Small Won­der!

April Kibby runs a (non-profit) horse ther­apy busi­ness from her Som­er­set prop­erty. Julie Hard­ing meets the warm-hearted small­holder and her six minia­ture charges who spread hap­pi­ness wher­ever they go

Country Smallholding - - Contents - by Julie Hard­ing

Minia­ture ther­apy ponies,

Walk through the heavy oak door that leads from open tim­ber garages into April Kibby’s three-acre Som­er­set small­hold­ing and it is like leav­ing be­hind Brob­d­ing­nag and en­ter­ing Lil­liput. In the im­mac­u­late post-and-railed pad­dock in front of the path that curves around to the house, six tiny horses graze. They boast ev­ery­thing a 17hh model has, bar­ring stature. In the world of minia­ture horses, 34in is con­sid­ered stat­uesque. To put it into per­spec­tive, the world’s small­est horse, Thum­be­lina, stands at a mere 17in.

April’s palomino pinto Pan­do­ras El­do­rado Gold (sta­ble name Elmo), who tops the mea­sur­ing stick at a ma­jes­tic 34in, is there­fore pos­i­tively skyscrap­ing. He cer­tainly tow­ers over field­mates Tinker­belle and Jezebel, who are Bri­tish Minia­tures, and April’s other Amer­i­can Minia­tures Peanut and White­tails Trig­ger Shez Just Dandy (Star), who is 32in tall, but he matches TF Crow Feath­ers Heart Breaker (Lofty) inch for inch. The lat­ter is also 34in at the wither.

The smoky dun coloured Lofty is the main man of this story. He is the one who set vet’s re­cep­tion­ist April on the road to run­ning Lofty Ther­apy Horses, a pony busi­ness (un­paid, mind you) that has been bring­ing sun­shine and joy to even the sad­dest souls. On cer­tain days Lofty can be found tour­ing wards and cor­ri­dors and pri­vate rooms in hos­pi­tals, care es­tab­lish­ments and nurs­ing homes through­out the West Coun­try.

He has been re­spon­si­ble for mak­ing peo­ple smile again, talk again and of­ten open up again about a past life that had been locked away by sick­ness, sad­ness, lone­li­ness or ad­vanc­ing years.

Among his many achieve­ments, Lofty made the last few weeks of OAP Fred’s life very happy ones. The pair met in a ward in Yeovil Hos­pi­tal.

“I was tak­ing Lofty into the in­di­vid­ual bays and heard a com­mo­tion by the win­dow,” says April. “We walked to­wards it and found Fred, who was so over­joyed to see Lofty that he held on to his head and cud­dled him. Lofty can be flighty, but he just stood there. The nurses and the sis­ter were all cry­ing and so was I. He was el­derly and a very sick man. His carer said that he had given up on life and there he was hug­ging Lofty and telling us about a pony he had once had called Joey.”

When April and Lofty re­turned to the hos­pi­tal a cou­ple of weeks later, they vis­ited Fred again. This time there was a large pho­to­graph of his first en­counter with Lofty stuck to the wall be­hind his bed.

“A few weeks after­wards I heard that Fred had died, which was so sad, but the vis­its had made such a dif­fer­ence to him.

“Pa­tients of­ten tell you sto­ries,” con­tin­ues April. “One man told me about break­ing in Ex­moor ponies and them try­ing to buck him off. As a re­sult he had been known as Bronco, and that name stuck once the staff heard his story.”

Dur­ing 2016, when April set up Lofty Ther­apy Horses, her Lil­liputian charges, clad in their minis­cule do­nated Teddy Moun­tain shoes (from the com­pany’s teddy bear footwear range) to pre­vent them slip­ping on glossy hos­pi­tal floors, made around one visit a month to the sick and needy. That has rock­eted to 71 out­ings this year and Lofty is about to fea­ture in a film made to cel­e­brate the NHS’s 70th birth­day. In fact, he is quite the celebrity. He has ap­peared on BBC One’s evening news pro­gramme South To­day; he graces the ther­apy horses’ Face­book page ( https:// www.face­book.com/LoftyTher­a­pyHorses/) and he is a ubiq­ui­tous pres­ence on all the mar­ket­ing ma­te­rial.

Soon, though, the moun­tain (as in pa­tients) will be com­ing to Muham­mad, with The Hub-Yeovil, an award-win­ning char­ity which pro­vides skills and de­vel­op­ment op­por­tu­ni­ties to young peo­ple and adults with health is­sues, such as autism, com­ing to Dotts Or­chard View reg­u­larly to meet Lofty et al.

“They will come one day a week so that they can learn and in­ter­act with the an­i­mals. We are also tak­ing book­ings from other groups,” says April, whose hus­band, Steve, works at The Hub. “We will ex­plain to the peo­ple who come how to be around an­i­mals, how to feed them and muck out their sta­bles. As if on cue, April leads the way to her ponies’ pala­tial homes, each one al­ready mucked out and with a neat bed of shav­ings ready for a res­i­dent should they be feel­ing the heat a lit­tle too much on this hu­mid sum­mer’s day.

“They are so mol­ly­cod­dled,” says April, look­ing at her hand­i­work, which gives more than a sub­tle hint of the OCD ten­den­cies she doesn’t mind ad­mit­ting. If you took a spirit level to this bed not a sin­gle edge would be skew-whiff.

“I keep the ponies in if the weather’s bad,” she adds. “Come on Star, do you want to come in?” She ush­ers the diminu­tive sor­rel pinto mare into her usual sta­ble, and then sud­denly five other minia­tures ap­pear, all want­ing an hour of shel­ter and a small pile of hay.

Once April has set­tled them in to their usual sec­tions, she heads to­wards her spot­less pad­docks, pink poop scoop in hand. “If they gal­lop round, I’m out here tramp­ing down the bumps like I’m on a polo pitch,” she says.

It pays to be spick-and-span when you only have a rel­a­tively small area of ground which acts as home not only to the six

equines, but also to a mixed bag of 12 sheep. Yes­ter­day April and Steve trav­elled to Devon to pick up two rather feral Kerry Hills, who stare sus­pi­ciously from their black panda patches and dart ner­vously from one end of their pad­dock to the other. After a few months of April Kibby’s spe­cial brand of cos­set­ing and cud­dles, they will be putty in her hands.

April now heads into a dif­fer­ent pad­dock where the pure Shet­land sheep Peb­ble and Wil­low are munch­ing grass along­side Kit and Kat, two Shet­land/Badger Faces, Boris the pure Badger Face, Timmy the Ja­cob cross and three Herd­wicks called Harry, Het­tie and Wick­sie.

“If you don’t give Peb­ble at­ten­tion, she will hit you with her foot,” laughs April. “Coco, her son, is the devil in­car­nate. You can’t do any­thing with him. He’s a wild child, but I’m hop­ing he will change, although I don’t think he ever will.” The Shet­land/Badger Face in ques­tion stands and stares from a long way off at the friendly group that has now crowded around.

“Het­tie the Herd­wick is re­ally friendly. She had fly strike a cou­ple of years ago and we thought that we were go­ing to lose her. She was very poorly and had to have her tail am­pu­tated,” April adds. “She had been off­ish up to that point. She would come to the bucket, but kept her dis­tance. Since the ill­ness, though, she’s been like a lit­tle dog. She knows her name and will have a hal­ter on and she even took part in a char­ity event for St Mar­garet’s Hospice and was bril­liant.”

April keeps her ewes and wethers to­gether and there is never any dan­ger of them be­ing trans­ported to the slaugh­ter­house. (April and Steve, in­ci­den­tally, are veg­e­tar­i­ans.) Any­thing four-legged is here for life and, be­sides, apart from their new ca­reers as ther­apy an­i­mals for visi­tors, they are liv­ing lawn mow­ers.

“We orig­i­nally got them to help keep the grass down and ro­tate graze with the ponies,” says April. “It’s sur­pris­ing how lit­tle grass the ponies need.

“When peo­ple come to see the ponies, they en­joy the sheep just as much, if not more. I guess it’s be­cause they aren’t usu­ally able to get so up close and per­sonal to them.” The sheep, too, have their own sta­ble. “They can come in out of the rain if they want to. Last year I booked a guy to shear them. He had al­ready can­celled his other farm­ing clients be­cause of the rain and called me to can­cel, too, but I told him mine were bone dry be­cause they’d been in.”

April and Steve moved to Dotts Or­chard View three years ago. It has more land than their pre­vi­ous prop­erty — a town house in Yeovil where Lofty lived in the large back gar­den and where the sum­mer house dou­bled as his sta­ble — but not as much as the 23-acre small­hold­ing in Higher Chil­frome, Dorset, which they owned be­fore that and where they kept South­downs.

Lofty was pur­chased while they lived in Yeovil, ini­tially as a com­pan­ion for April’s rid­ing horse, Ber­tie.

“Be­cause I worked, I would of­ten be late getting to the liv­ery yard and all the other horses would have been taken in, leav­ing Ber­tie out on his own in the field stress­ing. I de­cided that the ideal so­lu­tion was to get an­other horse.”

Lofty also dou­bled as a sub­sti­tute equine for Steve.

“Steve and I went on a rid­ing hol­i­day to an Ari­zona ranch and while he imag­ined that he would be spend­ing his days sit­ting by the pool, he ended up gal­lop­ing along river beds. When we got back he started look­ing for his own horse, but he was then in his late 40s and he didn’t bounce well, so I told him that I had found the per­fect one for him that he couldn’t fall off — and that was Lofty.”

The ther­apy vis­its com­menced by chance. April and Steve took Lofty to visit Steve’s fa­ther, Brian Kibby, in a care home; on the strength of that suc­cess­ful soiree they found them­selves in the nearby hospice and hos­pi­tal and word (and so­cial me­dia posts) spread like wild­fire.

The ponies have al­ways be­haved im­pec­ca­bly, but as an ex­pe­ri­enced horse­woman who has rid­den since the age of eight, April is al­ways pre­pared for the un­ex­pected.

“We were in a hos­pi­tal ward when the crash trol­ley whooshed past and Lofty jumped. It makes you re­alise that they are an­i­mals and any­thing could hap­pen.”

Be­witched by four-legged crea­tures since child­hood, April ad­mits that she is now con­tem­plat­ing tak­ing on some geese.

“When I was grow­ing up I didn’t play with dolls; I had a farm­yard and an­i­mals. I only had Cindy and Bar­bie be­cause they could ride horses.”

She has also men­tioned to Steve that she would like to breed minia­ture ponies.

“But he says I would never want to let them go to new homes — and he’s right.”

They are so mol­ly­cod­dled. I keep the ponies in if the weather’s bad

Star, one of six minia­ture ponies used for ther­apy by vet’s re­cep­tion­ist April Kibby

The Kib­bys’ small­hold­ing con­sists of three acres

April, who has been an­i­mal mad since child­hood, with Tinker­belle, Elmo, Peanut, Jezebel and Star

April has a to­tal of 12 sheep and once they ar­rive at Dotts Or­chard View they have a home for life

April’s two new Kerry Hill sheep

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