How are Norfolk donkeys helping to spark joy across the county?
- Credit: Archant
``I got very drunk at my Mum’s wake and suddenly things seemed very clear to me: I told family and friends, anyone that would listen, really, that I was going to take donkeys to see people living in care homes.
“And when I woke up the next day, it still sounded like a good idea. So here we are!”
The hard lessons we learn through pain can often send us in a new direction, and so it proved to be for Sarah McPherson, who runs Miniature Donkeys for Wellbeing from her home in South Norfolk.
Sarah’s team of furry therapists deliver mood-boosting sessions in care homes, for dementia, special needs and community groups and in a host of other settings across the region. They have visited hundreds of venues and delighted thousands of people.
But it was one person in particular who inspired their joyful work: Olive Patricia Little, known to everyone as Pat and to Sarah and her brothers as Mum.
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“As her illness got worse, it was harder to reach her. But when she spent time in the yard with the donkeys, she regressed to childhood and happier times,” said Sarah.
“It was as if a weight was lifted and a light came on. She was transformed, and all from just spending time stroking these gentle creatures and getting nothing but love back from them.
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“She would share stories from when she was young about being evacuated to the countryside and it was so precious, such a magic moment.”
Sarah’s mother died in April 2017, but she began to lose her years earlier when dementia began to take hold.
“I noticed before anyone else,” she explained, “coming from a background of counselling and working in mental health, I spotted the signs.
“No one wanted to listen because you don’t want to acknowledge something so terrible, so big. But I knew. I knew straight away. Dementia is a horrible condition and there was only one direction that Mum was headed in.”
Sarah began to spend more time in Leicester, where her parents lived, taking her Mum to hospital appointments, to memory tests and clinics and hearing what she already knew: that Pat had vascular dementia, caused by a reduced blood flow to the brain.
Sarah struggled to combine work with helping her parents who lived almost three hours away and who weren’t entirely on-board with receiving the help they needed.
We speak extensively about the heart-breaking difficulties of trying to do the best thing for your elderly parents when their physical and mental capacities are compromised.
About the pain and joy of caring for those who once cared for you, about the difficulties of being a wage earner and care-giver, of the huge emotional, financial and spiritual costs, and the treasured moments with loved ones that can shine through the overwhelming work.
About the guilt, the sadness and the desperate loneliness of caring.
It is a subject close to my heart having lived through something very similar – when Sarah talks about how it left her feeling, it resonates.
“I was splitting myself in half. Working, trying to look after my parents, trying to be a good partner, a good friend, feeling as if I was failing at everything,” she said.
“I would come home after spending a few days in Leicester and I would head to the stables where the donkeys are and just cry and cry.
“I remember once, when I was sobbing, my partner Richard coming in and telling me that he’d just taken a call and Mum had dropped her hearing aid in the toilet and I knew I’d have to turn round and go back. I felt like I was breaking.”
Tragically, as Sarah and her brothers watched their mother gently dissolve as dementia claimed her, they realised that their father, Ian, was also showing signs of something similar.
He was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease and vascular dementia and it swiftly became clear that living independently was no longer an option for the couple.
“With dementia and the demand for services, by the time you get the help you need, you then need a different kind of help,” said Sarah, “my brothers lived in Manchester and Munich and they did what they could, but most of the care fell to me.
“As often as I could, I would scoop them up and take them home with me and that’s when I’d see Mum with the donkeys and see her remember happier times from when she was a child.”
Sarah’s own childhood in Leicester involved, she remembers, being “completely animal mad despite living in the city and having a city upbringing.”
She added: “I used to pester my folks to take me to village fetes with pony rides and would spend all my pocket money going up and down, up and down on the ponies. I loved them.”
Every year, the family would decamp to North Norfolk for a caravan holiday at Wells-next-the-Sea, a bucket-and-spade break which Sarah longed for every year for one reason: ponies.
“My folks always scraped enough cash to go away every year and my big treat used to be an hour’s ride at Tony Green’s stables – they’re long gone, now,” she explained.
“I used to think about it all year long. Everyone else would be thinking about the sea and the fun they’d have on the caravan park, and I’d be thinking about the pony rides.
“Wells, to me, is my happy place. If I have a day off, if I need to get away, it’s there I go. It is just filled with memories and happiness.”
Woven into those recollections of hazy summer days and the freedom of childhood are those much-anticipated hours at Tony’s stables, months of waiting culminating in a perfect hour in the saddle.
“I remember my Dad – who was the least horsey person you can imagine – would get me to the farm early so it would be safe for me to ride on the lanes,” said Sarah.
“I was so excited I almost couldn’t breathe as we got there because I had been waiting for so long – a year is an eternity when you’re a child, it felt like forever.
“I have so many wonderful, fond memories of those early riding lessons along those summer lanes, and I’d go over it in my head time and time again throughout the year, until I could go back.”
At sixth form she sidestepped sports lessons by organising a riding club and spent her summers back in Wells, the student becoming the teacher.
“I got a summer job with Tony and spent six weeks every year teaching other people how to ride on Holkham beach, the second best job I’ve ever had in my whole life. It was HEAVEN.
“I was riding four to six hours every day leading a couple of beach rides and in the high season there would be about 20 to 30 other riders that came out with me: I felt like I was on top of the world, it was a dream come true.”
Sarah studied English and American Studies at the University of Birmingham from 1982 to 1985 (“I started doing single honours English, but I hadn’t really looked at the curriculum and I quickly realised that if I didn’t add the American literature in, I’d die of boredom”) and kept returning to Wells for summers at the stables.
A move to Norfolk came after university, but it proved impossible to fund the idyllic summers on horseback in the colder months and Sarah had to admit defeat, move back to Leicester and take a part-time clerical role with British Telecom.
Quickly promoted, she became a computer programmer and moved to Cardiff where she met her first husband and the pair decided to move “somewhere a bit more rural”: the Shetland Islands.
Did this move have anything to do with Shetland’s world-famous miniature ponies which graze on roadsides, beaches and heathery hills? I ask, confident that the answer will be yes.
“No,” Sarah replies, “but they were an added bonus!”
Sarah spent nearly 10 years in this beautiful corner of the kingdom, receiving a warm welcome from islanders and loving the opportunity to be so close to the sea and nature.
After her marriage ended, Sarah spent time with her brother in Manchester, in London with friends and then was drawn back to Norfolk after seeing a job advertised for a European Funding Officer for Norfolk County Council in the EDP.
As the years passed, Sarah undertook counselling training, met her partner Richard, took a new job with Norwich-based Women’s Employment, Enterprise and Training Unit (WEETU), set up a business making pewter jewellery and then worked alongside Erika Watson at Prowess, a women-friendly business support hub.
She has also worked on a freelance basis, for the Norfolk Carers’ Helpline and as a mental health advocacy and support worker at Suffolk Family Carers.
Sarah and Richard moved to South Norfolk and were able to buy a slice of land at the back of their garden, which would later become home to some miniature lodgers.
After the couple lost beloved dog Alf, they decided to give a home to a puppy and went to visit a breeder with an eye to bringing home another dog.
“The lady had miniature donkeys and we went to see them and they were just gorgeous. She didn’t have any puppies, but when we got home, Richard said to me: ‘I’ve always fancied owning a donkey…’”
It was the beginning of a whole new chapter: two donkeys came home with the couple eight years ago and there are now six in the herd – Saffron, Bo Peep, Pippin, Pixie, Millie and little Jack.
“There’s something so wonderful about them, they all have their own personalities and they all offer something different. They just offer love and no judgement, they just make you smile whatever is happening in your world,” said Sarah.
The introduction of donkeys at home coincided with an escalation of the problems with her Mum and Dad as they reached crisis point.
“I found my parents a care home where they could be together. By this stage my Mum didn’t really know what was going on, but she was happy in herself, which was a blessing,” she said.
“My Dad, however, was furious. He barricaded the pair of them into their room and refused to let people in. Listening to my Dad telling the GP he had been brought to the home under false pretences was one of the worst days of my life. I felt so guilty.”
When Sarah’s parents were no longer able to be taken out, she asked the managers of the care home if she could bring her donkeys to them.
Yes, she was told, as long as the donkeys stayed in the garden.
But when a member of staff spotted the diminutive visitors in the garden and said how much one of the room-bound residents would love to see a donkey… the furry therapists moved indoors.
“That was the start of it, the realisation that the donkeys made a real difference to people,” said Sarah, “people would light up when they were with them, their cares would just melt away. They make things better.”
Sadly, inevitably, Pat’s condition worsened and in April 2017, she died.
The idea for Miniature Donkeys for Wellbeing arose from thinking about what had made her Mum smile and the social enterprise has been going strong since.
Sarah believes the donkeys help those locked in a world of their own step back into happier times: donkey rides as children at the seaside, days on the farm, the feeling of being loved and of being touched.
And she is keen to stress the debt of gratitude she feels towards her incredible band of volunteers who give time and expertise to help take the donkey show on the road and spread the love across Norfolk and Suffolk.
“They are amazing and I couldn’t do what I do without them,” said Sarah, “equally I am so grateful to everyone who donates and helps us keep this dream a reality.
“It can be long days – some volunteers come out once or twice a month, others come a couple of times a week but everyone plays a part in giving people who really need it a boost.
“All the hard work is worth it for those little moments: seeing Bo Peep going up to someone and putting her head in their lap and then finding out she’s chosen someone who was having a really bad day, a carer telling you she’s just heard a resident laugh for the first time.
“We rekindle memories and help people escape, just for a little while.”
To cover costs, Minidonks (as it is wonderfully known) charge a fee for visits but they still relyon fundraising to keep the social enterprise operational – as yet, Miniature Donkeys for Wellbeing’s costs outstrip its income by around £15,000 a year.
“We hope to be fully-funded in the near future and to be able to help more groups form across the country so even more people can benefit from this kind of therapy,” said Sarah.
“My ultimate dream would be to have a Mini Donk farm so people could come and visit the donkeys and spend a day with them. But that’s a way off. Hopefully one day.”
Ian died in February 2020 and we both breathe a sigh of relief that both he and my Mum, who died a month before, were able to have pre-Covid funerals full of love, warmth and people.
“It makes you realise how important those send-offs are, how important it is for us to have that support, to feel the love from around us,” she said.
“Which brings us back to the donkeys and what we’re trying to do.
“My Mum would have been very proud – I’ve got a lovely photo of her with Pippin when he was a baby which is on the side of our truck, so she’ll be with us on all our visits.
“She was a nurse and a health visitor so she would have been so happy that we were trying to help people feel better, particularly those people in situations where they can’t help themselves.
“We began losing her a long time before she died, but with the donkeys, she’d smile and I’d get my Mum back again. And those are the memories I keep going back to.”
· Find out how to book a donkey visit, how to sponsor a donkey, how to buy donkey merchandise or how to donate so that more people with life-limiting conditions, special needs and mental health challenges can enjoy a visit from miniature donkeys here minidonks.org.uk