The first time I saw Little Alf, I started laughing. I couldn’t help it. He was a tiny, hairy mess, standing in the middle of a flooded field, with a coat that was so tangled he looked like he belonged in a hippie rock band.
And then he started running around, with his stumpy legs sinking so deep into the turf that I could barely see them. I burst out: ‘Oh my God, he’s so cute!’
All Shetland ponies are cute, of course. But Little Alf’s cuteness was off the scale. I felt myself falling in love. He was so small — but I didn’t know yet what a gigantic personality he had.
When Hannah Russell first saw Little Alf in November 2012, she was 16 and struggling with her studies at Wensleydale College
‘Little Alf is high maintenance. He hates the wet and, if he’s left outside in the rain, he’ll sulk, give me a death stare and refuse to have his nose kissed,’ said Hannah
Since that day Little Alf has gathered thousands of fans online, starred in a series of books and wooed royalty. He’s a model and social media star. And he’s changed my life more than I could ever imagine.
That’s a big deal for a horse who stands just 28 in tall — the same height as a greyhound.
When I first saw him in November 2012 I was 16 and struggling with my studies. My classmates at Wensleydale College, close to the family farm where I lived with my parents and older brother in Yorkshire, were all friendly — but the life didn’t suit me at all. I wanted to be outside with my animals, not in a classroom.
And I had a lot of animals: three horses, two dogs, a lop-eared rabbit, three guinea pigs and a dwarf hamster called Twinkles. I’ve always preferred spending time with them. If I go out for the evening, it’s for a catch-up, not for the drinking — I would much rather be outside in the fresh air with my pets.
But having so many animals to care for comes at a price. They can be expensive and they are time-consuming. As I tried to settle in at college, I was aware that my parents felt I had enough pets . . . and in particular, enough horses.
So perhaps I should have walked away when Caroline, who ran a breeder’s yard down the lane, pulled up in a car at feeding time. ‘I need to rehome some of my horses,’ she began. ‘I’ve got a little Shetland who is six months old. He’s got dwarfism. I can’t breed from him — would you like him?’
Caroline lowered her hand to the ground, barely above the door handle, to show how small this horse was. I had to see for myself.
Little Alf, who has dwarfism, stands just 28 in tall — the same height as a greyhound
When I did, I couldn’t believe anyone would give away something so beautiful. But horse breeding can be harsh and a pony with a genetic problem is at serious risk. Even those without physical abnormality but suspected of carrying a rogue gene are likely to be culled.
So if Little Alf was going to live long enough to grow up, his best hope was to be rescued straight away. I couldn’t turn him down. On the other hand, I wasn’t sure how to tell my parents . . .
I collected him on Christmas Eve. My dad and brother John were going to a football match, and Mum was doing some last-minute shopping, so I knew I’d be able to sneak my ‘handbag horse’ into the field without being seen.
We transported him in the back of Caroline’s Land Rover with his head poking through the front seats like a dog.
When I introduced him to my other horses, the trouble started. He was swishing his head, putting on a show of bravado. His new companions were all geldings: they’d had the snip, and he hadn’t. Realising this, he had a sudden surge in confidence and started strutting around with his tail in the air.
‘Horse breeding can be harsh and a pony with a genetic problem is at serious risk. Even those without physical abnormality but suspected of carrying a rogue gene are likely to be culled,’ said Hannah, after she gave Alf a home
And no matter how hard I chased him, he would not be caught. I was amazed that such little legs could carry him so fast. I was even more amazed when he ran at the fence, skidded on to his knees and slid under the bottom rail.
After a long search, I found Little Alf standing on a path in the woods, looking ashamed. He knew how naughty he’d been.
On Christmas morning, I rushed out to see my horses. My parents suspected nothing. But I knew I’d have to confess before lunch. Everyone was so cheerful that I thought I might get away with it. When I announced that I had a special present, and that Mum and Dad would have to come to the stables to see, Dad laughed: ‘I hope it’s not another horse!’
Little Alf whinnied when they looked over the stable door and saw him. The noise came out somewhere between a grunt and a bray. At that moment I knew it was OK. Dad smiled and said: ‘I suppose we’ll welcome him into the family.’
Little Alf hadn’t touched his food or water, so I took him for a walk and he immediately started munching on grass. Then he pulled me over to a puddle and lapped the rainwater. He’d never eaten or drunk from a bowl before.
After a series of riding accidents, Hannah was told she had two worn discs, four broken ribs and two cracked vertebrae. The doctor said she had back trauma usual in someone three times her age and ordered her to stop sport for a year
That Christmas I was given a really smart camera, and I knew as soon as I opened it that I would use Little Alf as my model. I began posting photos of my tiny horse on social media. There was an immediate response. People just seemed to love Little Alf.
Other parts of my life weren’t going so well. I wasn’t enjoying college and, after a couple of riding falls, I had serious aches and pains. I was told I had two worn discs, four broken ribs and two cracked vertebrae. The doctor said I had back trauma usual in someone three times my age and ordered me to stop sport for a year.
Then he dropped the biggest bombshell. If I didn’t heal, I might never ride again. I couldn’t imagine never sitting in a saddle again. But the news put one thing into focus: I must not keep making myself miserable at college. The following Monday, I quit.
There was no time to feel sorry for myself. Little Alf demanded attention like an energetic toddler. He would pretend to get his head stuck in the fence just to get me to make a fuss of him. He’s still doing it today. When I take a wheelbarrow into the field, he’ll topple it over. If I turn my back, he tugs at my jacket with his teeth and growls.
He loves to do tricks. I’ve taught him to raise his head for a kiss on the nose — he won’t kiss anyone but me. His favourite foods are carrots, apples and marshmallows, which he licks off the top of my evening hot chocolate. He’s snuck into the house with me several times, but it always ends in disaster.
I’ve taught him to raise his head for a kiss on the nose — he won’t kiss anyone but me
Little Alf is high maintenance. He hates the wet and, if he’s left outside in the rain, he’ll sulk, give me a death stare and refuse to have his nose kissed. But he loves to roll around in muddy puddles — usually when he’s just been brushed.
As I was no longer able to ride, I decided I had to do something else with my energy. I knew from my social media feeds that thousands of people loved seeing photos of Little Alf. By now he had his own blog, too. So I decided to write a book about him — not his true story, but a fantasy for children.
I called it The Magical Adventure Of Little Alf: The Discovery Of The Wild Pony, and printed some copies through a self-publisher.
To my delight, people loved it. They bought more, and I wrote more, and before I knew what was happening I’d been invited to do a book signing — with Little Alf.
We arrived at the store before opening and I put Little Alf in a play pen that had been provided. As the crowds trooped in I took my eyes off my pony for a moment . . . and when I turned round he had somehow used his nose to nudge the pen across the shop.
He’d reached a display of horse treats and was tucking in. Worse was to follow. The treats gave Little Alf wind, and he wasn’t subtle about it. The whiff was bad, but the noise was too embarrassing for words. People were leaning out of the queue to see what was happening.
Hannah decided to write a book about Alf — not his true story, but a fantasy for children. She called it The Magical Adventure Of Little Alf: The Discovery Of The Wild Pony, and printed some copies through a self-publisher
Then one little girl put down her bag of sweets on the table, while I signed her book. A moment later, the sweets had been gobbled. I had to give her a book for free, to stop her from crying, and for the rest of the session two members of staff sat on either side of the pen to keep an eye on Alf. At another event, when the compere bent down and pretended to interview Little Alf, he bit the top off the microphone.
Not everyone is a fan. I don’t think the vet has forgiven Little Alf for pushing him into a pile of manure when he was supposed to be getting a flu injection. And the farrier hates doing his hooves. ‘We call him the Little Monster,’ he tells me.
He certainly has his naughty moments. But when he rests his head on my lap and looks up with love in his eyes, I know I can never really be cross with him. My Little Alf has taught a teenage girl who didn’t know what to do with her life how to seize the moment and make a success of herself. I think we were born for each other.
Adapted from Little Alf: The True Story Of A Pint-Sized Pony Who Found His Forever Home by Hannah Russell (Sphere, £7.99). To order a copy for £6.39 (20 per cent discount) visit www.mailbookshop.co.uk or call 0844 571 0640. P&p is free on orders over £15. Offer valid until October 7.