Deaf students in New Mexico connect reading to horses
SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Liam Mohan-Litchfield twisted and manipulated his tiny hands, using sign language to read before a white miniature horse named Thor.
“I read a book about my shoes,” 7-year-old Liam signed to an interpreter.
He was one of eight students from the New Mexico School for the Deaf who traveled to My Little Horse Listener therapy facility in Los Cerrillos on Thursday to improve their reading skills while meeting a group of pint-sized equines.
“I just really want all of them to have positive experiences with reading,” their teacher, Kim Burkholder, said during an interview. “For the kids who are completely deaf, reading in English is their second language, and it’s a struggle for many of them. And so the more positive experiences they can have with reading, the better.”
Burkholder explained that the students’ conditions vary, with some being able to hear with the help of a hearing aid while others are completely deaf.
She said many of the students are also late language learners, meaning they didn’t learn to sign until later in their lives.
My Little Horse Listener is a nonprofit equine therapy organization that uses horses and other hoofed mammals to connect with people through activities that strengthen relationship-building skills.
It offers a few different types of services, from an overnight stay with their animals, to domestic violence recovery sessions, where victims learn to regain trust.
Liz Delfs, the organization’s founder and executive director, said she also works with families that have been torn apart by drug abuse, helping parents and children form new bonds.
Delfs said over 500 kids have taken part in the organization’s various programs, including some with hearing impairments. She soon realized deaf children were able to make connections with these animals that also rely on gestures to communicate.
“Horses kind of live in a nonverbal world, and they’re really dependent on hand signals and so forth,” Delf said during an interview. “It’s kind of fascinating how the horses and the children interact.
“The kids are just so excited when they see the horses, and it really is about the relationship the child forms with the horse. It actually showed us they were capable of doing so much more for people,” she added.
Delfs said the organization also teach what she likes to call “horse wisdom,” or lessons about the animals and how they can help people.
During the program, Delfs introduced the students to their four hoofed counselors: Serafina the miniature donkey, Mellie the mule, and the miniature horses Hot Dog and Thor.
She taught students, whose ages ranged from 6 to 8 years old, how to pet the equines and how they communicate with people without using words.
“They use their bodies to tell us what they want,” Delfs told the students. “It’s our job to always be looking at their bodies and trying to figure out what they want.”
She taught them how each of the animals has their own unique personality.
Thor is the leader of the herd, who always looks over his pals. Serafina is the gentlest of the bunch, while Mellie was a bit of a wild card with a penchant for chewing on paper. His handlers called Hot Dog the comedian, who was undoubtedly the favorite of the bunch.
“Hot Dog is so cute,” said 7-year-old Izzy Onstine.
Curious students asked questions about the animals, like “How much do they poop?”
“Eight times a day,” Delfs answered.
After reading their books, the young pupils gathered for snacks and drew pictures of their new equine friends.
Izzy said she plans to ask her parents to bring her back to My Little Horse Listener, even though she lives very far away.
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