Horse helps with special needs at elementary school

David Sanderson Around the World, Horse Techniques & Careers

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ANCHORAGE, Alaska — A young miniature horse in sneakers is helping a 4-year-old special needs child at an Anchorage public elementary school.

Zoe, a black mare, is a service animal for preschooler Zaiden Beattie at Russian Jack Elementary School. It’s the only service horse in an Alaska school — and after multiple online searches, the only service horse Principal Elizabeth Hornbuckle could find at any school in the nation.

Zaiden is one of 300 children in the U.S. diagnosed with A-T, or ataxia-telangiectasia, a genetic disorder that progressively robs children of their ability to coordinate movement such as walking. Zaiden’s mother, Lesley Zacharias, a professional horse trainer, is teaching Zoe to help Zaiden walk steadily until the disease inevitably shackles him to a wheelchair.

“He moves around a lot better and has more energy if he’s got a hand on someone, either holding someone’s hand or a hand on something,” Zacharias said. “My personal goal is first grade with a pony instead of a walker.”

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The head of the 10-month-old horse only rises to an adult’s waist and is almost irresistible to touch, though training protocols call for her to be petted on the neck, not the face, and only when given permission. Zoe is calm but playful, eager to play or work, and lets her owners know it by nuzzling their hands.

The sturdy, 150-pound animal began making appearances in Zaiden’s preschool classroom in January. Early training began with socialization — exposure to crowds and loud noises such as the school’s fire alarm. Now she’s learning tasks.

“She’s providing balance and mobility, and she’s learning how to pick things up and eventually hand things to him,” Zacharias said.

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