Rein in the reindeer – there’s a tiny horse in the house
- Credit: Sonya Duncan
When a miniature pony is part of your family – he has to be part of your Christmas too!
Jack Brock is a tiny horse with a huge character. He is already renowned for his charity work across East Anglia and at Christmas the miniature Shetland pony, who is a beloved family pet as well as an official dementia ambassador, makes sure he is at the heart of his family’s celebrations.
Jack shares a stable with his brother Joe on a farm in Silfield, near Wymondam, but also regularly pops next-door to the farmhouse to visit owners Ali and Rupert Stearn and their two young children.
His festive traditions include helping four-year-old Bunny and two-year-old Bertie hang their stockings on Christmas Eve (and helping himself to any carrots left out for the reindeer) and a place at the table for Christmas dinner.
He gets his own stocking too. “All our pets get a stocking!” said Ali. “He’ll have carrots, apples, polo mints and is in need of a new headcollar!”
For the last few years Jack’s Christmas has also included a starring role in charity cards, created from paintings by Ali, who is an artist as well as running a plants and garden design business, The Garden Box, and writing and illustrating books about Jack’s colourful life.
Jack and Joe were originally rescue ponies, adopted by Ali 14 years ago.
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She grew up with horses, learning to ride when she was just two. A year later her mum married jockey Bob Champion (who was played by John Hurt in the film Champions, about his Grand National win and triumph over cancer.)
“When they got married Bob was in a rented yard and Mummy bought a plot of land in Newmarket and built a racing yard from scratch so that Bob could train with the horses up the Newmarket gallops,” said Ali. “Growing up in Newmarket was wonderful. I had my own ponies with their own stripy racing sheets. We had miniature versions for our ponies!
“I used to go out with Bob on the gallops before school on my little pony. I always wanted to be a jockey. That poor pony was going flat out; there was this string of race horses and then me on my pony! I used to sit on all the race horses and get led round the yard with Bob holding on to my legs. I was just like a pea on a drum!”
She grew up with her sister Tilly – their dad was a point-to-point jockey - and half-sister Henrietta who was Bob’s daughter. “We always brought ponies in the house when we were children!” said Ali.
But when she was 15 her mum and Bob and split up, and then her birth father died in tragic circumstances. “I was 17 or 18 at the time. It was quite traumatic. We had a great relationship with Daddy and I adored Bob,” said Ali. “My personal life has been quite sad.”
And it is that, she believes, which lies behind the time and effort she devotes to raising money for charity and helping people with dementia. Even as a child she used to fundraise. “We used to shake Bob Champion Cancer Trust money buckets when we were little to collect from cars coming out of the races,” said Ali. And the first Christmas card she painted starring Jack raised money for the Trust too. “I still speak to Bob every other day,” she said.
Ali adopted Jack and Joe because of her love of horses but said: “Jack has been my therapy. He’s a therapy pony going into care homes but it’s my therapy to take him. I’ve become addicted to going because you see the response of people living with dementia. It’s like they are living in a fog and we are all trying to reach out or fumble our way through, to try to pull a bit of them back and certain things get through – scents, touch... The people come back for a few seconds and that moment is a huge joy for their carers and family members.
"Being part of that happy feeling is quite addictive. I want to let more people have that.”
Jack first set hoof inside the family’s farmhouse almost by accident. “I had him on a lead rope and had left my phone on the kitchen table and to avoid the effort of putting him back in the barn, I thought, ‘He’s so small, I’ll just walk him through the kitchen door and grab my phone.’ He was very relaxed about it and inquisitive. I found it quite amusing so I did it again another day when my husband was having lunch. I just brought Jack inside. He was actually watching the racing and Jack’s head pops round the door! Then it became a novelty. If we had guests I would bring him in when they were a bit squiffy!”
It was while she was planning her own wedding that the concept of Jack as a ‘confetti pony’ carrying baskets of confetti, was born. Jack became a big hit with brides and grooms and then a care home nurse asked whether he would visit elderly residents to brighten their days.
The gentle, friendly pony was so popular with people with dementia that he was adopted as a dementia ambassador for East of England Co-op and Dementia UK. Ali said: “Helping raise awareness of this illness is a passion of ours. I have lost some special family members to dementia, and the power of Jack has proven quite amazing so it is our mission to help as much as we can.
“So many carers who work all the hours God sends write and say please can I bring Jack and I just can’t say no."
Even during the pandemic Jack was able to do window visits at care homes across Norfolk.
“Jack even poked his nose through some windows where residents fed him carrots!” said Ali. “He also walked around housing estates to cheer up families shut in during lockdown. People facetimed their families, showing them Jack on their doorstep. This made ITV news and we also received a wonderful letter from Lord Lieutenant of Norfolk, the Queen’s representative, thanking us.”
For the past few years Ali has turned some of her paintings of Jack into Christmas cards to raise money for dementia charities and in just the past three years the tiny pony has helped Ali raise more than £24,000 for dementia charities, including £17,000 which helped Norfolk people through Dementia UK.
Jack and Joe are not the only horses on the farm. As well as farming, Ali’s husband Rupert is a champion amateur point-to-point jockey who has ridden more than 100 winners. The couple met in Newmarket and Ali said: “His first love is racehorses! And because I grew up with racehorses we had that in common.”
They train racehorses on the farm, where arable crops are ringed by a mile-long gallop.
“Rupert and I share that same passion for racehorses. So it’s quite comical that I ended up with two fluffy fat Shetland ponies, two scruff bums with no breeding at all! And the money that Jack’s raised for charity means he has brought in more money than most of these racehorses do!”
Their children Bunny and Bertie both ride Jack and Joe now, on the farm where Rupert grew up and his parents still live and work. Family is hugely important to Ali, who is close to all her siblings, including the sisters she shared her childhood with and her father’s two children. Her mum is also a frequent visitor. “We are all great friends,” said Ali.
She is now in talks about publishing the stories of Jack she has written and illustrated with her own paintings. They begin with Jack, bought as a rescue pony with his mother, who turned out to be in foal with Joe. When she took them on Ali honoured the name of the man who originally helped them, Mark Brock, by using it as a surname for Jack. The picture books go on to tell the story of how Jack has won the hearts of thousands of people across Norfolk and beyond. He recently even starred on Hello magazine’s Instagram feed – shared between posts about David Beckham and Jennifer Lawrence.
This year Ali has raised more money for dementia charities by taking Jack to people's doorsteps on special occasions in exchange for a donation on his Just Giving page - but there was no charge for his recent festive visit to the Nook children’s hospice in Poringland. And throughout January he will be back visiting care homes - hoping residents will stroke his nose and feed him carrots.
Before then, there’s Christmas - and a tiny horse with a big heart will be hanging his stocking at the farmhouse fireplace tonight.
For full details of Jack’s charity work, including his Christmas cards, how to book a visit and how to help him raise more money and spread more happiness visit jackbrock.co.uk
Bunny and Bertie are wearing clothes by Coccolino of Timberhill, Norwich. coccolinonorwich.co.uk
Ali is wearing clothes by West Norfolk-based Troy. troylondon.com
Her shoes are by Fairfax and Favor of Norfolk. fairfaxandfavor.com
The floral arrangements are by Millie Rose Floral Design of Wreningham, near Norwich. millieroseflowers.co.uk