Wormwood Scrubs Pony Centre has been promoting equine therapy for over 30 years. Absolutely Education pays a visit

Words: Pendle Harte

Sister Mary Joy Langdon has always sensed that horses have intuition. Before equine therapy was a thing, she recognised that being around horses can be spiritually enriching – and as part of a religious order dedicated to educating children, she is on a mission. Riding a horse, and looking after horses, can have wide-ranging benefits, particularly for children with disabilities, and at the Wormwood Scrubs Pony Centre she runs a pioneering programme of activities that make an enormous difference to young people’s lives. “I know from experience, because horses helped me,” she says.

It’s a tough schedule. The pony centre is staffed by Mary Joy and one other trainer, plus a fleet of volunteers. From 7.30am to the end of the school day, school groups come to ride and groom horses, to learn stable management and to practice on the mechanical horse. After school there are clubs and riding lessons for individuals, and pony parties at weekends. There’s a strong sense of activity and Mary Joy is a forceful presence, giving instruction and being involved with every individual. The centre clearly revolves around her vision.

Mary Joy Langdon grew up with horses in Sussex, becoming a qualified coach and riding at point-to-point events before she gave it up to follow her calling and join what she calls “a small international congregation”. In other words, she became a nun. “I had given up horses to enter religious life,” she says. She is part of the Sisters of the Infant Jesus, a Catholic institution founded in France in 1666 with the aim of educating underpriviliged schoolchildren, and this defines her vocation here in Wormwood Scrubs, at the centre she founded in 1989. Her career has been varied, even taking in a spell of about seven years as a firefighter (when the drought of 1976 inspired her to sign up and become the first operational female firefighter in Sussex) before she returned to horses in the context of her calling.

“Riding can be the catalyst for beginning to achieve in all areas and horses can help people’s self-esteem”

 “My aim was to set up a small community riding school for people with special educational needs,” she says, “because I could always see the value of what horses could do for people with learning difficulties or physical disabilities.” She wasn’t academic at school and believes that now she would have been diagnosed with ‘severe dyslexia’. “Horses can help children learn and develop. Riding can be the catalyst for beginning to achieve in all areas and horses can help people’s self-esteem. I know from experience, because horses helped me. I liken horses to dolphins, for their intuition and the way that personal contact with them can be enriching and spiritual.” One of her horses in particular, she says, has the power to make anyone visiting its stable come out feeling strengthened. Children come to the centre not just with physical or learning disabilities but also with severe psychological damage. For this group, she says, “time spent with ponies is supportive and positive.” Sister Mary Joy believes that there’s greater need for places like this now than there was even 30 years ago. “Even if we had five centres there wouldn’t be enough. There are so many damaged children,” she says.

Equine therapy at Wormwood Scrubs Pony Centre
Children have the opportunity to =develop through their interaction with horses, says Sister Mary Joy Langdon – she believes horses have intuition and respond to their needs

How is the centre funded? “By a miracle, I’d say.” Money is an ongoing struggle, although a loyal following is energetic in organising events and fundraisers. A recent Zoom race night raised £5,000 and a sponsored walk took place over the summer. One unlikely fan was Lucian Freud, who would quietly come to draw horses, initially unrecognised by Mary Joy. Indeed, when she noticed him, she gave him a beginners’ guide to drawing horses. They became friends and in 2019 she auctioned a sketch of his for £40,000, parting with it reluctantly to raise vital funds for the centre. 

It’s a place that makes an enormous difference to lots of lives and Sister Mary Joy is an impressive character, working intuitively and tirelessly for young people. 


Further reading: Understanding hypermobility