A New (and Surprising) Service Animal for Boy with Ataxia-Telangiectasia

January 1, 2016

A second-grade classroom in Alaska has a very unique teacher’s aide: a 250-pound miniature horse.

Gwendolyn, a 32-inch-tall service horse, currently stands alongside student Zaiden Beattie part-time at Winterberry Charter School in College Gate, Alaska.

Like a more common service dog, Gwendolyn stays at Zaiden’s side to get through everyday tasks. The seven-year-old has a rare disease called ataxia-telangiectasia, a neurodegenerative disease he’s had since birth.

As Zaiden’s condition slowly worsens with age — it can cause him to lose muscular funtion and coordination as his cerebellum is affected — Gwendolyn will be at his side to help him if he stumbles.

As an added benefit, the mini horse serves to keep the children in Kristen Seiff’s class at Winterberry Charter School in line, the Alaska Dispatch News reports. 

Gwendolyn showed up for the first time last Thursday much to the shock and excitement of the students.

“Kids will come and ask me if she’s real,” Lesley Zacharias, Zaiden’s mother, told ADN.

Students at Winterberry will progress through the grades together and keep Seiff as their teacher because of the school’s unique curriculum style.

So, Seiff said, they’ll have no choice but to get used to Gwendolyn as she joins them more and more each day in the classroom and at the playground.

“We’re a community and everyone is different and everyone has gifts and talents and everyone has problems,” Seiff said. “So Gwen is just going to fit right in.”

Doctors diagnosed Zaiden when he was just two years old. Zacharias, who works with horses professionally, said she had to figure out how cram 80 years into the 20 that doctors say her son has to live.

The family purchased Gwendolyn in Minnesota and brought her back, pregnant, in a cheap van they bought for the task.

Zaiden first had Gwendolyn’s colt, Zoe, as a service horse. However, Zoe grew too tall and Gwendolyn eventually took over. Now the two horses live together in Zacharias’ backyard.

“I think any parent with a kid with a terminal illness is going to do what they can to make their (child’s) life as great as they possibly can,” she said. “And this is in my wheelhouse. So that’s kind of why I went down this road.”

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