safety talk, young people will be given a ‘loose’ activity such as getting to know the horses. They don't get given any other instruction, so it's completely free for them to interact with the horses. They might want to stand and cuddle them, run with them or get them to go over a jump. It’s overseen by a qualified mental health professional along with an equine behavioural specialist who watch the interactions.

‘The reason what we do is so powerful is that horse senses are highly tuned to changes. In the wild if one horse changes its energy it has an immediate ripple effect throughout the herd. Our horses know exactly how our young people are feeling and they will reflect that in their own behaviour. This in turn acts as feedback to young people feedback, who can then start to make some positive changes in their lives.

‘Often you can't see it as humans, but the horses can feel that difference in energy. It blows my mind daily.’

Great British Life: Romeo, Bluebell and Pickles with owner Lindsey. Photo: Lindsey HeadRomeo, Bluebell and Pickles with owner Lindsey. Photo: Lindsey Head

Shetland ponies spreading a smile

When Lindsey Head’s father became poorly she realised he missed her Shetland pony Pickles – so brought the pony to him instead. ‘She was amazing and stood in his bedroom as if she had been indoors all her life.’ explains Lindsey. ‘My father passed away the next day, but it made me realise that seeing her had meant the world to him and I felt we could take Pickles to visit other people who were stuck in their homes, unable to venture out.’

Fast forward two years and Lindsey now has seven Shetland ponies who ‘go anywhere they are wanted’. This includes SEN schools and refuges as well as care homes, on private home visits and to hospitals including Lister Hospital in Stevenage. ‘We recently went to see a little girl with liver failure – her wish was to have a pony, so we took two ponies into the children’s ward.’ says Sarah Router who works with Lindsey. ‘Obviously, we can’t go into wards where patients have open wounds, but we go on the stroke ward a lot and to elderly care.’ How do they get them in? ‘We have to go into the service lift as we just get swamped by members of the public otherwise. The first couple of times we went in we had to have security – it was like being papped!’ she laughs. ‘We create quite a stir.’

The Shetland breed is known as being cheeky - Pickles, one of the original ponies will face the mirror if there’s one in the lift and will look at herself. ‘I couldn't see why anyone would have Shetlands as they’re little monkeys - and then I fell in love,’ recalls Sarah. But once at work they don’t put a hoof wrong. On visits, each wears a tabard (and for those wondering a bag under their tail to collect any accidents) and a different head collar from the ones they usually wear. ‘The second the head collar goes on, they know it’s work and their demeanour changes into these little angels,’ says Sarah.

‘We had a young lad who hadn’t got out of bed for weeks. We said, “if you sit up, you can stroke the pony” and he sat up. We then said, “if you stand up you can give him a cuddle – and he stood up”. Everyone was in tears. I feel very privileged to be let into these private moments.’

‘Another lady at a neurological centre, could only move one arm. Romeo, who loves people but can be a bit fidgety, went in and put his head in her hand. He stood still for 10 minutes if not longer, just with his head in her hand and with her head against him. He just knows - I don't know how.’

Sarah believes being with the ponies has a soothing affect for patients and it always brightens everyone’s day. ‘I always say, “if we've made you smile, you've made today worth it”.’

‘Most of the ponies we have are rescue animals and they have had to learn to trust humans again,’ adds Lindsey. ‘They are amazing.’