MONDAY Q&A: Ponies provide therapeutic touch to special-needs children
Nancy Uhron, of Shelocta, is the state director of Personal Ponies, dedicated to providing special needs children with a Shetland pony to care for, at no charge to the family.
Uhron, who grew up in Indiana, works with ponies and trains the animals on her farm as therapy animals, taking them to nursing homes and events.
She spoke with Gazette staffer Ellen Matis recently about what Personal Ponies is all about, and how much it means to her.
Question: The Personal Ponies mission is to make “magic” in children’s lives — how does it do that?
Answer: “Magic” — I think that it’s the interaction between the ponies and the children, and not just children, adults, too. … The ponies kind of have a sense of what each child needs. If the child is a little bit fearful, ponies are very respectful of that and they’ll kind of stand off until the child welcomes them into their space. It’s just seeing the laughter, seeing the kids interact with the ponies when they’re petting them, hugging them, just watching them together. That’s the magic.
Question: Why Shetland ponies?
Answer: Size. They are less intimidating than a bigger horse would be. Also, they’re really long-lived — they can live up to 30 or 40 years, so in its lifetime it can potentially help several children.
Question: Do you think that these ponies are better for some children than other service animals?
Answer: There are two different types of Shetland ponies, the American Shetland, which is larger, taller and kind of flashier, and the United Kingdom Shetland pony, which can be kind of small, 28 inches tall, which is as small as a large dog would be. We call them “wide and round and low to the ground.” They’re perfectly suited for especially a child in a wheelchair. They’re extremely docile and friendly and gentle. We don’t have to worry about them running off, they’re just super little animals.
Question: When did you get involved with the program?
Answer: We have been involved in Personal Ponies since 2001. I started out by rescuing a horse. I had loaned him out to a farm for therapeutic riding, and I was online one day looking for activities to do with the children because I was volunteering, and I came across the website. I was blown away by it and I thought, “I have to do this.” I contacted the executive director and she, sadly, said there were no ponies available at the time. I really wanted to bring the program into our community and I said, “well, contact me if anything becomes available,” and probably within two months she contacted me and said, “are you up for a challenge?” I said, “sure.”
There were two ponies that were rescued and brought into the program, which is something that we normally don’t do, and they needed someone to kind of be a guiding hand and train them. It was not the typical start to a program — normally when ponies are placed they are fully trained. When we got to New York to pick up these ponies they were completely untouchable and I thought, “my goodness, what have I gotten myself into?” and we brought them home and worked with them, gained their trust. One of those ponies, now, is my lead therapy pony.
Question: What ponies are you currently training?
Answer: Right now I have four ponies with me that are in training, and then I have my regular little herd that’s already trained, but it’s a continual process. Every single day the ponies are handled and groomed, they learn manners and how to walk respectfully on a leash. … It’s constant.
Question: Do they have prospective families?
Answer: Most of the ponies at my farm right now are permanent residents or are ponies that, for whatever reason, have come to me and are going to stay with me. We had kind of a unique situation when we got started with Personal Ponies, they were actually two rescues, there’s one of them that’s a sweet pony, but I wouldn’t place with a child. We continually are evaluating the ponies, their temperament and their interactions.
Question: At this point, about how many have been placed in homes to help children?
Answer: It varies, because not all the ponies are trained by me since this is a national group. We can kind of network within the states, and not every pony will be suitable for a particular situation. So, I’ve personally, over the years, only placed two ponies, but there are others in Pennsylvania that have come from elsewhere, or they’ve moved around within the states. Other volunteers will be working on training them as well.
Question: What’s your farm called? What else do you do there?
Answer: Simple Blessing Farm. It’s in Shelocta. Our farm isn’t just about placing ponies in homes and with children, we actually do therapy and take them to nursing homes and events, too. This is a big part of what we do.
Question: Is this something the whole family helps out with?
Answer: Yes, and it’s kind of evolved over time. When my daughters were little and I had just graduated from nursing school, I had decided I wanted a horse. That was my graduation present. It’s just evolved. At first we boarded our horses and then we wanted our own place. And then it just kind of snowballed out from there.
Question: If a family is interested in caring for a pony, how can they go about that?
Answer: The first thing I would suggest is to visit the national website, it’s an awesome website with terrific stories and features that tell you all about how the program works and all of the contact information is on there. If you visit the website and feel like it’s something you want to be involved in, they can contact me directly.
Question: Do you have any success stories that have really inspired you, or have made you say, “hey, I really want to keep doing this”?
Answer: When I first got started, we had a family contact, it was a grandmother, and her grand-daughter was born severely disabled. She had hearing impairments, visual impairments, she was non-mobile, she was fed with a feeding tube. And it seems like that’s the type of child that could not benefit from this program. However, the grandma called me and we got to be good friends. They visited our farm for the little girl’s eighth birthday … her doctor had said she was not going to live past two years, so she was truly a miracle. I’ll never forget, when she came out to the farm, she was in a reclining wheelchair and over the years she had tried to pull herself up but had not done that for several years, and we brought the pony out and she was laughing and giggling, you know, just touching him and all the tactile sensations, and she actually tried to pull herself up out of her chair and hug the pony. So that’s just something that really was amazing. It will stick with me forever.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Do you know someone who would be a great subject for the Monday Q&A? If so, please call Jason Levan at (724) 465-5555, ext. 270.
Job: Managing optician
Where I grew up: Indiana
Family: Husband John, with two daughters, Ansley and Danielle
Hobbies: Horseback riding, training horses, reading and writing poetry and short stories
Favorite food: Pizza with vegetables on it
Favorite way to spend a day: At the farm
Life goal: To outlive my life. To impact as many animals and people as possible.
Something most people don't know: I'm allergic to horses.