LEO SELCON-PARK loves his pony. In fact, the pair are practically inseparable.
Together, the 10-year-old boy from Nettlebed and his nine-year-old pony Toby have won dozens of rosettes and trophies at equestrian shows across the South since being teamed up a year ago.
But unlike his fellow competitors, Leo has achieved this despite having autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
He was diagnosed when he was six but his parents had known there was “something different” about him for much longer.
Leo’s mother Jade Park-Ross says: “The last four years have been a real journey. We were actually quite relieved when we were told he had autism because he had been very ill and had serious epileptic fits every week.
“He has global developmental delay, which gives him motor skills problems and affects his speech and language development so social interaction is difficult.
“He has become more aware that he’s different and he isn’t developing like the other children in his year at school. He’s very tearful and doesn’t want to go to school a lot of the time because he’s aware he’s so different. He only understands about 90 per cent of what we are talking to him about.”
Leo enjoys football and rugby but was unable to play other than at his school, Stoke Row primary.
His mother says: “Leo needs to understand boundaries and rules.
“He loves football but when it gets going and becomes quite fast he has problems. He played rugby for a couple of seasons and we really encouraged him to keep going with it but after the second season it became a contact sport and that was confusing for him.
“We felt a bit mean pushing him to do it but we wanted to keep him doing normal things.”
Then Leo tried riding and, despite a difficult start, he hasn’t looked back.
At first, Ms Park-Ross was worried that he would be put off when he fell off his pony while learning to ride.
Instead, he would simply dust himself off and say that he needed a smaller pony that would be less painful to fall from.
But the real breakthrough came from a piece of ingenuity from his riding teacher Emma Holder.
Leo was struggling to keep hold of the reins of his pony because of his motor skills problem, so Ms Holder asked him what his favourite chocolate bar was.
Leo replied that it was a Toffee Crisp, so she told him to hold the reins as if they were two Toffee Crisp bars and it transformed his riding ability.
Ms Park-Ross recalls: “We couldn’t get it through to him until his teacher came up with the Toffee Crisp idea. I think it’s breaking down the language and simplifying it for him.”
She bought Leo’s first pony, a five-year-old chestnut mare called Duradens Hannah, in January last year.
The pair made their debut the following month at the Heritage Open Mountain and Moorland Mini Championships at the College Equestrian Centre in Keysoe, Bedfordshire, and collected two seconds as well as reserve champion.
As Leo’s success continued, his mother realised that he would soon outgrow his pony and would need a bigger animal.
Ms Park-Ross says: “Hannah was beautiful but Leo is quite thick set so we needed a bigger one.”
She was approached by a stables in Lincolnshire, which they had got to know on the show circuit, and bought Toby, a 12-hands show hunter pony, in July.
Ms Park-Ross says: “Leo had been going to a few shows by then and people knew him and were contacted by some people in Grantham. We went to look at Toby and that was it, he and Leo had an instant bond.
“They warned us that Toby could get grumpy in the stables sometimes but after two weeks with us he wasn’t grumpy any more.
“Leo used to go and hang off his neck and cuddle him. It’s amazing how he is with Leo and watching the bond is lovely. Part of the reason riding works is that it’s just him and Toby - he doesn’t have to worry too much about anyone else.”
Toby spent the winter at the family’s home off the B481, where they also have four dogs, and is now being kept at stables in Guildford for the summer. Leo visits him three to four times a week for lessons and his mother says that as well as being his sporting partner, Toby is a friend and confidante.
She explains: “Animals seems to be the key for people with autism. If Leo has a bad day at school you can find him hugging the pony and telling him his problems.
“We can ask Leo what’s wrong and he says ‘nothing’ but he will be riding Toby and will break down sobbing - that’s how the problem comes out.
“Leo’s very lucky and we’re lucky to be able to do this for him. Seeing the change in him is incredible, not just his riding ability but every part of his life. His confidence has grown and he’s developing and it’s the pony that has brought it out of him.
“Toby is one in a million in the way he looks after Leo. He’s just priceless and in a way he found us rather than us finding him.”
Leo’s bond with Toby has also helped with some of his behavioural problems. He often sleeps only two hours a night and his mother recalls one occasion when he came to her bedside cold and damp and urged her not to go into his room.
She said: “His Scalextric track was covered in Vaseline and water. He had been trying to make the cars drift like in the films.
“Toby keeps him on the straight and narrow. When he has a riding lesson he will often be in the car fully dressed waiting to go.
“We once had to not let Leo see Toby for a week and he cried every day because the pony is his world.”
Leo is always recognisable at the shows because he rides with his tongue poking out and he has got to know many of the judges and stallholders, even though his condition means he finds it hard to make eye contact, especially when receiving feedback from the judges.
Ms Park-Ross says: “He knows all the stallholders and he always wants to go in for a chat, even if they’re shut. The people on the show circuit aren’t judgmental, including the children. They are from all different walks of life but they all get on.
“It’s heartwarming that Leo feels so wonderful at these events. He’s the only one with autism and he’s having this sort of success. He loves it because he’s not judged, he just gets stuck in, and it’s lovely to watch him.
“He’s very caring, which isn’t typical in autism, and he wants to make friends with everyone.
“A little girl fell off her pony at a show last year and it was very distressing for him. He was distraught and just wanted to know she was okay rather than ride himself.”
Leo has already competed at four shows this year, bagging first prize in three of them.
In December he was awarded the reserve champion title for the most points during a season and best new member at his region’s British Show Pony Society awards in Hatfield.
Leo’s performances have earned him a place at the Royal International Horse Show at Hickstead in West Sussex in July and this week he is competing at the Royal Windsor Horse Show for the second year running.
His mother says: “He loves riding at Windsor because he says it’s in the Queen’s back garden!
“He can’t deal with loud noises but at the show last year he said he wanted to stay and watch the Queen’s horses, which has a display with guns. The guns made me jump but he wasn’t even affected.
“I find it amazing that he couldn’t go to the school disco because there’s too much noise but he just sat there at Windsor mesmerized.”
Ms Park-Ross adds: “He has done really well this year, despite often being up against children who practise every day.
“At the last event he came up against last year’s supreme champion and I was worried he would be upset because he’s used to winning. Instead he was just really pleased with how he did. He’s very proud of himself and Toby.”