"THE look on patients' smiling faces when they see a pony walking in is second to none" said one of the handlers who took a Bay Shetland pony for a visit to Southend Hospital this week.

The "therapeutic" pony visited the Stroke Unit at the hospital with the intention of cheering up the patients, on Monday 20 January.

Secret stands 10 hands tall - almost 3.5 feet high - and was accompanied by her owner, Nikki Birch, along with Natalie Shepherd and Rebecca Harris from The Ramblers Riding Club in Leigh.

One of the first patients to welcome Secret was Nasreen Janjua, from Westcliff, who was said to have "practically leapt from her chair to be near the pony and gave him a lovely fuss".

Nasreen said: “I never imagined we’d have a pony on the ward, this is such a lovely surprise! It’s brought back a lot of happy memories from when I was growing up. It’s magical!”

Trevor Bradly, from Benfleet, was another patient who met Secret. His daughter, Charlotte Robinson, from Surrey, couldn’t quite believe what she was seeing.

She said: “I’ve just finished a 16 hour night shift, so thought I was seeing things at first, but this visit has just raised everyone’s spirits. I’ve not seen dad smile like this for a few days. Such a brilliant idea.”

And although it’s a fun visit, there was also a serious side to it as well.

Ward Manager, Karis Reeve, explained: “Wonderful visits like this help break up the routine for patients. Due to having a stroke, lots of our patients have sensory deficits, so that means they may have lost the use of one of their arms, legs or even one side of their face. But this encourages them to try and touch or smile. Even if they can’t, you can certainly see the smile in their eyes.”

A spokesman for Southend Hospital said: "Therapeutic animals regularly visit patients in Southend Hospital as such visits can have positive effects on patients’ recovery. A full infection control and risk assessment is undertaken before therapy animals visit the wards."