Muirfield Riding Therapy works with a small charity called Friends of Retired MRT Ponies (FoR) to support its ponies at the end of their working lives. Susan Law MBE, our Services Coordinator and former longstanding Chair of MRT, tells the story of a very special MRT therapy pony called Kishmul.
Kishmul and other Heroes
Kishmul came to West Fenton aged 5 from a breeder in Perthshire. And what a handsome Oatmeal Dun Highland he was when he came barging off the lorry! I started at MRT not long after Kishmul arrived and it was love at first sight…….well, for me at least.
I was already a committed Highland enthusiast, but Kish reminded me on a regular basis that Highlands, like many native breeds, can be stubborn and strong willed. Yet the temperament he had proved ideal for our work; generally unfazed by wriggling, vocal children and accepting of the odd positions our therapists and riders can adopt. These solid beasts, with leg at each corner, are very stoical.
In addition, his short coupling, typical to the breed, gave him a strong back and he had the ideal conformation for back-riding.
For those not familiar with back-riding, this is carried out only by physiotherapists with support from fully trained MRT volunteers and involves the therapist sitting on the pony with the child in front of her. This is used for children who have little or no head control.
It is a fairly pressurised situation for the pony. The children who benefit from it are very vulnerable, so the equine used and the team around him develop a bond. It is very important that the physiotherapist can trust the pony so that she can focus all of her attention on the little person she is working with.
Over the years I worked with Kishmul in many situations: from the “over hill and down dale treks” that Gill would take our Riders on, where danger lay in every tempting blade of grass we came across; to outings to the Jack Kane Centre, giving pony rides on KIDS OUT days, with fire engines screaming around us; to Musselburgh Racecourse where he was NOT last in his one furlong race.
We were a team, he and I. I think he recognised that I could be just as stubborn and strong-willed as him!
But it was in his role as MRT’s first back-riding pony that our best hours were spent together. His innate sense that he was carrying fragile cargo seemed to bring out the very best in this pony. In the calm atmosphere of a one to one rider situation we could simply work quietly together, anticipating and responding to the slightest movement that the physio made or instruction she gave.
Admittedly, I don’t think there are many of our long-term volunteers that Kishmul has not carted to grass, or avoided when catching, or showed his displeasure to when saddling!
He was no pushover and taught many of us that equines deserve respect, especially equines who work as therapy ponies. They have a rider, of course, and a leader giving them conflicting signals. Their body space is crowded, which can be stressful for a flight animal.
Many have come and gone, breaking our hearts as they go, but those who stay have a tough job. They are handled by many different people with different views on handling horses.
What other way can they tell us when they are being girthed too tightly or bitted too harshly than with swishing tail or flattened ears? Thankfully, MRT Volunteers now a days are all trained in a mindful way of horse handling, but older ponies have long memories of past unpleasant experiences.
And so, in his later years, Kishmul did not suffer fools (as he saw us!) gladly. He trusted few and scared many. But if he trusted you, the effort to gain his trust was repaid a hundred-fold.
Thanks to those who saw through his grumpiness and appreciated the amazing pony who worked for MRT for 20 odd years, giving hundreds of children and adults the chance to benefit from riding therapy – an achievement recognized by Princess Anne, who awarded him with a long service medal during her second visit to MRT.
Thanks to those who cared for and supported Kishmul in retirement, through Friends of Retired MRT Ponies.
And thanks to everyone at MRT who has handled Kishmul over all the years. We have learnt from him, a more mindful way of handling all of our wonderful therapy ponies. Hopefully we will continue to pass down to these valuable lessons about how we work with our ponies, treating them with respect and working in partnership to help them to do a difficult job.
This old warrior has now left us aged 29, after a great 18 months living naturally, just being a horse. He lived in a massive field with three other 16.2 retirees who dwarfed him. But he was, predictably, the boss of his herd till the end and was his own man to the end. I will miss him in my life but know that he led a good useful life, enjoyed a wonderful retirement and died a peaceful death.
Susan Law MBE, September ‘18
Keep in touch with FoR on Facebook, Friends of Retired MRT Ponies