When a chocolate-colored horse clopped into an Anchorage second-grade classroom last month, students squealed in delight. But Gwendolyn wasn't there to entertain.
Gwendolyn, a 32-inch-tall, 250-pound miniature horse, joined Kristen Seiff's class at Winterberry Charter School in College Gate this year as a part-time helper. She is 7-year-old Zaiden Beattie's trained service animal.
Doctors diagnosed Zaiden at age 2 with ataxia-telangiectasia, or A-T. The rare genetic disease has shrunk his life expectancy and will progressively rob him of muscle control, but leave his personality intact.
"One day he could wake up and not be able to walk. It hits you in the stomach as a parent," said Lesley Zacharias, Zaiden's mother. She works at a stable and teaches riding lessons, among a host of other duties.
Gwendolyn's job is to remain steady and help Zaiden keep his balance, Zacharias said. As she tied Gwendolyn to Zaiden's wooden chair, a few of his classmates stood up to get a better look, their reactions ranging from "She's so cute!" to an onslaught of "awwwwws." One second-grader called out, "Oh my peanut butter!"
Zaiden, blond-haired and quick to smile, sat at his desk. He gave Gwendolyn a few gentle pats and nuzzled his face into her mane. The stout horse stood apparently unfazed, facing the front of the room and occasionally shutting her eyes. A handmade harness was fastened around her plump stomach.
Zacharias said she hasn't heard of any other miniature service horses in Alaska schools, but she can quickly list their benefits: they're more stable and live longer than service dogs. They also have a knack for remaining calm.
"Kids will come and ask me if she's real," she said.
The family's path to owning Gwendolyn started about four years ago.
'How to cram 80 years into 20'
In 2011, Zacharias noticed that Zaiden, her only child, always walked on his toes.
"I kept saying, 'Something's up. Something's up. Something's up,'" she said.
Doctors eventually diagnosed Zaiden with A-T, a disease that will likely put him in a wheelchair one day. About one in every 40,000 to 100,000 people worldwide has A-T, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
"I had to figure out how to cram 80 years into 20," Zacharias said. "He has to have a fantastic life — that's my only option."
Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Justice revised its regulations under the Americans with Disabilities Act and included miniature horses in its list of service animals.
Zaiden loves animals, so Zacharias took to the Internet to find him a miniature service horse. She had one goal: to have her son enter first grade with a horse instead of a walker. A horse could help build a community around him both inside and outside school, she said.
"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."
Zacharias found a miniature horse online named Gwendolyn with a price tag of $350. The horse had previously served as a therapy animal. The catch: Gwendolyn lived in Minnesota, was pregnant and was too big to fit in an airline crate.
It took an online fundraising campaign, the purchase of a cheap van at auction and a long road (and ferry) trip to get Gwendolyn to Anchorage. She gave birth in the garage and Zaiden grew up with the colt, Zoe.
At age 3, Zaiden started preschool at Russian Jack Elementary School with Zoe, his part-time service horse. Zoe wore sneakers, learned to turn on lights and could pick up pencils.
But eventually she grew too tall to serve as a miniature service horse. So her mother, Gwendolyn, had to step in.
The two horses currently live together in Zacharias' backyard.
Motor skills go, personality stays
Dr. Howard Lederman, the director of the A-T Clinical Center at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, said he had never heard of a miniature service horse before Zaiden's case, but for now Gwendolyn can help.
"It's a clever idea," he said. "That's going to work for a few years, but there's going to be a point where he can't stand even with support."
A-T, marked by the absence of a protein critical to repair cells, affects movement and weakens the immune system. It leads to the sudden decline in motor skills, which therapy cannot bring back, said Lederman, whose clinic treats patients from across the globe, including Zaiden.
Lederman said most of the center's patients over the age of 12 or 13 use a wheelchair. They typically live into their 20s and 30s. A-T brings with it other complications, including a likelihood of developing chronic lung infections and cancer. Between 30 and 40 percent of A-T patients will get cancer, Lederman said.
"That's an extraordinarily high risk of cancer in such young people," he said.
For now, A-T makes Zaiden a bit more wobbly because of a disconnect between what his brain tells his muscles to do and what they actually do.
"When we sit, we just sit down and our body stays still. When he sits, it's like sitting on a basketball," Zacharias said. "If he's running and he totally loses his focus on running, he'll bite it."
While A-T will take a lot away from Zaiden over time, Zacharias fiercely holds onto the idea that he will always have his positive, upbeat and kind personality.
"He's a bright, smiling kid. That's never going to go away," she said.
'Kind of extraordinary'
Zaiden made the switch from Russian Jack to Winterberry Charter School this fall.
The public charter school has a Waldorf-inspired curriculum, so one teacher stays with the same class as they go through the grades. Zacharias said she hopes this will allow Seiff, the teacher, to notice any small differences in Zaiden's abilities as the disease progresses.
On the recent Thursday that marked Gwendolyn's inaugural visit, students peppered Zacharias with their questions and thoughts about the horse:
"Can we ride her?"
"How old is she?"
"Does she need to eat lunch?"
"She's so, so pretty."
Zacharias told the students they cannot ride her because she must help Zaiden with balance; she's 7 years old; and she already had breakfast. She also told them they can't pet Gwendolyn while she wears her harness, but during recess she will take the horse out, undo her workwear and if the students behave during class, they can pet her.
Everyone then went back to writing their stories and Gwendolyn stood next to Zaiden's chair.
"He adores that horse," Zacharias said.
His teacher does, too.
Seiff said she has raised guide dogs and also started at Winterberry this fall after teaching in Bush Alaska and at a school in a disadvantaged neighborhood in Colorado. She feels lucky to have Zaiden and his horse in her class and expects all the students to benefit from Gwendolyn.
"We're a community and everyone is different and everyone has gifts and talents and everyone has problems," she said. "So Gwen is just going to fit right in."
Anchorage School District spokeswoman Heidi Embley said it's the district's legal responsibility to allow students with disabilities to have service animals. The students, their families and their doctors must establish the need, she said.
Gwendolyn will come into the classroom several times a month, accompanied by Zacharias, to get the class accustomed to her standing in the room. The horse wears a harness crafted by an REI seamstress so Zaiden can hold the handles and walk with her.
Eventually he will need her more than he does now. So her current jaunts into the classroom serve more as practice runs.
On her first day of second grade, Gwendolyn also prompted a lesson about how everyone poops after she had an accident in the back of the room. She has a bag to catch manure, but didn't have it on for her first quick trip.
"She hasn't ever done this before, but guess what? She's like any other animal," Seiff told the class. "It's a part of life, right?"
With that, the class finished up their stories and lined up for recess in their puffy jackets, winter hats and gloves.
Gwendolyn went to recess, too, and quickly found herself surrounded by students eager to braid ribbons into her mane. Zaiden stood nearby and talked with his classmates before zipping off for a game of tag.
When recess came to an end, Zacharias walked Gwendolyn out of school — the horse's hair braided with red and black ribbons that skirted the ground.
"I want Zaiden's life to be kind of extraordinary," she said.