The first time Zaiden Beattie came to class with his service animal, his classmates were enthralled.
But this special animal isn’t a dog, as many would expect. His companion is actually a mini horse.
The 7-year-old was diagnosed with a rare genetic disorder at just 2 years old. Ataxia-telangiectasia, or A-T, is an inherited disease that attacks the nervous and immune systems, making the patient progressively unable to coordinate movements. Symptoms usually appear before age 5, and individuals experience difficulty walking, often needing a wheelchair by their teenage years. Unfortunately, this also means that the life expectancy of these individuals is greatly reduced, many only living until early adulthood.
Zaiden’s mini service horse, Gwendolyn, may look adorable, but she has an important role in his life: helping the little boy stay balanced by staying calm and steady.
Gwendolyn follows Zaiden to class several times a month, and stands protectively over him. At 32 inches tall and 250 pounds, she is the perfect companion for him: she is almost always calm and stable. And generally, horses are expected to live longer than dogs.
But Gwendolyn isn’t the little boy’s first service horse — he was previously paired with Zoe at 3 years old. Zoe knew how to turn on lights and pick up pencils, but when she got too big, she could no longer be his companion. Gwendolyn happens to be Zoe’s mother, and both horses live in Zaiden’s family’s backyard.
Zaiden isn’t the only child benefitting from Gwendolyn’s presence in the classroom: the other children are delighted with the mini horse, and even spend recess braiding her mane!
Despite his illness, Zaiden and his family try to remain positive. A-T is slowly taking away his ability to walk, but his upbeat personality remains unchanged.
“He’s a bright, smiling kid. That’s never going to go away,” his mother said.
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