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
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