Friday, December 25, 2009

Kids with disabilities bond with miniature horses

From The Arizona Daily Star. In the picture, Priscy Esparza, 5, pets Apollo the miniature horse as he munches grass while Rebecca Norton stands by at the Arizona State Schools for the Deaf and the Blind.

Tiny horses can teach big lessons.

That's what the organizers behind the nonprofit group Mini Miracles Inc. show the dozens of special-needs schoolchildren they visit throughout the year.

The northwest-side-based group travels each month to places such as the Arizona State Schools for the Deaf and the Blind, the Tucson Alliance for Autism and group foster homes to let the children there learn about and interact with two miniature horses and two miniature donkeys.

"A lot of it is educational. It's learning about horses and how to groom them," said Rebecca Norton, who founded Mini Miracles with one miniature horse about three years ago.

"But a lot of it is relating to them on more of an emotional level — respect for their space, boundaries, things that you would carry through in your life, in interacting with other people."

Horses and donkeys are prey animals, she said, so if they feel remotely threatened, their response is to flee.

Children must learn how to interact in a non-threatening manner.

During a typical visit, children learn a little bit about what it takes to take care of a horse, and they get to touch the horses and lead them around.

They get their pictures taken with the animals and then make a craft — usually a homemade picture frame, Norton said.

She has about 10 volunteers who help herd the children and keep things running smoothly.

Mini Miracles provides a wonderful complement to the Arizona State Schools for the Deaf and the Blind's work with Therapeutic Riding of Tucson, also known as TROT, said Carlene Jansa, an occupational and physical therapy aide at the school.

Each week for the last several years, the school, at 1200 W. Speedway, has taken eight deaf and eight blind students to TROT, where Norton also has volunteered for some time.

When Norton began Mini Miracles, Jansa said, it was a natural transition for the students to have a visit from the miniature animals between school semesters.
"Her program really dovetails nicely for us," she said. "Animal therapy in general, and kids and animals, is always just such a positive thing."

The visits promote literacy skills as the students learn new vocabulary, Jansa said, and those skills are furthered when some of them write thank-you notes to Mini Miracles for visiting.

Mini Miracles visited Tucson Alliance for Autism's summer camp four times this year, and the kids loved it, said Kim Crooks, executive director of TAFA.

"Every one of the children has a social and communication disorder," she said.
But working with the miniature animals helped them open up.

"For the ones that are nonverbal, they start communicating because they want to see the horse. They might start using words," she said. "It wasn't just about the little horses. It was about socializing with other people, too."

The Mini Miracles setup is similar to that of another nonprofit that uses miniature horses for educational and therapeutic purposes.

Little Hooves & Big Hearts has been around for about two years now, and earlier this year the organization opened a facility in Oracle that people can visit.

Little Hooves visits seniors as well as children and charges by the hour — about $250 to visit an outside place, or $50 for a family setting to visit the Oracle facility, which also features a nature path and picnic area.

"Usually we say it's just an hour, but we end up staying longer because everyone's having such fun," said Tammy Mockbee, executive director.

They've even visited bedridden children in their homes, she said.

Little Hooves has eight miniature horses and has worked with children coping with autism, blindness, deafness, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis and spina bifida.
The horses help children forget their struggles momentarily, Mockbee said.

"It makes them feel good. It also brings them very much into the present moment. Because that's where horses are."