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. Its 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.
Zaidens mother, Lesley Zacharias, a professional horse trainer, is teaching Zoe to help Zaiden walk steadily until the disease shackles him to a wheelchair.
He moves around a lot better and has more energy if hes got a hand on someone, either holding someones hand or a hand on something, Zacharias said. My personal goal is first grade with a pony instead of a walker.
The sturdy, 150-pound animal began making appearances in Zaidens preschool classroom in January. Early training began with socialization – exposure to crowds and loud noises such as the schools fire alarm. Now shes learning tasks.
Shes providing balance and mobility, and shes learning how to pick things up and eventually hand things to him, Zacharias said.
Most people with the disease are in a wheelchair by the age of 16. A-T also causes immune system problems and a high rate of cancer, and patients generally die in their 20s, according to the National Cancer Institute.
U.S. Department of Justice regulations that took effect in March 2011 recognized miniature horses as service animals under the Americans with Disabilities Act, and Zacharias became determined to find one to extend her sons mobility. Her partner, Joel Beattie, was skeptical, she said, but one by one, obstacles fell.
She couldnt find a baby horse but did locate a pregnant mare in Minnesota that had been used as a therapy horse for children with disabilities. Nine-year-old Gwendolyn was trucked to Washington then transported by ferry and van to Anchorage by Zacharias sister. Zoe was born in the familys garage in May.
Many people want to know whether Zoe is housebroken. The horse has defecated just twice inside the school.
The law gives Zaiden the right to walk with his horse into restaurants and stores, but Zacharias has been cautious about public appearances.
I want it to be appreciated, not just allowed, she said. I feel a heavy responsibility in being an advocate not just for my sons condition but also for miniature horses and for service animals.