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‘It’s not just me who thinks he’s amazing’: blind 30-year-old Shetland who changes lives named pony of the year

The owner of the miniature Shetland voted Balanced Horse Feeds pony of the year has spoken of her pride in the blind 30-year-old who has changed people’s lives.

Lisa Walker’s Smurf came top in the public vote at last week’s Horse & Hound Awards, in tribute to his incredible story.

Owner Lisa Walker told H&H the chestnut was found as a youngster loose on the A1M, 26 years ago. As her father was a farmer nearby, police asked for his help.

“Dad brought him back and straight away, I wanted to keep him, but Dad said no,” Lisa said. “He was really naughty, used to bite and kick; a real scruffy little urchin and he said we couldn’t keep him – as a heavy horse man, he had no time for miniature Shetlands!”

Lisa had always wanted a pony but had been told they were too expensive, so she “learned to ride on Shires and Clydesdales”. And it looked as if things were not going to change, as when she got back from college the next day, Smurf had gone.

“My dad said the owners had taken him back,” Lisa said. “But a week later, it was my 18th birthday and Dad told me to go to a stable to get some hay – and there was Smurf, in a big pink bow.”

Smurf became a family pet, and Lisa broke him to drive, in a cart made by her father to fit the pony’s 7hh frame. When Lisa married and moved to Northumberland, he went with her, becoming her children’s pet too.

As it was a small village, and Lisa sometimes picked her children up from school in the cart, everyone got to know Smurf, so an invitation to the school fete was followed by a request for him to switch on the Christmas lights.

And having taken out insurance for these events, Lisa thought it worth doing a few more.

“We were doing fetes and parties, then one day, I took him along to the care home where my husband works,” she said. “He was in the garden and all the residents were at the windows, so excited. The manager asked if we could bring him in as some people couldn’t get up.”

Lisa worked with the manager to train Smurf, first taking him in on the ground floor then, when he was entirely happy, taking him upstairs in the lift.

Since then, the diminutive gelding has touched the lives of people in other care homes, schools, hospices and homes. But a few years ago, he started having problems with his sight and had to have both eyes removed, so Lisa retired him – or tried to.

“I thought, he’s 26, he’s done his bit, he can be pampered in the field. It was the worst decision I’d ever made,” she said. “He just stood by the gate whinnying, and every time the van went out, he was trying to squeeze through the fence, he was desperate to get in the van.

“I spoke to the vet and he said ‘try him’. We don’t know how long he’d been blind for; it might have been for a long time and he was used to it. I contacted a couple of care homes and asked if we could come but I’d take him out if he showed any distress – and within a couple of weeks, he was back to work as if nothing had happened.

Smurf had been joined by Marley, another miniature Shetland, to share the workload but the younger pony has expanded his career into stage and screen, while another three-year-old will help out in future.

So had it not been for Smurf’s escape, not only Lisa’s life but that of so many others would be completely different.

“It was totally fate,” she said. “We’ve been so lucky.”

Lisa credits Marley’s calm temperament for his popularity, and that he always seeks out the most unwell, vulnerable or challenging person in the room, and “just rest his head in their lap”.

“Children with special needs who couldn’t open their hands have done so for him to sniff their palms; non-verbal people have spoken to him,” she said. “It’s something, a deep feeling; I can’t put it into words.”

Smurf was the last visitor to a young mother with terminal cancer, and a dementia sufferer who believed in unicorns, and thought Smurf was one.

“The young lady’s family rang to say she had days left and I said ‘I’ll come now’,” Lisa said. “He walked straight in, put his head on her and nuzzled in – 24 hours later, she was dead. Her family said it was the most they’d seen her smile.

“Someone he visited loved him so much, the family asked if he could go to the funeral to escort her. He walked in front of the funeral car and stood by her coffin in the chapel for the whole service. Her family said she’d have loved it; it made them a bit happier in such horrendous circumstances.”

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Lisa, who describes Smurf as “my life”, and jokes that her children and husband know he comes first, said she was “overwhelmed” even to be shortlisted for the H&H Awards, the winners of which were revealed last Wednesday (4 December).

“I’ve had congratulations messages from all over the world, we were interviewed on the radio the next morning; it just goes to show how many people he’s touched,” she said.

“We went to the awards because we were so proud of him being shortlisted and I said we wouldn’t win but it didn’t matter as we all love him; then my 30-year-old eyeless Shetland, who’ll never be a show pony, was up there with the best of the best.

“It’s not just me who thinks he’s amazing. Thank you so much.”

Don’t miss more on the winners in this week’s H&H magazine out 19 December.

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