'Not only did that change Joshua's life, it changed Berry's life': How a boy, pony bonded
With a smile nearly as wide as his cowboy hat, 8-year-old Joshua Martin ambles into the Arcada Theater in St. Charles, where his movie, "A Pony And His Boy: The Story Of Berry & Josh," premieres Wednesday. His equine co-star stays home.
"Could we bring him in here?" Joshua asks his parents, Jason and Julie Martin. "I love Berry."
That wasn't always true.
"He had a very bad fear of animals," Julie Martin remembers. "Not just horses. Every animal."
She quit her job as an office manager to be a stay-at-home mom for Joshua, who was born with Down syndrome. Horses were always her thing.
"I grew up with horses," says Julie, a Wheaton native who competed in show jumping from age 10 until she turned 18. Away from horses for 15 years, she finally started riding again at Equestrian Events in Maple Park, bringing an unhappy Joshua with her.
"Joshua wanted nothing to do with going near the barns or near the horses," the mom says, recalling how he'd cry and fuss if he got close to the animals. "He was scared of Berry."
She looked for ways to keep Joshua entertained while she rode.
"He loves to clean and help out," she says. "I coaxed him into the barn. He would scoop poop out of the stalls if the horses weren't around. I started riding more and more."
She doesn't know what changed, but on May 25 last year, Joshua suddenly asked to ride Berry.
"We didn't give him a chance to change his mind," Julie says. "We scooped him up and sat him right on Berry."
Joshua rode bareback as Lisa Diersen, a longtime horse breeder and advocate from St. Charles, led Berry.
"This was just the oddest thing that he went ahead and let me put him up there. Magic," Diersen says.
"He did not want to get off that pony," Julie says. "Not only did that change Joshua's life, it changed Berry's life."
At age 28, Berry wasn't used to being ridden.
"He hadn't had anybody on his back in 15 years," Julie says. "He was as quiet as can be."
It was as if the pony sensed that moving slowly and being gentle would help Joshua, says Jason Martin, who added that he believes all horses can be therapeutic. Joshua is calmer and more focused when he's sitting atop Berry, too, the dad says.
"My horse is slow, a slowpoke," says Joshua, who rides Berry nearly every day.
The Joshua/Berry relationship tells a story, says Diersen, director and founder of the EQUUS Film Festival, a carefully curated selection of films featuring horses. Diersen produced the documentary, which is directed by Julianne Neal, a coordinator for visual and performing arts for a South Carolina school district. The movie has been selected to play at the National Down Syndrome Congress in June in Pittsburgh.
The film really is a love story between Joshua, Berry and the people who love them both.
"They know, and they just take care of Josh," Diersen says of Berry and the other horses.
The Martin family will see the film for the first time during Wednesday's event, which starts with a meet-and-greet at 6 p.m. before the movie. The theater also will show a selection of award-winning documentaries about therapeutic riding and healing horses from the EQUUS Film Festival last month in New York City. For tickets, visit arcadalive.com/event/equus-film-festival.
Julie Martin's horse, Havana, also has a special relationship with Joshua, the parents say.
"I feel it's because the horses speak to you," Julie says. "I think Joshua felt the peaceful feeling and the joy they give you."
A second-grader at Blackberry Creek Elementary School in Elburn, Joshua uses Berry as an educational aide. "He's very focused when he's on Berry," Jason Martin says, noting the boy does better with counting and his ABCs when he is in the saddle.
"We can see that horses have been helping him become more mature, more independent, more assertive, and I think that has to do with the relationship he has with Berry," Mario A. Contreras, the senior head horse-trainer at Medieval Times in Schaumburg, says in the film about his work with Joshua.
Joshua grooms and cleans up after Berry and other horses at Equestrian Events. When he rides Berry, the pony and the boy are one.
"It is," Julie says, "a gift."