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Summer the wonder horse; This miniature horse has helped change the life of one Belfast family, and brought comfort to terminally ill children around Ireland.

The scene in the living room at Samantha Hayes' house will be familiar to many mums across the country; while she busies herself getting dinner ready in the kitchen for the family, her son, Bradley, 10, is sat on the sofa, poring over an iPad, watching cartoons. Three-year-old Summer nudges him inquisitively, flicking her hair back over her shoulder as she tiptoes around daintily in her pink, sparkly princess shoes. The bond between them is obviously strong, as Bradley laughs and smiles whenever Summer comes near him. It's all the more extraordinary as Bradley has a range of conditions that make interacting with others difficult: autism, ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) and CIDP (Chronic Inflammatory Demyelinating Polyneuropathy), a rare neurological disorder which means he can't feel physical pain.

Part of the family But then Summer is no ordinary member of the family; she's actually a rare breed miniature Argentinian Falabella horse, one of only 2,500 registered in the world.

And since she officially became part of the Hayes' brood in September, 2012, she's helped not only Bradley, but several terminally ill children at the Northern Ireland Children's Hospice, the Royal Victoria Hospital for Sick Children in Belfast and special needs schools across the country, where she entertains, stimulates and relaxes children with illnesses and learning disabilities as an official 'therapy horse'.

Samantha, 42, a former horse trainer with the Armed Forces, and her husband Keith, a trainee engineer, bought Summer when she was seven months old - she was unkempt, with long, matted hair, her ribs protruding under her coat. Samantha says, 'She wasn't maltreated, but she was underweight and bloated. She was in a field with sheep and actually thought she was a sheep! She was so sweet and good-natured. We bonded immediately. She fitted into the back of the car, and the minute she saw Bradley, she licked his face, and he bent down to stroke her. She became part of the family. Keith made a mini trailer for her and she chases him around the garden. She's great fun.' Summer has thrived with the family and now weighs 10 stone, thanks to the healthy bran mash she is fed daily. She has a comfortable stable at the bottom of the back garden, which is covered in mulch for her to play in.

Samantha had Summer fully housetrained within four weeks and now the little horse likes nothing better than sitting on the sofa in the evenings with Bradley, Samantha and Keith. 'She loves toes, and she nips on your cheek, nibbles your ear, and sucks on your clothes when you're saying goodnight,' says Samantha. 'She's priceless; there's something special about her. She was very easy to train, and she's very clean and tidy. When it's been raining, she goes on her tiptoes through the mud!' But it's the difference she's made to Bradley's life which has changed things the most. With his neurological disorder, Bradley can't participate in sports due to the risk of delayed concussion if he banged his head and didn't notice. He was diagnosed at four when a professional portrait showed up an abnormality in his eyes. 'He didn't speak until then,' explains Samantha, 'but he has since got on well at his special school down the road - it's fantastic. He's very good at maths and building Lego, and he's very kind. He gave away his go-kart to a boy he'd just met on holiday because he said he liked it. Very few people can care for Bradley, so we have no social life to speak of. Going out is not an option, but we do most things together anyway, and having Summer as part of the family has really given him a new lease of life.' Summer wasn't originally intended to be a 'cure' for Bradley; Samantha, a keen rider all her life, had always had horses around and felt it would be good for Bradley to interact with one. But even she has been surprised at the effect Summer has had on him.

'They have a special connection,' she says. 'He's very affectionate towards her, and helps me and his dad with her care and grooming.' After seeing how Summer helped her son, Samantha was inspired to offer the little animal's services to ill children, including those who are terminally ill, because Summer seemed to know exactly how to behave around them. 'She knows the difference immediately,' confirms Samantha. 'She senses when a child is ill or has special needs and she knows to avoid sore areas - if a child has a trachea tube in, she won't go near their throat. She purses up her lips to gives kisses to the kids and licks their faces.' At her height and weight, Summer can't be ridden, but Samantha provides a specially made ornate saddle for children to sit on her.

Life-changing Summer wears Build-A-Bear boots, worth PS50, for her outings. The pink and white sparkly footwear is meant for the teddy bears that children can design themselves at the Build A Bear workshop in Belfast's Victoria Square, but the standard size is such a good fit for her small hooves that the company has agreed to provide them for free. It's a welcome contribution for the family, who don't charge for Summer's appearances - any donations offered are redirected to the Children's Hospice.

Summer made such a big impression on one family that they arranged for her to visit their little boy at a hospice in his final hours. It was no problem for her - at only 30 inches tall - to be ushered into the building and brought to the young boy's bedside. 'Summer went straight up to the bed and very gently put her head down on the child's belly, and let it rest there for a while,' says Samantha. 'The poor boy was sedated at that stage, but his parents were so touched by the gesture and hoped on some level he was aware of it. It was the second end-of-life visit for Summer; she knew exactly what to do on the other occasion, too. She is just highly sensitive and far beyond smart. She can pick up on sensitivities, like some dogs can.' Summer also regularly makes the day of a baby with brain cancer, who she meets at the hospice. 'Summer kisses him, and his parents are so appreciative,' says Samantha. 'And there's another autistic boy who won't sit still and constantly bangs doors. He settles down completely with Summer for an hour and holds our faces to thank us. And then there's Ellie, a little girl with a very rare illness; she's completely non-verbal, but she giggles when she's with Summer. I can't explain the connection she makes - it's bizarre. Summer can make kids calm down; Ellie relaxes and has no spasms when she's with her. For some, a little contact with Summer is life-changing. She is a gift.' |

'Summer is highly sensitive; she knows when a child is ill or has special needs'


Samantha with Summer and Ellie

Enjoying sofa time

Bradley and Summer have a close bond
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The People (London, England)
Date:Oct 25, 2015
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