Miniature horses used to help children

Dec. 19, 2013 @ 01:18 PM

Pre-schoolers sat piled in the back of a tiny carriage at First United Methodist Church in Lenoir on Monday, pulled along by a miniature horse with bows in its mane and tail.

You could see the excitement jetting through the kids, ages 3 to 5, all students at Robbins Preschool, but you couldn’t see the story behind it — the story of an unusual gift.

The miniature horse, Dusty, was directed by her new owner, Denice LaPointe. Until recently, though, Dusty belonged to James and Brenda Church of Lenoir, who several years ago began using their miniatures to work with children, including kids with autism and other special needs. Being around the horses, who are only 2 or 3 feet tall, is an easy way for kids to get comfortable with animals, and often helps kids with special needs open up, James Church said.

“We were taking (the horses) around to our church, to Bible Schools and other things like that,” he said. “We just prayed the Lord would give us a mission for them.”

The Churches met LaPointe when she worked with autistic children at Granite Falls Elementary. James came out to the school and led wagon rides for the kids. He brought the horses out again the following summer, when LaPointe led a summer camp for children with autism.

The kids responded beautifully to the horses, LaPointe said. The interaction helped them to open up, and the animals seemed to know just how to respond.

Then, this July, James Church called LaPointe with a request. His health was deteriorating, as was his wife’s. He was looking for someone to take over two of his miniatures – and the mission that went along with them. Would she, he asked, know anyone who was interested?

LaPointe, who had worked with special-needs children for 16 years but had never worked with horses, said she’d do it.

Since then, LaPointe has been learning to guide, saddle and live alongside her two new miniature horses, Dusty and Trigger. The outing with Robbins Preschool on Monday was her first time using the horses to reach out to kids. LaPointe, who still substitutes in the Caldwell County Schools but no longer works full-time, hopes to get the horses out to other children in the county.

She has not yet had a chance with these horses to work with kids with autism and other special needs, but she looks forward to it because of house being around the miniatures improves those children's interaction, LaPointe said.

“I know what it does for the kids because I’ve seen it,” she said. “Just how the kids interacted, it was amazing. I don’t know what it is about the animals, but they have a way of relating to the kids.”

James Church remembers one autistic child at LaPointe’s summer camp who was deeply reserved. He held his head down most of the time and rarely made eye contact. But something about his interactions with the horses affected him.

“My wife and I were standing there talking, and he kind of walked up beside of my wife and tugged on her pants leg,” Church said. “She turned around and he held up his arms, wanted her to hold him. She picked him up, and Denice happened to see it and she said, ‘Look, look!’ He was looking at Brenda right in the face. You know, that’ll do something for your heart in a case like that.”  

Church is happy, he said, to know that the mission he and his wife started will continue.

LaPointe knows one day she’ll reach a point where she, too, will be unable to keep working with the horses. But that mission the Churches started won’t end there, she said.

“We’re going to pay it forward,” she said. “When I can’t do it anymore, then we can pass them down to someone else.”