Jefferson Samoum was in his classroom at John Muir Elementary School waiting for a special guest. A horse was coming to school today.
But the little fellow who walked through the door wasn't too big or too loud. TaterTot was just the right size to step up to Samoum and nuzzle his shaggy head against the child.
TaterTot is a miniature horse owned by Jennifer Sowers of Lodi. On Wednesday, he was dressed up for his visit to an extended education class in a red bandanna, with braids in his fluffy brown mane.
Samoum got up out of his chair and walked across the classroom, using TaterTot for balance.
"They're just a perfect size for someone in a wheelchair to get the full horse experience," said Sowers, who works as a paraeducator at Needham School for a severely handicapped class. "They're at eye level. The sensory experience is right there."
Sowers' two younger sons are a perfect example.
Tyler Sowers, 7, uses a wheelchair to get around. His brother, Elliot Sowers, 4, uses a walker. Each was born premature with a host of health problems that limit their mobility. But both boys can interact with the minis, and don't feel intimidated like they would with a full-sized horse.
Sowers has worked with Arabian horses since she was 12 years old, on the same land in Woodbridge where she now keeps her own small herd of four full-sized Arabians and two minis. The minis are mostly Arabian, but miniatures are bred more for size than type.
TaterTot is known for his golden brown coat and round belly. His brother Jersey is black with white spots.
They're kept in a separate pen from their full-sized counterparts. The bigger horses sometimes play too roughly. The little guys are tame enough to tag along on a lead line like a big dog.
Minis are easier to manage than full-size horses. They eat about a pound of hay each day, their tiny hooves don't require metal shoes, and they can exist pretty happily in a medium-sized pen or pasture. Some even go indoors to lay on the couch with their owners. Minis are known for their sweet tooth. Sowers gives them carrots or mint horse cookies when they do well.
A love of horses has stayed with Sowers through the years. When her daughter Ashlan Casalegno, now 21, was planning her Senior Project, the pair considered raising a mini as a therapy animal. Though that project never materialized, Sowers was able to purchase two minis last year and began planning a program to bring the horses into classrooms, care homes and hospitals.
Getting the district's approval took some paperwork. Liz Zastro, principal at Needham School, wrote up a statement on the educational benefits of therapy animals, and sent out letters to parents in case of allergies or horse fears.
"We also agreed to shovel anything we needed to shovel," said Zastro. She got the approval. There is now a district policy permitting therapy miniature horses in special education classrooms.
Minis are the "mane" event the moment they enter a classroom. And the kids love it. They've got big smiles as soon as the horses walk in. Every child wants to love on the horses and pet them.
The minis have different demeanor when they're working.
"It's like they know to be gentle and careful," she said.
Sowers recalled one woman in a care home who was sitting hunched over in her chair. Jersey walked right to her and laid his head in her lap.
Some patients have never petted a horse and don't know how.
A child might tug on a mini mane, or pat it too hard on the haunches. TaterTot takes it in stride. Once, he was even fed ice cream.
"The first time I took them to a bedroom at River Point, they just walked right in, with the oxygen machines and the recliner," she said. "They're fine indoors or outdoors, they can go up and down stairs. Getting them in elevators is next on my list."
In the classroom, minis are calm and curious. But back at home, they're just like full-sized horses.
Jersey leaned every which way from his post on the fence, trying to get his nose in the feed bucket Sowers held. TaterTot trotted around the big horses, but never too close to their hind legs.
Sowers grinned when she watched her pets roam around the yard, acting like dogs with hooves.
"I just wanted to share the experience of horses with these kids," she said. "Who possibly couldn't love a horse?"