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
Life and Style
Steve Shaw shows Kate how to get wet behind the ears and how to align her neck
healthSteven Shaw - the 'Buddha of Breaststroke' - applies Alexander Technique to the watery sport
Arts and Entertainment
The sight of a bucking bronco in the shape of a pink penis was too much for Hollywood actor and gay rights supporter Martin Sheen, prompting him to boycott a scene in the TV series Grace and Frankie
footballShirt then goes on sale on Gumtree
Terry Sue-Patt as Benny in the BBC children’s soap ‘Grange Hill’
voicesGrace Dent on Grange Hill and Terry Sue-Patt
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010
Arts and Entertainment
Twin Peaks stars Joan Chen, Michael Ontkean, Kyle Maclachlan and Piper Laurie
tvName confirmed for third series
Cameron Jerome
footballCanaries beat Boro to gain promotion to the Premier League
Arts and Entertainment
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

    £40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

    Guru Careers: Software Developer

    £35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

    SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

    £18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

    Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

    £25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

    Day In a Page

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine