Smokey: The amazing pony who helped Anna keep her dreams alive and ‘beat’ dyslexia
- Credit: Archant
Anna’s stories represent a victory over dyslexia and a tribute to ‘a remarkable pony’ that helped many people cope with their challenges
Anna Louise Tayler clicks the screen and the short PowerPoint presentation plays photographs of a white pony, a white cat and a Scooby-Doo-ish dog. Lilting music tugs at the heart-strings and you can tell it’s bringing a lump to her throat. It clearly means a lot.
Anna battled away at school, doing the best she could, but always felt she was bashing her head against the wall. It wasn’t until she was 26 that she found out why.
Life in the classroom had been highly frustrating, “because I learnt differently”, she remembers. Did she ever feel stupid?
“Yes, many, many times I felt that. And that does hurt. But you learn to deal with it and move forward. Or try to move forward. It can be bl----y difficult!”
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She explains: “I was at school in the 1970s and it was difficult for the teachers to understand. They knew it was some sort of a problem I had, but they didn’t know how to handle it. Dyslexia was ‘known’, but not ‘really known’. Work was still being done on it.”
Always passionate about cookery, Anna studied catering at a college in Eastbourne, doing some training at Glyndebourne (the site of the Sussex opera house) and London restaurant The Ivy.
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Cookery was creative, she says, and that was always her forte. But didn’t dyslexia – still not officially diagnosed at that point – make life difficult? Well, even if recipes appeared complicated, she could usually adapt them – and often make them better! she laughs.
Anna worked in catering for a good few years in her early 20s, but was forced to stop because of injury. Lifting heavy pots and suchlike took its toll. She developed Osgood-Schlatter disease, an inflammation of a knee ligament.
It was while she worked at a London store that her dyslexia was finally picked up. “I was having to do the money at night. There were certain ways they wanted it done, and sometimes I found it very difficult. I realised then there was something wrong.”
So, by now beyond her mid 20s, she was seen by educational psychologist David McLoughlin and told, yes, she was dyslexic.
How did that make her feel?
“It was very tough at first,” says Anna, who was born in 1964 and spent almost all her childhood in Suffolk ? from the age of 10, at the family home on the edge of Ipswich Golf Club, at Purdis Heath.
“I suppose I wished it had been picked up earlier, because it would have made such a difference; but because of the era, they didn’t. But apart from that, I’ve moved forward.”
And then there’s Smokey.
Smokey the white Welsh Mountain pony had come to live at a riding school in East Anglia. That’s where Anna’s sister Helen met him in the late 1970s, when she was just eight. When the riding school closed down, the family bought him… without first consulting dad John!
It turned out the pony thought he was human. Smokey would knock on the back door with his hooves, push down the handle with his nose, walk into the kitchen and eat a slice of toast at the breakfast table.
He’d definitely come in for Christmas dinner. There was no way he was going to miss his favourite: Christmas pudding.
He’d also get a bit angsty if everyone was wearing sunglasses on a bright day… and walk around happily once he was given his own pair. It was a similar story with hats.
His devoted pal was Portia, a cheeseball-loving white Persian Cat. She joined the household when she was four years old. “The moment she met Smokey, it was almost as if God had arrived!” says Anna.
Dog Balou, a Hungarian Vischler, was a later arrival. During the sisters’ childhood, and beyond, the trio were a kind of animal Three Musketeers.
For Anna, Smokey was a truly sensitive and special pony who helped her overcome the challenges posed by her (then undiagnosed) specific learning difficulties.
“Smokey helped me and nudged me. When I was working, writing or reading, he kept pushing me, as if to say ‘No, you’re not going to give up. Just keep going.’
“He was a remarkable horse. He really was.” She says he helped many children over the years – neighbours, and other youngsters who came to the house to see him. “Children related to him, even if they had difficulties. He could always make them smile if they were upset.” Later, during her time in London, Anna studied at the Hornsby International Dyslexia Centre. She spent time helping young children. “Because I was dyslexic, I could understand exactly where they were coming from.”
Anna remembers one lad at a big London school who was loath to wear his spectacles. Wouldn’t do it, in fact. She told him about Smokey wearing his sunglasses; showed pictures and played a recording. “If Smokey can wear glasses, why don’t you give it a try?”
The boy did. And kept them on. And the school later awarded the pony a gold star for his role in this triumph!
In 1997, Anna went to America for 12 years, living mainly in Buffalo, New York state – close to Niagara Falls. She travelled a lot in the country, developing an interest in photography, and also visited Canada and Australia.
The memories of Smokey, Portia and Balou always remained with her, though ? and strong. And things she saw were filed away in the back of her mind.
After returning to England in 2009, Anna’s done some more studying… and written stories inspired by those three animal friends and the material that’s been swirling around her head.
Smokey died about 12 years ago, aged 37 or so. “When he passed away, everything went incredibly quiet,” she says. “He was so loved.”
Including by Portia, who missed her friend and died about a year later.
“It was a very hard thing for everybody. It was like having a gaping hole, for the first couple of years. Smokey helped me. When things were wrong or difficult, he was always there and would nudge me. He never wavered. He’s here in spirit; and so is Portia.”
(Balou, by the way, is quite old but still very much part of the family. “He loves to dance to music. Mambo No. 5 is his favourite! He gets up and you have to hold his paws and dance with him.”)
So: Anna’s writing “developed when I came back. The ideas were there. Everybody said ‘You’ve got to write about this.’ And, in the end, I did. He was so incredible with children. If he knew you were upset about something, or in trouble, he was there.
“I wanted children to realise that although I had these specific learning difficulties, Smokey was always there to help; always my friend.”
So we have Smokey and the Disappearing Fish, Smokey and the Mystery of Rabbitina, and Smokey and the Secret of Christmas Magic.
As well as drawing on the characters of the real-life animals, Anna uses some of the knowledge and sights gleaned from her travels around the world. In one story, for instance, Portia is being pulled down Niagara Falls!
“These books are a tribute to Smokey. And Portia and Balou, too. Without them...”
At the heart of the adventures is the enduring power of friendship. “You have good days, you have bad days, but you remain solid. They had that sincerity.”
Another three books are already written and ready to go, once the time is deemed right.
Has it been easy to write the tales, bearing in mind her dyslexia?
Anna has people look at her writing – mum Rosemarie, perhaps sister Helen, and another lady – to check grammar and ensure everything’s shipshape.
“It’s been a lot of hard work. My family have been incredibly important and supportive throughout my life. It’s been a struggle, but there is something at the end of it.
“It” – the dyslexia – “was discovered very late, but I’ve moved forward with my life, and that’s what I’m always trying to do.”
It’s not just that single specific learning difficulty, either. Dyspraxia and dyscalculia – disruption in the way messages from the brain are transmitted to the body, affecting the ability to perform movements in a smooth, coordinated way; and difficulty in making arithmetical calculations – were diagnosed only in the past couple of years, via University Campus Suffolk. (She studied there for a Certificate in Education.)
“I have the full works!” smiles Anna, who lives in the Woodbridge area. “I found that difficult to adjust to, but I knew it wasn’t just dyslexia I was dealing with.”
Not that it was an invitation to wave the white flag. Most certainly not.
“You have to be determined, if you want to succeed in life. There have been many times when I could have thrown the towel in. Times I wanted to give up. But I didn’t. I had always wanted to write, and tell Smokey’s story.
“Even today, it’s still considered a little bit of a stigma, because many people still don’t quite understand. This is why I want my story to go out – so that it helps other children.
“I want them to realise that no matter how hard it is, you’ve just got to keep fighting for your dreams.”
Anna’s self-published books are available in softback and ebook formats from her website (www.altayler.co.uk) which also has details of the stories and characters.
Anna’s advice to children with specific learning difficulties such as hers is “Don’t give up, no matter how hard it is. Find someone who can help you.”
She remembers the great sense of relief when she was diagnosed. So, get tested, “and then people can advise you on what you need”. There are strategies that can help children learn, and specialists to assist.
“And your perception changes: ‘I’m not stupid…’ I’ve seen how difficult it can be for children, how frustrating, because they can completely switch off.”
When Anna was young, “it was very, very difficult, because people never really understood it. You see, hear and think very differently, and people don’t understand that. But what people do forget is that some of the cleverest people in the world do have difficulties.
“For instance, (Apple’s) Steve Jobs. I think he was autistic. You have Jackie Stewart, who is dyslexic. You have Richard Branson. Look how far he’s gone. Einstein. All these people who have done incredibly well with their lives, and it hasn’t stopped them.
“I look at the people who are dyslexic and I think I’m in a very good club!”
Through her own story, Anna hopes people will “understand that I might have those difficulties, but it’s not stopped me going around the world, or doing this. You learn to adapt.”
Going to live in London “was one of the biggest learning experiences for me. You learn to stand on your own two feet”.
Anna learned the colours of the Underground routes. “You develop a mind-map. So, living in Pimlico, it was ‘that road, and that connected to Victoria, and that went to...’ You have a certain way of learning.
“I do learn visually. Even when I’m driving, I’ll stick to a route because that’s the route I know. For me, reading a map is a nightmare!”