Summer, the extraordinary little pony that brings comfort to seriously ill children
Samantha Hayes bought the Argentinian Falabella for her disabled son Bradley and now takes the tiny animal on visits to the NI Children's Hospice, hospitals and special needs schools. By Una Brankin
As a little boy lay dying in his hospice bed last year, a surreal but undeniably touching scene began to unfold. The child had always loved horses, so his parents arranged for a very special one to visit him in his final hours. It was no problem for Summer – at only 30 inches tall – to be ushered into the building and brought to the young boy's bedside.
"Summer went straight up to the bed and very gently put her head down on the child's belly, and let it rest there for a while," says the horse owner, Samantha Hayes.
"The mother had said to me, 'This is my son's end-of-life', and asked for Summer to come to see him.
"The wee boy was sedated at that stage, but his parents were so touched by the gesture and hoped on some level he was aware of it.
"It was the second end-of-life visit for Summer; she knew exactly what to do on the other occasion, too. She is just highly sensitive, and far beyond smart. She can pick up on sensitivities, like some dogs can."
Summer is the miniature Argentinian Falabella who has become the therapy horse at the Northern Ireland Children's Hospice, the Royal Victoria Hospital for Sick Children and special needs schools across the country, where she entertains, stimulates and relaxes children with illnesses and moderate to severe learning disabilities.
Number 522 of the rare breed – only 2,500 are currently registered in the world – Summer belongs to Samantha Hayes's son Bradley, who has autism, ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) and CIPD (Chronic Inflammatory Demyelinating Polyneuropathy), a rare neurological disorder which means he cannot feel physical pain.
The lively and well-mannered nine year-old has a special connection with this gentle, intelligent animal; he's very affectionate towards her and helps his parents with her care and grooming.
Samantha had Summer fully house-trained within four weeks of buying her and now the little horse likes nothing better than sitting up on the sofa with Bradley, Samantha and her husband Keith in their townhouse in a quiet Dundonald estate. A very rare scenario for most, but second nature for the Hayes family.
"She loves toes and she nips on your cheek and nibbles your ear, and sucks on to your clothes when you're saying goodnight," says Samantha, a former horse trainer with the Armed Forces.
"She's priceless; there's something special about her. She was very easy to train – she only pooed in the house twice before she was fully house-trained and she's very clean and tidy. When it has been raining, she goes on her tippy-toes through the mud.
"We keep her clipped all over for hygiene purposes, as she's so often in contact with sick children. She sleeps all afternoon after doing her therapy work – it takes it out of her. She's only a baby." Samantha and Keith, a trainee engineer and talented artist, bought Summer from her former owner in Omagh in September 2012, when she was seven months old and unkempt, with long matted hair and her tail trailing the ground. Photos from the time show the little creature's ribs protruding under her thick fawn coat.
Samantha says: "She wasn't maltreated, but she was underweight and bloated. She was in a field with sheep and thought she was a sheep, and she was so kind and sweet. I had to look at her teeth to tell what age she was. Summer was very babyish then but not naughty – just very sweet and good-natured. We bonded immediately.
"She fitted into the back of the car, with her wee head resting on Keith's shoulder, and the minute she saw Bradley, she licked his face and nuzzled him, and he bent down to stroke and kiss her. She was immediately part of the family. Keith made a mini trailer for her and he's very good to her, but she's definitely a mammy's girl. She chases Keith around the garden, sits on the beach ball and wiggles. She's great fun."
Summer has thrived in Dundonald and now weighs 10 stone, thanks to the healthy bran mash she is fed daily. She has a comfortable stable, with an industrial-size heat-lamp, at the bottom of the modest back garden, which is covered in mulch for her to play in.
The miniature Falabella breed has a longevity of 35 years, so Bradley should have the best part of half a lifetime with Summer, who will be two this year.
What's most remarkable about this cute little horse is its ability to distinguish instinctively between ordinary healthy children and those with illnesses and special needs.
"She knows the difference immediately," confirms Samantha. "She senses when a child is ill or has special needs and she knows to avoid sore areas – if a child has a trachea tube in, she won't go near the throat. She purses up her lips to gives kisses to the kids and licks their faces. I've taught her to perform tricks and the children get a real kick out of that.
"Wee Oscar Knox has an amazing connection with her. Last time we were up at the hospital with him and Summer was doing her rounds, he pipes up to the nurse, 'Is that all you have for me, Jenny?'
"He's so ballsy that little lad – that's how he has survived."
Summer has full public liability insurance and wears Build-A-Bear boots, worth £50, for her outings. The pink and white sparkly footwear is meant for the teddy bears that children can design themselves at the Build A Bear workshop in Belfast's Victoria Square – the standard size is such a good fit for her small hooves that the company has agreed to keep her in shoes. It's a welcome contribution for the Hayes family, who don't charge for Summer's appearances – any contributions offered are redirected to the Children's Hospice.
With Keith studying and Samantha caring full-time for Bradley – and Summer – money is not plentiful, but there are no complaints at all from them.
Samantha assures me that Summer costs only £10 a week to feed and maintain, whereas the two dragon lizards she had before her cost far more – in mice and crickets. And Summer's a lot prettier than the two mini reptiles Bradley shows me in a family photo, and she has a special place in Samantha's heart.
A former three-day event competitor, Samantha rode horses daily since she was five years old, until she broke her back jumping a fence in a cross-country race in her 20s.
"The horse fell on top of me – it was horrific and it took me six months to recover," she recalls. "I could barely walk and I had heart problems, too.
"To be honest, I lost my bottle after that, and became a groom and an instructor in riding schools. My back has been playing up ever since; it's unbearable at times. The doctors suggested a spinal-rod operation but there was a risk of paralysis and I was only married a few weeks at the time, so they put me on a lot of pain relief medication and nerve blockers, and I got a special mattress and sofa.
"The morphine made me lethargic and I put on four stone and my hair fell out with the beta-blockers – but with all my different wigs, I told Keith he was very lucky. He'd have a different woman every night!"
Like his mother, Bradley takes his own health problems in his stride, telling me earnestly how he once broke his finger at school and didn't feel a thing.
With his neurological disorder, he can't participate in sports or strong physical play, due to the risk of delayed concussion if he banged his head and didn't notice. He was diagnosed at four when a professional portrait showed up an abnormality in his eyes.
"He didn't speak until he was four," explains Samantha, "but he has got on well at his special school down the road – it's fantastic. He's very good at maths and building Lego, and he's very kind and sweet. He gave away his go-kart to a boy he'd just met on holiday because he said he liked it. Very few people can care for Bradley, so we have no social life to speak of.
"Going out is not an option, but we do most things together anyway." Bradley does clamour for attention at times, as his ADHD dictates, but he's endearingly polite about it, always saying, "Excuse me" first.
He shows me a succession of photos on an iPad he operates expertly, the majority of which are of little Summer.
In the flesh, the little South American looks like a huge cuddly toy with comically short spindly legs and huge smart eyes. At her height and weight she cannot be ridden, but Samantha provides a specially-made ornate saddle for children to sit on her.
She is permitted to travel on trains and planes (in the extra leg-room seats in the front) and has VIP status at the Royal and the Europa Hotel, where she has been filmed for documentaries on the two famous establishments.
Her weeks consist of one children's therapy day and three days exercise at a local stud farm, running around with the big horses.
Samantha is planning to breed from Summer: "It would have to be a full pedigree Falabella stallion from England. Some breed them with Shetlands to try to make them smaller, but I wouldn't do that. Shetlands are fine, but they'd bite you as soon as look at you."
In the meantime, Summer will continue making the day of the children who most need the treat, such as the baby with brain cancer she meets regularly at the hospice.
"That little boy breaks my heart," says Samantha, showing me a photo of the baby in his stroller. "Summer kisses him and his parents are so appreciative. And there's another autistic boy who won't sit still and constantly bangs doors. He settles down completely with Summer for an hour and holds our faces to thank us.
"And then there's little Ellie McComb. She has a very rare illness and she's completely non-verbal, but she giggles when she's with Summer. I can't explain this connection she makes – it's bizarre. "Summer can make kids calm down; with Ellie she completely relaxes and has no spasms when she's with Summer.
"There's also a little blind girl, Sophia, she has been with us a few times – we spray Summer with a special spray for puppies and this little girl caught a whiff of her at an event we were at and cried until she was brought up to her."
Samantha adds: "For some, a little contact with Summer is life-changing. She is a gift."
Samantha Hayes can be contacted at tel: 07594 312 765; firstname.lastname@example.org and www.facebook.com/summer thehorse
So, what is a Falabella?
- Summer is a Falabella miniature horse, one of the smallest breeds in the world. Rarely taller than eight hands (32 inches) in height, Falabellas originate in South America and are proportioned similarly to horses, apart from the short legs. They're similar to thoroughbreds in shape, with sleek coats and a slim frame.
- Summer has the typically small and compact body of her breed. She has also inherited sturdy bones and a thick mane, tail and fetlocks.
- Like most Falabellas, her head seems slightly larger and her neck stouter in comparison to a normal-sized horse, but overall, she's not unusually or abnormally proportioned.
- Most Falabellas are considered intelligent and easily trainable. Due to their size, they can only be ridden by very small children.
- They can be taught to drive – cart driving is a common use for Falabellas. They also jump obstacles up to 90cm (3ft) and can be be used as guide animals, due to their small size and easy trainability.