Taking the donkey-work out of recovery

`It really is coming on well and we've had very few people laugh at us'

"Donkeys have a very calming influence. They are all characters and they can assess whether anybody is at a disadvantage." This unlikely statement comes from Penny Scott, co-ordinator of a remarkable centre that is helping people to recover from serious illness.

"For example, we have a gentleman here who has heart problems and we have a particular donkey, Pooh, who is absolutely devoted to him. They go walking and he, the donkey, knows exactly when his friend needs to rest. In the first instance I thought, come on, it's just that the donkey fancies a rest, but that hasn't proven to be the case. I never cease to wonder about that sort of relationship," she says.

This sort of donkey-work may not sound like the best way of coming back from a heart attack, but at the Wharf Meadow Centre in the rural surrounds of Tardebigge, near Redditch, they believe there's nothing better and it has official sanction.

The North Worcestershire Health Authority, which is trying to encourage more drug-free prescriptions, has given a small grant to Wharf Meadow and in November began a 12-month pilot project offering patients two free visits there per week. The authority's assistant district health promotion manager, Susan Bishop-Rowe, says she is happy with the results so far, even if the response has not been overwhelming. "We're pleased that at least some doctors are taking it seriously and taking up the offer," she says.

Therapeutic work with donkeys has been under way for several months at Meadow Wharf, where a dozen patients suffering from coronary heart disease, stress, panic attacks, agoraphobia, strokes and depressive disorders are encouraged - as Dr Dolittle once suggested - to walk with the animals, talk with the animals.

Ms Scott says the centre's philosophy is based on the known therapeutic benefits of close contact with nature. Patients are given three-month sessions of two to three days a week taking the donkeys for a walk, stroking them, working in the stables and even driving behind them in carts.

"It's medically proved that the stroking of small furry animals lowers the blood pressure, and we felt there shouldn't be any difference between a small animal and a donkey," says Ms Scott. "Donkeys can be especially helpful because they are such sensitive creatures. They pick up on moods very quickly and are very loving.

"They do have a certain reputation as fractious animals, but that's unjustified. If they assess you as being hale and hearty they may well have some fun with you or play you up, but if you are ill or disabled they behave perfectly. They will accommodate people with all sorts of problems."

Ms Scott has not found it easy to get this message across to doctors, but she believes medical professionals are generally open minded about the centre's activities and it is now getting a regular trickle of referrals from GPs, nurses, occupational therapists, physiotherapists and consultants.

"You have to take it slowly in the hope that they will feel a reasonable amount of confidence in looking at it," she says.

"It really is coming on well and we've had very few people laugh at us."

Isabel Barret, social psychologist with North East Worcestershire Community Healthcare Trust, is another firm believer in its benefits. "Research has shown that the further we get away from the natural world the more uneasy and dysfunctional we can become," she says. "Working with animals in the countryside can put us back in touch with our roots. It re-establishes our discriminatory senses and helps us to become more emotionally stable. And the companionship may help many people with ill health who become lonely."

Wharf Meadow was set up in autumn 1994 with a complement of 13 donkeys and two Shetland ponies on 10 acres of former grazing land bordering the Redditch-Birmingham canal. A relaxing place, it has varying types of terrain - from flat to hilly - which are used for supervised walking, according to a prior assessment of each patient.

At the end of the three-month session there is a further assessment and the option of extending the treatment. "There are no hard and fast rules - it's better to keep things fairly open," says Ms Scott. "We only ask that people come with an open mind. Nobody really knows whether it's going to be the thing for them, but it often is. Nurses or doctors tell the patients just to have a look and see what they think. There mustn't be any form of compulsion."

Penny Scott has been a donkey fan for many years. She first worked with the animals while she was a probation officer at the nearby Hewell Grange borstal, where a sympathetic governor allowed inmates to give therapeutic donkey rides to patients from a local mental hospital. Prisoners from the Blakenhurst prison on the same site now help Meadow Wharf by mending donkey carts.

One success is a hospital referral, a man in his seventies whose speech was badly affected by a stroke. "This gentleman has just passed a British Association of Riding Schools proficiency test in stable management. It has given him back his sense of purpose and his confidence. It is a tremendous achievement," says Ms Scott.

Suggested Topics
News
peopleFrankie Boyle responds to referendum result in characteristically offensive style
News
news
Life and Style
Couples have been having sex less in 2014, according to a new survey
life
New Articles
i100... with this review
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Voices
Holly's review of Peterborough's Pizza Express quickly went viral on social media
Sport
footballTim Sherwood: This might be th match to wake up Manchester City
Arts and Entertainment
musicHow female vocalists are now writing their own hits
New Articles
i100
News
news
Arts and Entertainment
musicBiographer Hunter Davies has collected nearly a hundred original manuscripts
News
Blahnik says: 'I think I understand the English more than they do themselves'
people
Arts and Entertainment
Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary Crawley in Downton Abbey
TVInside Downton Abbey series 5
Life and Style
The term 'normcore' was given the oxygen of publicity by New York magazine during the autumn/winter shows in Paris in February
fashionWhen is a trend a non-trend? When it's Normcore, since you ask
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Marketing Manager - Leicestershire - £35,000

    £30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (CIM, B2B, MS Offi...

    Marketing Executive (B2B and B2C) - Rugby, Warwickshire

    £22000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful organisation wit...

    SEN Coordinator + Teacher (SENCO)

    £1 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Job Purpose To work closely with the he...

    Research Manager - Quantitative/Qualitative

    £32000 - £42000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is curr...

    Day In a Page

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam