Tucker’s Story – As told by Sharon Neely
The Pony With a Purpose
“Can you use my pony in your therapeutic riding program? I don’t want to have to put him down.” The voice at the other end of the call was pleading and desperate. “He’s been lame for a few years, but he loves attention.” HorseFriends was not looking for another therapy horse at that point, much less a chronically lame one. Plus, I found out the pony was no spring chicken at 20 years old.
“If we have to put him down, I have a place picked out on a beautiful hill, “ continued the owner. “But if he had a purpose and a job, I bet he would get better. “ Not wanting to comply with the owner’s strong tug at my heartstrings, my head screamed a loud “No.” However, the fact that we had only horses and no ponies for our smaller riders was enough to convince me to drive 80 miles away, horse trailer in tow, praying the whole trip that HorseFriends could somehow find a purpose for this lame pony.
Tucker gingerly stepped out of his stall at the large animal vet’s office where he had been boarded for the previous 2 years, barely putting weight on his swollen fetlock. His cute face slowly peered around the corner, his beautiful palomino color glistening in the sun. However, his big brown eyes were downcast and dull. Tucker had once been a successful hunter/jumper pony but had suffered a debilitating injury. Now, he barely stood on all four feet.
“What is his prognosis?” I asked the vet tech. “We don’t know,” she admitted. “He will occasionally get a little better, but it usually swells up again.” I stood there for a while, thinking it would be crazy to bring back a pony that could barely walk. I rubbed his lowered head and scratched him all over. Eventually, the look in his eye seemed more hopeful and it was obvious Tucker was loving the attention. Something was telling me to give Tucker a try— the words of his owner echoing in my mind: “If Tucker had a purpose and a job…” With many years of experience with horses, I knew that was, unfortunately, not always the case, yet I found myself leading the limping pony to my horse trailer, hanging on to the owner’s words. He would have a purpose at HorseFriends helping special needs kids.
“He is adorable!” cried one of our teen volunteers as Tucker hobbled down the barn aisle into his airy stall filled with fresh shavings. It was obvious he instantly felt at home. As two more volunteers began grooming him, his eyes brightened. He was clearly eating up the attention. The special needs kids who met him instantly fell in love with him. However, I still found myself grappling for an explanation when the question arose – what on earth were we going to do with a 20year-old lame pony? “We’ll just take it one day at a time,” I kept hearing myself say.
One day, we noticed that Tucker was not limping as badly and the swelling had subsided some in his fetlock. We agreed it was time to start getting Tucker accustomed to our therapeutic activities like balls bouncing off of him, and bean bags flying past his head. Tucker was fine with it all. Nothing seemed to faze this cute little palomino pony.
As more days went by, and more and more kids met him, Tucker’s lameness seemed to improve. His stride was seeming more and more normal.
Jackson is a little boy with a very rare degenerative disease. There are not many therapies this sweet, curly haired, 5 year old can still partake in. Jackson’s mom, Katie, checked with his physical therapists and doctors and they all affirmed it was fine for Jackson to continue riding since riding improved his core strengthand his muscle tone. An equine’s walk mimics our walk so Jackson was getting the stimulation he never got otherwise. But it was becoming increasingly difficult for our volunteers to hold Jackson on a horse. He was growing, and our horses were too tall for our volunteers to give Jackson adequate support.
We knew the day had come to use Tucker in a therapy class. When we led Tucker to meet Jackson, Tucker immediately lowered his head to Jackson in his wheelchair, breathing softly over him. The bond was instant. As we eased Jackson down from the mounting platform onto Tucker’s back, he quietly waited. Once we were ready to walk on, Tucker moved ahead with the horse leader, eager, yet calm. On this beautiful fall day, we could see hope in the eyes of Jackson’s mom, Katie, love for Jackson from our volunteers, and a perfect stride with no limp from Tucker.
Tucker is Jackson’s pony every week. Tucker no longer shows any signs of swelling or lameness. Instead of being buried on a hill, he now trots and canters over them. God answered the prayers I prayed that day, traveling 80 miles away for a lame pony. Tucker knows he has a purpose and a job. Maybe his owner was right, after all.