Clutching his tiny black riding helmet tightly, Andy Karkotis squeals with delight. The 10-minute car trip to the stables seems like an eternity for this cute two-year-old, who babbles with excitement on the way to a weekly riding session with Henry, the special horse who has changed his life.
Eight weeks ago, Andy – who suffers from Charge syndrome, a genetic condition that causes a number of issues, including heart defects, stunted growth and deafness – couldn’t talk and could barely stand.
But since he started equine therapy, the cheeky Perth toddler’s progress has shocked his parents. Andy is small for his age and was born profoundly deaf, with no semi-circular canals in his ears. He’s also missing his natural balance.
“Before, Andy could not walk up one step in our house – he would crawl up them instead,” explains mum Wendy, 35, who has been her son’s shadow for more than two demanding years, catching his every tumble. “But after one session on the horse, he came home and scaled five to six steps unassisted. He was very excited and I could tell he was glad to have finally managed to do it.”
He now plays soccer at the weekends, his sign language has expanded to more than 100 gestures and he also has a vocabulary of around 20 words!
“Andy likes to ride the horse backwards, lifting up Henry’s saddle blanket and giving his backside a little pat,” says Wendy. “But he also loves to hug him while he’s sitting up there.”
Riding Henry helps mobilise Andy’s body, which activates his muscles and sensory system, helping him learn how to keep balanced.
“I’m so proud of him,” gushes Jo Blomquist, 40, Andy’s equine therapist. “The riding has just clicked something in his brain, forcing his body to develop new pathways to balance.”
Devoted Wendy and her partner Nektar haven’t had time to “fall in a heap” over Andy’s disabilities, but always hoped they could help him.
“Seeing him on this path to independence is such a relief for us,” she says.
A kiss and a couple of apples round out each riding session and, if Henry’s lucky, he gets a nibble of clover in the neighbouring paddock. “Andy and Henry are both cheeky and inquisitive, so they’re well matched,” says Wendy. “I feel so blessed.”