The man who brought the horse-drawn chariot out from the shadows of history has developed a version capable of safely carrying wheelchair-bound individuals across all kinds of terrain.
Simon Mulholland’s iBex further develops the concept of his original Saddlechariot, which revealed to the modern world just how much fun could be had with a chariot.
Mulholland, from Exeter, England, confesses that he does not have the confidence to ride. The need to exercise a family pony prompted him to develop his first Saddlechariot some 14 years ago.
The design is especially notable for a quick-release harness system which enables the chariot to be instantly separated from the pony should the animal bolt or get into bother.
Mulholland has transferred that same technology into the three-wheeled iBex, which he says can take wheelchair-bound individuals across soft sand, tidal mud, shingle, rock, scrub, heather, tussocky grassland, and even into the shallows on a beach.
“It can take wheelchair users to all those places that wheelchairs can’t reach,” he explains.
The iBex, he says, is without doubt a much safer option than a paraplegic being lifted on to a horse, as happens in para-equestrian disciplines.
Mulholland says he considers safety paramount and the iBex, which can be fitted with a Saddlechariot seat in just two minutes for able-bodied drivers, has been extensively tested under all conditions.
It has been designed to take any wheelchair, including the electric high-lift 160kg-plus monsters, even with a 120kg person on board.
Mulholland has even developed a remote-control system, enabling a supervisor to release the pony from the iBex should they consider it necessary.
He says the iBex has been warmly received by hospitals and special needs schools.
“The head of a university equitation science department, who drove the iBex from a wheelchair with her 4-year-old on her lap, said if I had built it at her university, I would have a PhD.”
He believes the iBex harks back to the days of what he calls working class horsemanship built on relationships.
“I want to make ponies accessible to all the people who love them,” he says.
Mulholland’s chariot development builds on the work of innovators from 5000 years ago.
As he points out, from 3000BC to 600BC, horse-pulled chariots held the land speed record. They were the Ferraris of their day. From 600BC to about 1830AD, the horse and rider held the land speed record until man-made machines began to exert their influence.
Why were the ancients so keen on chariots?
The main reason was the size of available equines. Your 16-hand thoroughbred was still a distant glint in the eye of a vertically challenged desert stallion.
The only choice facing early Sumerian charioteers was the onager, or wild ass, which stood at about 12 hands.
“Sumeria was a civilisation where all animals were too small to ride,” explains Mulholland.
The solution was not carriages, but chariots, which the Sumerians soon found were able to pull a man at speed with comfort.
“I never set out to build a chariot,” says Mulholland. “I just wanted a safe, simple vehicle designed for an adult to drive a small pony.”
His first three vehicles, some 14 years ago, looked dangerous, and so they proved. However, the fourth design made a quantum leap.
“I was cantering within 5 minutes, redesigning frantically as I went.
“I thought it was just a fun vehicle, but everyone who saw it said it was a chariot. So I started looking at chariot history and discovered I had, indeed, built a chariot – to be specific, a straddlecar used between 2800BC and 2300BC in Sumeria and Akkad.”
Mulholland went on to redesign the whole vehicle again from scratch to create the Saddlechariot. From there, he developed the iBex.
“The Saddlechariot is a pretty good all-purpose vehicle, safe, light, fun, easy to use,” he says. “It can haul a trailer and go at a flat gallop across country. But it wasn’t enough.
“I had built my first pony-drawn vehicle for people with disabilities back in 2001, and it kept coming back to haunt me. I had this vision of a pony-drawn vehicle that Christopher Reeve could have driven, after his accident, on his own, across country, from an iron lung.
“It is clear that the general opinion that I am nuts, has some foundation.
“As the Saddlechariot improved, I kept looking at use by people with disabilities, but however good the safety system had become, the instruction manual said, ‘If you are worried, step off and pull the pony release rope’.
“Telling Christopher Reeve to step off wasn’t an option.”
Mulholland began experimenting with three-wheeled designs, with mixed results at first.
“I fooled around with endless variations.
“I was being bullied by a friend in a wheelchair to produce a vehicle that could take her round Hyde Park, driving herself. So I started seriously building three-wheelers.
Development continued and another wheelchair-bound friend, Bex, after a test spin around a farm, declared how much she enjoyed it, noting that she had seen her first rabbit hole in nine years.
“Being in a wheelchair excludes you from things we consider so normal. It really scared me and persuaded me that I was doing the right thing.”
Bex gave her name to the iBex.
Development work by Mulholland included a 300km journey, with all manner of adventures, from Exeter to Hyde Park in what was still a prototype, sitting in a wheelchair. His pony, Obama, led the way.
“When I got to what I thought was Hyde Park, Obama was arrested for eating Royal grass. Unknown to me, half of the large green blob on London maps that I thought was Hyde Park, is Kensington Palace Gardens, and their grass is Royal.
“Five police officers arrived to deal with this heinous offence, and my defence that ‘at least he wasn’t smoking it, officer’ went down like a lead balloon.”
Back in Devon, the iBex underwent a transformation. “The London trip taught me loads. There is nothing like long-distance pony travel for showing you what you do and don’t know.”
The iBex got a complete new front end.
Blacksmith John Howson built the first iBex to Mulholland’s design.
“The next one he built to show that you can take my engineering, my wheelbase and track, floor area, steering etc and create something that looks cool, and works an awful lot better.
“The modern iBex looks good, and works brilliantly, thanks to John Howson’s design skills.
“At last I had my dream – a vehicle that will take anyone, anywhere, in total safety.”
Mulholland says the Saddlechariot instant pony release system on the three-wheeler is a total game changer.
“This can be done by simply pulling a rope, or by a remote control button, or both. If I am working at special needs schools, the driver will have an instant-release rope, the carer will also and I will as I lead the pony. I also have the remote control as a backup when working at special-needs schools.”
When Devon Contract Waste sponsored beach access for the International day for People with Disabilities, Sarah Piercey drove Obama pulling an iBex across tidal sand from Bigbury on Sea to Burgh Island, Mulholland said.
“There is no way to get a wheelchair across there, unless in a car, and not many people like driving on tidal sand.
“But Sarah drove herself, and then went on to explore the estuary. Sarah had the emergency release rope on her wrist so was completely safe, driving a pony, from a wheelchair, across the sands.
“I had the radio control release just in case, and so I could show off. It is easy to add any number of automatic release methods, based on excess speed, going outside a defined area, turning too tight or on too steep a slope.
“The minute the release is pulled the iBex is garden furniture, the brakes are on and it just sits there. It is like learning to sail with the option of stepping back on dry land at any time.”
Mulholland, a former zookeeper, salesman, cook, writer and tree surgeon, says he has learnt a lot about engineering along the way.
“I’m an inventor, he says, “but unless you are very lucky, it takes years to discover this fact.”
The original Saddlechariot has since been sold all over the world, with safety its key selling point. The iBex, like its predecessor, is built primarily from stainless steel and plastic.
“The basic essential was an exit strategy,” he explains. “Another plus is that it gives small ponies something to do as an alternative to getting fat, bored and laminitic.”
Both versions can be reconfigured for use with bigger horses by fitting new shafts, an extension tube and a different tie rod.
“It works on full-size horses, but was invented for and designed around small ponies. But if it gives an old and well-loved riding animal a few extra years of hacking around the lanes, or indeed a soft retirement for an old driving animal, then great.
“But it is the tiddlers I love, especially that magic moment when they light up and depart at a flat gallop.”
More information: www.ponyaccess.com