I know the old adage that ‘You can’t please all of the people all of the time’, and I am determined that my blog should cover a wide range of interests, to try to cover as many peoples tastes as possible, but this morning’s field trip was, I admit, pure self-indulgence.
The moment I saw a mention on social media of a ‘Pony Playgroup’, I just had to go and check it out. It seemed such a genius idea – like many genius ideas, so simple you can’t believe it hasn’t been done a million times over, but it’s the first time I’ve seen such a thing personally, and if I’d seen such a thing ten years ago, you can bet I would have been there!
I can honestly say it’s one of the loveliest mornings I have had in years. I only meant to pop in, ask some questions, get some photos and get home again, but I got totally sucked in by the atmosphere and ended up staying for the whole session! I have been to many toddler groups in my time, and most, to be honest, were pretty much bedlam. This was totally different – it was calm and contented, with the children all calmly and happily pottering about, playing with the toys, riding trikes, mucking out with clean sawdust and miniature tools, sweeping, and mostly drifting in and out of the stable which housed the star of the show, Sunny. Sunny is the most patient pony I’ve ever met; he stands steadily munching on his haynet while the toddlers take it in turns to groom him, feel his amazing fluffy coat, stroke him or just hang out nearby and get used to the size and shape of him. A Shetland pony is pretty tiny to us, and Sunny didn’t reach my waist, but to an 18 month old child it is like standing next to a big hairy elephant; however, they all took it in their stride and were fascinated, gentle and kind with him. Sunny is the perfect man for the job – he doesn’t just tolerate the little hands, he seems to enjoy it, and you could see how relaxed he was by his droopy lip! There is always close supervision, as a little hoof can damage a little foot, or a Shetland’s bottom can swat a toddler accidentally, but it was always unobtrusively careful. (Apparently there are usually two ponies to groom, but one was turned out to grass today, as the local hunt were in the area, and the sound of a hunt in the distance can give a pony ants in their pants, so it was down to bombproof Sunny to take all the love today.)
There are also the usual staples of toddler play – a playhouse, a trike, skittles etc, but it was all quite peaceful play, and many opted to go and play in the wood shaving bedding instead, very intently shovelling it from one bucket to another! I didn’t hear a whinge, cry or cross word the whole morning, they were all far too absorbed. We also went out into the orchard, where we saw the other ponies turned out in the fields, and had a treasure hunt, flew a little kite etc. The session ended with a singalong – equestrian themed, of course, with ‘This is the Way The Lady Rides’ and other horsey classics! A couple of the children were staying afterwards for a ride – at their age, it’s just 15 minutes, with lots of games and exercises to get them used to the feel of the pony moving, find their centre of balance etc.
Chatting to the leaders, Natalie and Vicky, I got a real sense of how much they care about their ponies and horses, many of whom are rehabilitation or rescue cases, and are all treated as individual animals rather than just cogs in a riding school machine. Vicky’s background in childcare was evident, as she didn’t baby the children, and taught them why things are done the way they’re done around ponies, but in a very gentle way.
They also offer Pony Mornings for 4-14 year-olds during school holidays, and an after school ‘Hoof Club’. These are a great way to get children outdoors, active and thinking about someone else’s needs before their own, which is an important lesson for all of us! As children we used to spend hours ‘helping’ at our local stables, and it was a brilliant way to keep active, meet people, learn a lot etc, but most of all, just really good fun.
I have tried to find some other options for mainly outdoor playgroups in the area, but I have more or less drawn a blank. There are places that offer Forest School sessions, but these can be prohibitively expensive, and are often one-offs, so if anyone knows of any fresh-air playgroups, please let me know as I’d love to spread the word. In the meantime, I can thoroughly recommend Pony Playgroup, and if it rekindles a hankering in any grown-ups, they do lessons for all ages and abilities too, so you needn’t miss out. I just wish this existed when my two were little!