Princess Anne shared a milestone event with Wormwood Scrubs Pony Centre by paying a visit to the local stables that offers horse riding for Disabled children and adults.
Taking a tour around the pony centre on Thursday (8 February), HRH the Princess Royal had the chance to see how the stables have developed over more than three decades.
It was founded in 1989 by Sister Mary Joy Langdon with just three ponies on a piece of scrubland. Now home to 20 horses and ponies, as well as two donkeys, the pony centre is a retreat for hundreds. Children, young people and adults take part in riding lessons, stable management, riding for Disabled people and even pony kindergarten each year.
Princess Anne was joined by Hammersmith & Fulham Mayor Patricia Quigley, who added: “It’s wonderful to have these stables in H&F which is open to all the community and does such valuable work. As a Disabled person, I think it is fantastic that the centre is inclusive to everyone.”
As vice-patron of the British Horse Society (BHS), the Princess Royal was keen to learn more about the positive impact of the local stables.
Founder Sister Mary Joy shared the work the stables does with local schools including Jack Tizard School in Shepherds Bush, as well as its outreach work with local people living with dementia in East Acton.
Having a look around the stable yard and large indoor riding arena off Scrubs Lane, Princess Anne commented that the positive impacts on the community were “exceptional”.
“I’ve had the pleasure of coming here on a number of occasions,” she said.
“Sister Mary Joy’s contribution to the knowledge base that is here is quite exceptional. We owe her a debt of gratitude for that commitment here from what was a pretty muddy field, to all of the things that have happened since, which are a testament to her understanding of people but also of the ponies and horses that work together with them.”
“Thanks to Sister Mary Joy for being such a steadfast part of that over the past 35 years and never taking a backwards step in terms of the challenges that everybody faces and in creating a very exceptional place as a pony centre.
“There are a lot of people here who also make it possible for you to maintain the centre, the people who are inspired to be volunteers and helpers, as well as the riders, and I would like to thank them too for their consistent support and I’m sure that will continue for many more years.”
The keen horsewoman was treated to demonstrations from some of the young people who ride at the stables and are part of the BHS’s Changing Lives Through Horses programme.
A team of seven horses, ridden and led by 17 young people from the centre, put on a musical riding display showcasing the skills developed by youngsters of all abilities during their lessons at the centre. They also have a horse simulator to build confidence in the classroom before getting on board.
Clearly enjoying the event as she chatted and joked with some of the hundreds of attendees, Princess Anne also handed out medals to many of the youngsters at the pony centre. She was also joined by Wormwood Scrubs Charitable Trust Chair, Alex Sanderson.
Hammersmith resident Selma Hassabu, a trustee at the centre whose sons Zein, aged nine, and Haytham, six, ride and volunteer, said the equine world could be “quite intimidating for people” but that the stables “welcomes everyone as soon as you walk through the gates”.
Young rider Tallulah Smith, nine, and her parents Justin and Monica agreed that the benefits of horses were immeasurable. Living with cerebral palsy, Tallulah benefits from weekly riding and is now “horse mad”, added her dad.
Meanwhile, Danya Al-Doori, 13, who rode at the pony centre for seven years while living in East Acton, said the experience has “such a positive impact”, explaining how horses can benefit mental health and staying physically active for everyone.
Cllr Sanderson said that the pony centre “does incredible work locally”.
HRH The Princess Royal also met with the staff team at the Wormwood Scrubs Pony Centre, along with the charity’s patron and BHS president, the actor and TV personality Martin Clunes, before presenting a plaque to celebrate their decades of achievements.
Martin Clunes praised the “magic” of the centre, adding the “value is through the roof”. “It really changes people’s lives and empowers kids, it’s such a confidence boost for them to connect with a horse,” he explained. “The pony centre is amazing and a real haven in the area.”
Having visited previously in 2009 when the centre turned 20, Princess Anne’s love of horses is well-documented – she was named BBC Sports Personality of the Year in 1971 after winning gold at the European eventing championships and later selected to be part of Team GB at the Montreal Olympics in 1976.
Like the well-known visitor, Wormwood Scrubs Pony Centre’s founder Sister Mary Joy’s own passion for horses dates back many decades.
Since setting up the centre at the south east end of Wormwood Scrubs, which is H&F’s largest open space, Sister Mary Joy and countless volunteers have fundraised to transform the site with its own indoor arena, stables, tack room, hay barn and facilities for disabled riders.
The centre has been helped along the way by a few more famous faces – television presenter Anneka Rice was instrumental in getting the indoor arena built through the programme Challenge Anneka in 1994. And the British artist Lucian Freud was a regular visitor over the years, creating equine artworks that have gone on to raise funds for the charity.
Although now stepping down from her role as chief executive, Sister Mary Joy plans to remain involved in teaching and coaching young people.
“My determination has always been that the pony centre has a lasting legacy,” said Sister Mary Joy. “I see the benefits that a place like this gives to young people, especially those with special needs, learning difficulties, physical and social challenges. It is so important they can be themselves and have fun in a caring environment.
“I feel there’s even more demand for it nowadays and it is so important we keep this place going for the young people of the future.”