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When Tyson walks into Woodlands Rest Home lounge, all heads turn to face him. And all is quiet. Then the magic begins, as Sally Curtis leads her beloved horse up to each resident in turn, treating them as if they are the only person in the room, all while talking quietly to Tyson. ‘Come on darling. Good boy. Come up please.’

At this, Tyson moves his giant hooves closer to frail legs and carpet slippers. His legs with their fabulous feathered fetlocks are not far from residents in their chairs. Guided by Sally, Tyson bends his head to those who’d like to pat him.

Some stroke his blaze or just inspect his whiskers; others touch his velvet muzzle with their fingertips, smile, and their hands reach out for more. Sometimes Tyson leans forward, closes his eyes a little and kisses heads.

Tyson feels, he sees, he knows. Sally calls him ‘a compassionate old soul’.

Tyson might be the star, but he has an impressive support cast. Sally has owned horses since she was six years old, has a great understanding of mental health, and volunteers in other areas of mental health. And behind the scenes is the Woodlands team with Leila Puata-Coppins heading this vibrant rest home. Diversional Therapist Marije Laarakker trained in Holland as an Anthroposophical Art Therapist, based on the philosophy of Rudolf Steiner, and also has her own practice.

‘Residents have been used to seeing nature during their lives,’ Marije says, ‘so bringing nature inside here is very important to us. The smell of the country replaces the smell of the rest home.’ There are traces of mud on Tyson’s white socks.

‘It’s very special seeing this beautiful creature up close,’ Marije continues. ‘It opens my heart, it energises the residents, their faces light up.’ Who has a horse in the house?!

Sally shares these ideas. ‘It’s about lifting spirits. It’s about bringing back special and beautiful memories for these people who’ve lived life to the fullest and all they have now is four walls. Tyson rocks their world.’ The residents ask about his diet, how much he eats, how often Sally brushes him, what his sleep patterns are like. ‘I love that they all love him.’

‘Come and say goodbye,’ Sally whispers to Tyson as they finish their rounds in the lounge. Then to the residents, ‘Now we’re going to visit some patients in their rooms. If you’re feeling a bit off, we’ll put our head in the door and see you.’ And with that, they walk out of the lounge, and negotiate the narrow hall.

In the care wing we meet Bill Traill who has wheeled his chair out to the hall to say hello to Tyson. In the hospital wing we visit Natalie Thomsen who’s frail and bedridden. ‘Hi Natalie,’ says Sally. Natalie beams when Tyson pokes his head through her door. Tyson’s a big part of the Woodlands family. There are four photos of Natalie and Tyson on her bedroom wall.

‘Bringing Tyson inside a rest home introduces a whole new level of therapy,’ says Sally. It was when she first visited an old friend in hospital with Tyson that she saw the powerful emotion of what Tyson can do. ‘He slips into their world. On one visit to a lady in her last few hours of life, Tyson rested his muzzle on her chest.’

Sally and Tyson’s relationship is built on years of partnership and trust. ‘We look after each other. It’s pretty special,’ she says. And it is pretty special being able to share this magical partnership at work.

WORDS & IMAGES Janet Hart