03/29/07 — Pony pals for Janna

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Pony pals for Janna

By Lee Williams
Published in News on March 29, 2007 1:45 PM

Janna Sutton smiles as her mom scoops her up and places her on her new Shetland pony, Mitch.

The 2-year-old wiggles with excitement and lets out a little giggle as her parents guide the pony around the farmhouse.

But even though the trip is fun for the little girl, her parents know the ride benefits their child, who has Down syndrome.

"Some children need stimulation," said her dad Joe, 33. "It's therapy for Janna."

Janna was born with Down syndrome, a genetic condition that slows a child's development.

"A lot of children with Down syndrome have low muscle tone. Janna has mild low muscle tone," said her mother, A.J. "Riding really helps with strengthening the legs, hips and trunk."

So, her parents requested a pet from Personal Ponies, a non-profit agency that provides free UK Shetlands to special needs children.

"This will give her the opportunity to be more active," A.J. said.

About one in 800 to 1,000 babies is born with Down syndrome -- and about 350,000 people in the U.S. share the condition. Some children with Down syndrome suffer from mental retardation, heart defects and other complications.

Janna's parents got the ponies to help boost Janna's development.

After promising to provide a good home, green pasture, food and vet care, Personal Ponies granted their request. It wasn't long before two ponies, Mitch and Max, were at their doorstep.

Janna was 14 months old and was recovering from her second open heart surgery when the ponies arrived at their Wayne County home in June.

Her parents were thrilled when the ponies arrived, but, at first, Janna wasn't so sure.

"She didn't take much interest in them at first," her mother said. "She's warming up to the ponies now. She goes up to them and rubs their noses. I feel like she's really going to enjoy them."

Janna's mother said she is happy she received the ponies and she encourages other parents with special needs children to inquire about the program by visiting www.personalponies.org.

Experts say Shetland ponies are good with children. They are mild-mannered, gentle and short in stature, which makes them appealing to children, pony advocates say.

Marianne Alexander, the founder of Personal Ponies, recognized the effect UK Shetlands had on children, so she found a way to place them in the homes of special needs children, she said.

UK Shetland ponies were bred to haul coal from mines. Their short stature made them popular for the task.

Mrs. Alexander, 76, said Personal Ponies gives her a chance to save the animals that she adores and to help special needs children, too.

"It is the only program like this in the world," said Mrs. Alexander from her home in Hot Springs Village, Ark. "We are in a sense saving the mine ponies."

Mrs. Alexander said she also founded the project to honor her brother's unfulfilled wish.

"My brother always wanted a pony and never got one. He played with a harness strap and he called her 'Kate,'" Mrs. Alexander said. "I wanted to do this, so that little Janna and other special needs children can have a little pony to hug."

The Suttons agree children and Shetland ponies make great pals. They love how the ponies interact with Janna.

"They receive companionship because they form a bond with the ponies," A.J. said. "Children love to brush, pet and ride them."

As A.J. spoke, she lowered Janna to the ground. As the toddler approached, Mitch lowered his nose, and Janna stroked it.

The Suttons say Janna's life will be improved thanks to the two ponies. With the new additions, Janna gained two personal trainers -- and two friends, her parents say.