A Pony Does Santa's Reindeer One Better

December 13, 1993|By Sherry Joe | Sherry Joe,Staff Writer

She may be the holiday season's strangest elf: a shaggy, gray pony dressed in a Santa Claus hat and matching red velvet blanket.

Standing 3 feet tall and weighing 400 pounds, Ralf the pony lives at Misty Manor Farm in Ellicott City.

For the past 13 years, Judi Reinke, a Carroll County resident who owns the stables, has dressed one of her ponies in a Santa Claus outfit and sent the horse on visits to Baltimore-area nursing homes and hospitals.

Ralf, as the pony is known, also is the mascot of an emergency fund called Ralf Anonymous, which provides gifts, food, and clothing for the needy throughout the year. Since August of this year, the fund has raised about $5,000.

"Ralf really brings everybody together," said Brooke Slunt, a Columbia resident who boards horses at Misty Manor and helps handle Ralf when the pony visits nursing homes.

Ms. Reinke began taking the current pony's predecessor to inner-city nursing homes in 1980 to visit patients who were poor, had no families and were sometimes forgotten during the holidays.

"I want the ones that need us," Ms. Reinke said. "I go to the places where people wouldn't have a Christmas if it weren't for us."

The original Ralf died in 1991 of old age and was succeeded by a similar-looking pony, who Ms. Reinke chose for her calm disposition.

This year, Ralf is expected to visit about 3,000 people at institutions in Howard, Carroll and Baltimore counties and in Baltimore City.

They include places such as Grassroots, a homeless shelter and crisis intervention center in Columbia; Seton Hill Manor, a Baltimore nursing home where many patients are poor or have AIDS; and Springfield Hospital Center, a psychiatric hospital in Sykesville.

Last Thursday, Ralf and several volunteers visited the Baptist Home of Maryland in Owings Mills.

With Ms. Reinke at the pony's head and another volunteer at her tail, Ralf maneuvered around wheelchairs and stood quietly at hospital beds, while residents stroked her nose and patted her.

Gladys Piotrowski, an 86-year-old native of Washington, D.C., grew up with horses, but had never before seen anything like Ralf.

"It was quite an experience," Ms. Piotrowski said. "I've seen horses in the field and in the barn, but not inside" a building.

Resident Lenore Hooper said she looks forward to the pony's visits every year.

"He's been coming here so often, he's part of our lives," Ms. Hooper said.

Ms. Reinke said Ralf has a powerful effect on patients. She recalled a mute woman who suddenly began speaking upon seeing the tiny pony.

Debra Bartgis, activity director at Baptist Home, agreed that many residents enjoy Ralf's annual visits.

"The presence of any animal, particularly a large animal" stimulates the patients, Ms. Bartgis said.

Ralf also reminds some residents of their own childhoods when they owned ponies.

L "That's a very happy part of their lives," Ms. Bartgis said.

And for Ms. Reinke, the visits provide the joy of helping others.

"It makes it easier to sleep on Christmas Eve," she said.

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