Pony Access: how Simon Mulholland is opening up the countryside.

While wheelchairs and scooters are constantly improving, there will always be places where a wheeled vehicle is at a disadvantage. This is where Pony Access comes in. Pony Access, according to its mastermind Simon Mulholland, does what it says on the tin: helping people with disabilities to access the countryside. This is done with the help of his brainchild, the iBex, a horsedrawn vehicle which can carry a wide range of wheelchairs, and a rescue pony called Obama.

Safety first
Mulholland is astonished by casual acceptance of danger in the equestrian community. The potential for injury is considerable, and for a person whose mobility is already limited, such an injury could be disastrous: a bitten steering finger is like two broken legs. Over the lifespan of Pony Access, only two injuries have resulted: a bruised finger, caused by a blip in the rein design which has since been fixed; and a small cut, caused by a friendly nip. While Obama only bites those whom he sees as family, he still wears a muzzle when he’s working. For Pony Access, there is no acceptable level of risk: no risk is acceptable.

The iBex, named after Bex, one of Mulholland’s friends and first passengers, is a sturdy, all terrain carriage which can be used by a complete beginner, in almost any kind of wheelchair. The key safety feature of the Ibex is an easily operated instant release system, in case the pony bolts and becomes uncontrollable. This can be operated either remotely or by a rope which the passenger, carer or handler can pull. The iBex and passenger are then safely disconnected, and the pony can go on running, typically to the wide open spaces which they associate with safety. It’s been tested to destruction, with a 120kg man on a 160kg wheelchair and a logging rig with 100kg of wood on the back for good measure, and is nearly impossible to tip. Mulholland is working with Kingston University to certify the vehicle, mainly to cut down on insurance costs.

State of the art hooved propulsion mechanism

Kingston University researchers are also interested in Mulholland’s nonviolent training methods,  guided by the principle of not deliberately frightening the pony. Horses are very good at intuiting intention in humans, and can tell the difference between deliberate harm and accidents. Obama, who was rescued from an abusive environment, reacts with fear to sticks, hosepipes and even level crossings, but doesn’t bat an eyelid if an person with autism accidentally hits him while flailing, because he knows that there is no malicious intention.

While Pony Access gives access to the country, it also gives access to ponies. Obama is happy to interact with several people a day, especially if they have a chocolate. Picking up litter might not seem like the most fun way to spend a day, but tell people that a pony will be helping out by carrying the sacks, and it becomes more attractive. Even though they usually carry the sacks themselves, to spare the pony.

Gathering data
And do people enjoy going out with Pony Access? It might seem like an obvious "yes", but Mulholland wants more accuracy, considering that the field of equine therapy suffers from a lack of scientific rigor. Mulholland prefers to deal strictly with the engineering and pony handling side of things, insisting on a carer to be present if required. If a carer is familiar with the client, then  the Barry Carpenter Engagement Scale may be used to assess their level of reaction to the situation. Simon estimates that around 80% of clients engage positively, 10% show no engagement, 5% positively ignore the pony, and 5% respond negatively. As well as being useful for seeking funding and interest in Pony Access, this method will be useful for developing the field.

Winning access on the playing fields of Eton?
However, one place where Pony access can’t go is Mulholland’s old school: Eton. Simon has been interested in finding out the lack of accessibility in British elite schools: where you can bring a pony, but not a wheelchair. According to him, only one of the 131 public schools is suitable for children who use wheelchairs. He considers that his campaign, as well as getting the words “pony” and “access” together in the public consciousness, would have a general and profound effect on accessibility. A lack of disabled people in public schools leads to a ruling class who have no awareness of accessibility. “If in two years, all public schools were forced to become accessible, accessibility in this country would jump forward 200 years.”

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