I want to tell you a story about equine therapy and my beautiful horse, Apollo.

He is my blessed colleague in my work in Equine Guided Learning and equine therapy, having carried small autistic children on his back, patiently bending whilst they pull his mane and screech in his ears. He has taught leadership, self-respect and healthy boundaries to troubled teenagers and comforted those with broken hearts, all part and parcel of his own unique brand of equine therapy.

When we lived in Somerset, not far from the beautiful city of Bath, we used to open our walled garden and orchard, home to our animal family, to any passers-by that might have decided to walk through the village or visit the adjacent church. They were welcome to come in to the garden, to enjoy the view, have a cup of tea or a slice of cake. Many would take the opportunity to scratch a pig (we had special pig-scratching brushes) or stroke a hen.

One late spring day, not long before we were due to close the garden for the day, a lady wandered in with her sister. As she stood there clutching her sister’s arm, she told me that her sister had dementia. Her sister seemed so young to be suffering from this dreaded disease and as she explained this to me, a tear fell from her sister’s eye.

Margaret, as I shall call her for the purposes of this story, appeared to be in a very far-off world, not speaking, little eye contact and was quite unsure of where the paths were. She was not at all animated and even when we placed a pig-scratching brush in her hand and encouraged her to scratch our enormous pigs, she did not seem engaged at all and appeared to be unaware of where she was. Despite this, her patient and caring sister and led her round the garden and both of us chatted away to her as if she were aware of everything, talking to her about the pigs, the goats, the ducks.

As we made our way through the orchard to the horse paddock beyond, Apollo, my noble thoroughbred was patiently grazing near to the paddock entrance seemingly enjoying the early evening light. With my knowledge of how polite he is and having observed how careful he is with young children and babies, I made the decision to take Margaret and her sister into the paddock.

When Margaret’s eyes which had seemed so empty previously, alighted on this chestnut horse whose glorious red coat gleamed in the evening sunshine, she scurried forwards with her hand held outstretched. Before we knew what was happening she was smothering his nose with kisses and despite the ever-present flies, Apollo did not move his muzzle, allowing her to continue the outpouring of her affection and obviously willing to do a bit of his equine therapy.

“Margaret used to be a passionate horsewoman.” her sister commented as we stood and watched life sweep once again through Margaret’s previously expressionless face.

When, standing next to her at Apollo’s muzzle, I said, “You love horses, don’t you?” she turned, her face alight with the fullness of her smile. Her eyes reached up and gazed into mine, sparkling with the jewels of a life remembered. She spoke for the first time.

“Yes”, she said simply, “I love them.”

Her sister delved into her handbag to offer me a peppermint and then took one for herself. Casually she placed them back into her bag once again only to find that Margaret had slipped her hand into her handbag and was digging around searching for something.

“Is she trying to find the mints to give one to Apollo?” I asked.

“Oh!” exclaimed her sister, “I had no idea horses liked mints!”

Margaret stood hand outstretched with the white mint placed in the centre of the palm of her hand. Her fingers curled over, her muscles too weak to be able to hold them out straight which is unfortunately the only safe way to hand-feed a horse. Apollo refused the mint. I tried to help her hold her hand out flat but it proved impossible. Still Apollo refused.

“Have you washed your hands in anything strong smelling?” I asked Margaret’s sister, curious as to why a horse would REFUSE a peppermint.

“No, I don’t think so..” replied her sister.

I took the peppermint and placed it into the palm of my hand and offered it again to Apollo. He took it eagerly. Out came the mints one more time from the bottom of the handbag.

“Let’s try again.” I offered.

Margaret once again held out her clawed hand. Again Apollo refused.

Dawn broke in my mind and I began to suspect that Apollo might be afraid of hurting her.

Sensing this, I took a risk and said to Apollo, “Come on Apollo, you can take it.” Slowly and tentatively, ever afraid of making a mistake, Apollo stretched out his marshmallow lip searching her palm for the mint. All four of her fingers went into his mouth as he used his top lip to drag the mint towards his tongue. Finally he succeeded and he released her soggy fingers from his mouth, totally unscathed and all present. She was delighted!

Buoyed by the success of the mint, my mind incredulous with my old horse’s behaviour, I helped Margaret to lead Apollo round and round the paddock. All the time, Margaret’s face was full of smiles and her eyes sparkled with joy. A wonderful example of equine therapy and how an old horse can communicate in a way that no one else could. Apollo’s equine therapy was truly able to reach parts of Margaret’s heart and mind in a way that was totally appropriate and compassionate in a way that only animals know how to do. He was also delighted with the results of his impromptu equine therapy and I could sense him smiling even as we walked away.