Why horsing around can change children’s lives



Two devoted mums have adopted rescue ponies claiming they can transform the lives of children with autism.

Tracy Darke and Hayley Smith have been working closely with Devon charity the Mare & Foal Sanctuary after discovering the animals had a profound effect on the happiness of their autistic youngsters.

Now they want to spread the word that horses and ponies can make a real difference in easing many of the problems associated with the disorder.

Tracy, who lives near Launceston in Cornwall, said chestnut gelding Tosca was a part of the family and her daughter Sophie was now more confident and at ease with the world.

She said: “I really think Tosca saved Sophie’s life. He has given her a purpose and a routine that has made things so much better for her.”

Sophie, who also has learning disabilities, was badly bullied at school and found it hard to make friends. She was anxious and depressed and would often sleep for 16 hours a day.

But it wasn’t until she was 14 that Sophie was diagnosed with autism, explaining in a stroke the years of unhappiness, stress and anxiety.

Tracy said: “It was heart breaking to watch. Sophie didn’t want to do anything but sleep. Everything was too much for her and she was being overwhelmed by the world around her.

“She wasn’t diagnosed until she was almost through school and she had been so badly bullied she had become depressed and withdrawn.”

Tracy loved horses and rode as a child so she decided to see if riding lessons would help her eldest daughter. And she was utterly amazed by the result.

“Almost immediately, being around horses seemed to calm her. Sophie had something else to focus on.

“Children with autism often have dyspraxia, or difficulty in activities requiring coordination and movement, as well as problems with social interaction and processing their sensory environment.

“They get too hot or too cold and they simply don’t know how to cope. They become physically weak as well as agitated by even the simplest of situations.

“But somehow just being in the presence of a horse calms and soothes them. The act of caring for Tosca has also made her physically stronger and given her a new lease of life. Once we realised how important horses were becoming to Sophie we knew we had to act.”

Which is what prompted her to make contact with the Sanctuary and members of its Equine Department immediately set about finding exactly the right animal for the Darkes.

Five years on, Sophie and Tosca are the best of friends.

And now her younger daughter Katie, who has Asperger’s, is helping out with Tosca’s care and is learning to ride – under the watchful eye of her big sister.

The 14-year-old, who was so debilitated she had to leave school two years ago, takes it in turns with Sophie to do the daily chores.

Super mum Tracy spends every spare penny she has on Tosca, foregoing family holidays to rent his field and pay for feed, rugs and the farrier.

“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” she said. “People don’t understand the difference a horse or pony can make. It’s almost magical.”

Sophie added: “Having Tosca has really helped me and I feel a lot more confident. When things aren’t feeling right I can head up to the field and spend some time with him and everything seems better.”

Mother-of-six Hayley Smith has one son, Kieron, 12, on the autism spectrum and her eight year old son Dylan is currently being assessed after displaying similar problems with social interaction.

Earlier this year she contacted the Mare & Foal Sanctuary asking for help and was offered two of the charity’s ponies – Tally and Emerald – on loan.


The Sanctuary maintains ownership of all its horses to safeguard them in the future.

Hayley, who lives near Plymouth, also rents a six-acre field, where she now raises chickens, pigs, ducks, goats and turkeys.

She said: “It all started as a bit of a family project but I can honestly say it’s the best thing we’ve ever done.

“There is an almost instant and dramatic improvement in Kieran and Dylan’s behaviour whenever they are around Tally and Emerald. They are so much calmer around the horses and they are much more engaged in what is going on around them.

“Being out in the fresh air is also so much better for them and the routine and hard work really seem to help.

“The horses are gentle and easy to read. If they’re not happy about something the children seem to instinctively understand. There is a real bond between them.”

And the science backs up everything these devoted mums have experienced. Recent studies show that riding and being around horses promotes the production of the trust and communication hormone oxytocin.

The rhythm associated with riding is also believed to counteract the anxiety hormone cortisol, boosting an autistic child’s ability to learn and helping with sensory processing and cognitive awareness.

All of these things help an autistic child understand the world around them, making them less anxious, as well as significantly improving their family relationships and helping them to better reason and regulate their emotions.

Hayley said: “It really helps us to calm the boys down when they’re struggling. Horses are wonderful, forgiving and easy to understand animals.

“And the boys adore them. They love to groom them and care for them. They can’t ride yet but they love taking them on the lead rope for walks around the lanes and generally looking after them.

“If Tally and Emerald are happy, so are Keiran and Dylan. I cannot stress enough how much of a difference these ponies have made to our lives and the happiness of our children.”


Both mums have made enormous sacrifices but they believe the time, money and hard work has been worth it – all with the support of Mare & Foal Sanctuary staff, who are always on hand to offer help and advice.

The charity currently has more than 170 horses and ponies on loan and rescues, rehabilitates and trains dozens of unwanted, abandoned or mistreated horses every year.

Head of Equine Sally Burton said: “We really wanted to help these families and Tally, Emerald and Tosca have proved to be perfect for them.

“Sophie is a great little rider and the boys really love caring for their ponies. I’m so happy we have been able to help these families – as well as finding kind and caring homes for our wonderful horses and ponies.”


Notes to Editors

For further details or to arrange an interview please call Mare & Foal Sanctuary Press Officer Jo Walmsley on 01626 355969 or 07763 779737.