Mirror for the pipsqueaks

Miniature horse shows the way for kids at the Ridge Meadows Child Development Centre

Julie Obodzinski

Julie Obodzinski

Three pre-kindergarten children sit cross-legged on a carpet wedge depicting other geometric shapes in the Gross Motor Room at the Ridge Meadows Child Development Centre.

Julie Obodzinski, physiotherapist for the group program, asks Kaytlin Baker, one of the students, to put out her hand flat like a plate.

“Thumb in,” Julie says.

That way it won’t get bitten off, she explains while placing a plastic apple on Kaytlin’s right palm.

“Perfect. Good.”

Soon, Kaytlin and the other two children, twins Ryder and Cruz Colgan, will, for the first time, meet Little Miss Breeze, a six-year-old, 60-centimetre-high miniature horse with dwarfism. The condition gives her a peanut-shell shape. She also has a wonky back, right hoof that turns in and is smaller than the others, forcing her to walk with a wider gait than most of her breed.

“And she’s a very good eater,” says Trish Salisbury, executive-director at the Maple Ridge centre, who got Breeze in April from Pipsqueak Paddocks in Yarrow.

She decided to develop a therapy program using Breeze to help children with developmental issues. The latter range from cognitive or physical challenges – just walking and talking – to cerebral palsy, Down syndrome or autism.

With Breeze, the children are able to groom and feed her – apples and carrots, mostly, and treats with a licorice scent – take her for walks, even read to her and play soccer. She’s the perfect size and allows them to express themselves without fear of being judged, as well as learn how their actions affect others around them, Trish says.

“She can be a mirror for how they are feeling, picking up on their emotions and giving them a visual for those.”

Just the physical contact, which can be difficult for some of the children, helps.

All that, Trish says, and Breeze just makes people smile.

“It’s calming for the kids.”

Wednesday, last week, was the start of the program.

Trish parks the horse trailer next to the lot at the back of the downtown building and waits with Breeze in the hallway, feeding her apple wedges, while Julie goes over some rules with the children, such as how to feed and walk her.

“When you are with Breeze, you have to go one at a time,” Julie says.

“We don’t want her to get confused who to take the food from.”

Julie grabs a small rubber pony toy and shows them how to pat Breeze.

Cruz is a bit heavy with his hand.

“What would happen if you did that to Breeze?” Julie asks.

“She might get scared.”

The children also perform some cognitive exercises, standing on red, yellow and green rubbery islands. They jump from one to another, then pass and bounce various balls, some softer, some harder, with two hands, then one, overhand and underhand, while calling out each other’s names.

“Julie,” saysKaytlin.

“Ryder,” says Julie.

“Cruz,” says Ryder.

They all jump down, then high-five Julie before lining up at the door, Kaytlin first. The boys, wearing matching tank tops, one green, one blue, argue over who is next in line and gets to walk Breeze before the other.

“Deep breath, guys,” says Julie. “We’re all going to get a turn.”

Cruz cries while walking down the hallway, lined with awards for the centre from the United Way for outstanding contributions to the community.

“Everything is a competition between those boys,” says their grandmother, Dorothy Hayden, who brought them this day.

Both boys were born premature, at 29 weeks and weighing around three pounds. Ryder wears plastic braces on his ankles to assist muscle development, which is why he attends the centre, to work on agility and balance. He is to meet with an orthopedic surgeon this month.

Cruz just keeps him company, says Dorothy.

Outside, Breeze is waiting with Trish on the grass under a white tent, to protect them from the sun.

Kaytlin, who has a developmental delay, is timid at first, patting Breeze’s chestnut-brown coat while the twins wait their turns.

Cruz is next. He walks forward a bit, but then stops, unsure.

Ryder walks around Cruz and behind Breeze, then pats her.

Then Cruz wants a turn.

Next, they move to the parking lot. Kaytlin, holding the lead straight like she was shown, walks Breeze with Trish from one end of the lot and back, a pursed smile on her face as she looks up at her mother.

“She couldn’t sleep last night she was so excited,” says Bev Baker. “In the morning, she said. ‘Let’s go see Breeze.’ I said, ‘We have to eat breakfast first.’ ”

Meanwhile, Ryder and Cruz discuss who will go next. Julie gets them to do rock, paper, scissors to decide. Cruz wins, on the second try.  He takes the lead from Kaytlin and holds it straight.

“Walk on. Tell him to walk on,” Trish says.

They walk there and back.

“Excellent job, Cruz,” Trish says as he hands the lead to Ryder.

Cruz jumps up and down with both feet.

“Here we go, here we go,” Trish says to Ryder.

He wants to run, and Breeze starts to trot.

“There, OK,” says Trish.

Kaytlin, Cruz and Ryder take turns brushing Breeze. The brush is purple and decorated with rhinestones in the shape of a heart.

Julie explains to them that Breeze is learning to play soccer.

Ryder asks how?

Julie motions to a large inflated beach ball over by the tent and says Breeze runs after it, nudging it with her nose.

“Who wants to walk her one more time?” Julie asks.

All three raise their hands.

“Me.” “Me.” “Me.”

Ryder goes first this time.

Cruz runs in circles, waiting his turn.

Dorothy takes a picture with her phone, as does Bev, when Kaytlin goes again.

“So cute,” says a passerby.

Next, they feed Breeze apple wedges from a blue bowl.

Cruz accidentally drops it. Breeze eats the apples that fall on the ground.

“Hold it tight,” says Julie.

He does.

“Perfect. That was perfect,” Trish says to Cruz.

Julie holds Kaytlin’s hand as she feeds Breeze a licorice treat.

“I want to try one,” says Ryder.

Cruz runs to grab the beach ball as the wind blows it away.

“You’re done,” Trish says to Breeze.

Kaytlin is bouncing, pulling on the front of her mom’s shirt.

“You like her don’t you,” Bev says.

Kaytlin pats Breeze some more.

Then the kids go back to the grass to form a “goodbye circle.”

They sit, hold hands and sing a song.

“Goodbye, Cruz. Goodbye, Cruz. Goodbye, Cruz, we’re glad you came today.”

The song repeats the same pattern twice more.

They wave.

Then they blow bubbles.

Cruz finds the beach ball again and starts kicking it back and forth with Ryder.

Breeze, meanwhile, is a few feet away, head down, eating grass.