Inclusive Countryside

Logo: Pony Axe S

Pony Axe S (Axe S/Access, ghastly pun) takes anyone in any wheelchair, anywhere. I have just driven an iBex, a pony powered, wheelchair enabled vehicle, from Winchester to Beachy Head along the South Downs Way. I asked every walker we encountered, when they last saw a person in a wheelchair, on the South Downs Way.  “Never” was the standard answer.

My next question “If you were in a wheelchair, would you want to be able to come back here?” made everyone think, and understand why Pony Axe S matters.

Beachy Head end of the South Downs Way, National Trail. Toby  working, Obama along for the ride (Pony Axe S)
Beachy Head end of the South Downs Way, National Trail. Toby working, Obama along for the ride (Pony Axe S)

Hannah Cockcroft, on Countryfile, guest edited by Prince Charles said, “We have to accept that some areas are simply out of bounds if you’re disabled and no one wants the countryside to be concreted over with paths. But many places could do better.”

Pony Axe S took a wheelchair from Winchester to Beachy Head, and Andy Gattiker of the South Downs Way National Trail will confirm that I didn’t lay one bit of concrete. Hannah is right, many places could do better and Pony Axe S can make it easy.

The iBex is a unique vehicle because I am a very weird pony drawn vehicle designer. I have the advantage of no engineering background, an arrogant belief that I can do anything and a fear of horses. With this skill set I couldn’t fail.

Cuckmere Haven (Pony Axe S)
Cuckmere Haven (Pony Axe S)

Cowardice is the most important design tool, and I started building safe pony drawn vehicles from day one. In the early days they were just safe by horse drawn vehicle standards which isn’t saying much. After a particularly painful accident, I designed the instant pony release system which does what it says on the tin. Pony drawn vehicles are lethal with a pony attached, (worse with a horse), but without a pony, they are garden furniture. I have watched my vehicles for hours, and with no pony, they just sit there. More importantly, Rod Bromfield, Senior Lecturer Engineering and his students at Kingston University Engineering Dept, have done in depth safety analysis of the engineering and safety systems.

Safety matters. Pony Access works with everyone, regardless of ability or disability. Some people cannot give informed consent, so the activity MUST be safe. If you can release the pony instantly, safety is a reality. In addition to the instant pony release, the iBex has a seriously low centre of gravity, is insanely manoeuvrable, corners like a sportscar and doesn’t mark the ground. 22”x11”x8” front tyres and a 16”x6.50”x8” rear spread the load and leave hardly a trace. Ground clearance is limited, but where a powered vehicle would struggle, when the iBex bottoms, the pony is pulling a smooth bottomed sledge.

The pony is the power unit, and for some, part of the attraction, but if you want to watch the butterflies on Salt Hill (which are awesome) the pony is just the engine; with the added attraction, that if he poops, butterflies come from miles around to settle on fresh horse manure.

Traditional horse people worry about releasing the pony. Doing the South Downs Way this summer I took two ponies, and let Obama, my experienced pony, run loose, while I drove my new, rather goofy and very inexperienced 7 year old, Toby. On the occasional road bits I put Obama on a lead rope, otherwise I left him free to enjoy the trip. If you train ponies with kindness, (I only use equipment I am allowed to test on children, so no whips, bits or spurs) they come to you when they are scared.

Greg, River Teign above Fingle Bridge (Pony Axe S)
Greg, River Teign above Fingle Bridge (Pony Axe S)

Travelling the South Downs Way with a wheelchair was half way between a challenge and a holiday. Tough, steep, flinty, narrow tracks are hard work. Not many of the people I know who use wheelchairs will volunteer to do the really steep bits. The point is that it will be their choice. Pony Access makes Salt Hill from East Meon or the climb heading East from Amberley or the climb after Devil’s Dyke possible, not fun, not easy, but possible. Driving round Chanctonbury Ring, in a wheelchair is awesome. The views over Devil’s Dyke, from Firle Beacon and galloping at Beachy Head with Obama hooning around like an idiot, and Toby joining in, are the stuff of great holidays.

Pony Access doesn’t need to change anything to make the countryside accessible to people who use wheelchairs. We completed the South Downs Way using the pedestrian and rider’s gates. We changed nothing, we damaged nothing, and we have made the countryside open to anyone. Inclusion is the buzz word.

Using the iBex is simple. Lower the ramp, drive or push the wheelchair into position and tie it down. Raise ramp, attach pony and you are off. No hoists, no need to transfer from a wheelchair. You can take people to where they want to be and park them for collection later. Family picnics, dog walks, birdwatching or just the pleasures of wide horizons are open to people who haven’t been able to visit the countryside for years.

I took Bex out in her wheelchair as my first ever customer round West Town Farm, Ide. The piglets weren’t where I expected, the calves had gone to market and it drizzled. As I apologised Bex said “That’s the first time I have seen a rabbit hole in 9 years.” So much that we take for granted, is not accessible to people who use wheelchairs. Pony AxeS changes that.

Bex wanted a trip round West Town Farm in her wheelchair, so, as my very first customer, I carefully tied down the front wheels to the Bannedwaggon, then the rear wheels, then decided to re-tie the front wheels in a better way. Then set off uphill, through the orchard. Somehow I had failed to tie the front wheels of Bex’s wheelchair at all, and she gracefully flipped over backwards. I pulled the ripcord, releasing the pony and rushed around like a lunatic, apologising, getting the wheelchair upright, taking her back to the barn, apologizing ad infinitum. When I ran out of breath she said, “When are we going round the farm then?

The Bannedwaggon was renamed the iBex on the spot.

Simon Mulholland
Pony Axe S,,
07510 736518

Updated information November 2017:

First published in CJS Focus on Overcoming Barriers in association with the Outdoor Recreation Network on 14 November 2016