Josh Martin recited the alphabet as he led the 28-year-old Shetland pony around the ring at the Equestrian Events Stables in Maple Park.
A year ago, the 8 1/2-year-old Josh, who has Down syndrome, was afraid of all animals. The budding friendship between the St. Charles boy and the pony is the subject of an award-winning documentary, “A Pony And His Boy: The Story of Berry and Josh.”
The documentary premiered at the Arcada Theatre in St. Charles earlier this year as part of the New York City-based EQUUS Film Festival. “A Pony And His Boy” has been selected to screen at the National Down Syndrome Congress in June.
No one is more surprised about the friendship between Berry and Josh than his mother, Julie Martin.
“It was less than a year ago that he got on Berry for the first time,” she said. “I just had to realize that it was going to be on his time. When he was ready, he would do it.”
She owns a Lusitano horse, Havana, which Josh will ride along with Berry. For a long time, Josh was hesitant about even being around horses, let alone getting on top of one.
“He would just stay as far away from the barn as possible, from the horses, from anything that had to do with them and he would just play in the sand or whatever,” she said. “And then slowly, he would get to where he would come up to the barn or he would walk past the barn, but he wouldn’t go in the barn. This was almost a year’s process. I kept coaxing him, saying, ‘Just pet Berry, just Berry. But he wouldn’t.’’’
In April 2018, Josh, who attends Blackberry Creek Elementary School in Elburn, petted Berry and gave him a kiss. But he still didn’t want to get on any of the horses, including Berry.
Then on May 25, 2018, they were walking with Lisa Diersen, the director and founder of the EQUUS Film Festival, when Josh said, ‘Me ride Berry.’’’
“I didn’t even give him a chance to think about it,” Julie Martin said. “I just scooped him up and sat him on Berry and he did not want to get off Berry. It’s been a bond ever since.”
Mario Contreras, head trainer at Medieval Times, a family dinner theater in Schaumburg featuring staged medieval-style games, sword-fighting and jousting, works with Josh and Berry.
“I want to be a knight,” Josh said. “It’s fun to ride Berry like a knight.”
Julie Martin has noticed many improvements in Josh since he started riding Berry.
“With riding, you are using your core muscles for balance,” she said. “The way you’re sitting and the way the horse actually moves you, it allows your core to strengthen. His speech has just been flourishing. He’s talking more and you’re able to understand more.”
His behavior also has improved, Julie Martin said, as a result of the added responsibilities he has in taking care of Berry. Some of those responsibilities include brushing him and helping put on his saddle.
In addition, Josh is less afraid of other animals these days.
“He actually goes up to dogs now,” Julie Martin said. “He’ll see a dog and want to go pet it. Where before, he would be literally trembling and crying and wanting to get away.”
Jason Martin, Josh’s father, also is amazed at the changes in Josh.
“To me, one of the neatest things has been watching Joshua in here riding Berry,” he said. “In a home atmosphere, trying to learn his ABCs and do his school work, it’s like an ADD thing going on. There’s a lot of distractions. But when we get him here and he gets on Berry, total focus comes into what he is doing.”
Diersen, who lives in St. Charles, is excited about the attention the documentary has been garnering.
“I just did a film festival in Sedona, Arizona,” she said. “People watch it and they walk out in tears. It’s a happy story, but it’s very emotional. It’s about giving horses and humans both a chance.”
As Julie Martin noted, Berry did not just help Josh, but Josh also helped Berry.
“Berry did not have a connection with anybody, other than the other horses maybe that he was outside with,” she said. “Now he has a purpose. He’s got a child on his back and he has a child loving him. It’s really a cool thing. It really is.”