Arizona ranks 41 in the nation when it comes to literacy, but if the miniature horses and donkeys from Tender Little Hearts Mini Tales have their way, literacy scores in Fountain Hills will soon be on the rise.

The minis are a popular site at the Fountain Hills Library where, according to founder Terry Holmes-Stecyk, their sole job is to make reading fun. And thanks to grants from organizations like the Fountain Hills Community Foundation, they can offer their services free of charge.

“Our impact is with those young, early readers in their developmental years to get them excited about reading,” she said. “Whether it’s a miniature horse or a friend, children learn more if play or something fun is associated with that learning activity.”

Tender Little Hearts Mini Tales’ horse-powered reading is a certified program. The kids play with the minis and groom them, then read to them, and often draw stories on their chalkboard blankets. When the kids get home, they can’t stop talking about their reading adventure.

Terry received her first miniature horses from a friend who gave her two minis to keep her retired trail horse company. As a life-long equestrian who was raised on a horse ranch in Prescott, she knew the therapeutic qualities animals provide and started volunteering for a nonprofit which used miniature horses as therapy animals.

“There was such a demand for this that I decided to try with my minis when she moved away,” Terry explained.

Tender Little Hearts Mini Tales incorporated in 2019, using online resources like Zoom to keep the program viable during the Pandemic. Today her nonprofit organization has four mini horses and two mini donkeys which average three visits a week to places like the Fountain Hills Library and elementary schools in the Valley. Additionally, the equine therapy program works with seniors and those with disabilities and makes frequent visits to MorningStar Senior Living and Fountain View Village. They are also scheduled to make an appearance at Flutter at the Fountain’s Family Day on Saturday, April 13.

Each equine is qualified as a therapy animal through the Miniature Equine Therapy Standards Association (METSA), American Miniature therapy Horse Organization (AMTHA), registered as therapy animals with Register My Service Animal, and are required to pass a skills and aptitude evaluation every two years. Volunteer handlers are trained to demonstrate best practices in handling and attend yearling training to refresh their handling skills.

“The reason I chose to do equine therapy with minis is because we work with seniors who often use a wheelchair and small children,” she explained. “Being eye-to-eye with an animal provides a more solid engagement.”

Terry allows six hours for each therapy visit, especially when travel is involved. The animals are groomed and then loaded for travel. Once onsite, they are dressed, and their specialty rubber shoes sanitized before entering the facility. Once the visit ends, they are undressed and loaded back onto the van for transport home.

“These horses can burn out and it’s one of the reasons we try to keep the visits reasonable (one hour),” she explained, noting the amount of energy they receive from the hundreds of hands that stroke them and arms that hug them during the visit. “They need water, snacks, and potty breaks. Our handlers are trained to recognize each animal’s needs.”

Terry said the care for each mini is surprisingly high, even though she doesn’t have boarding expenses. Costs are approximately $3,500 for each animal, which includes their feed, veterinary expenses, shoes, and other general care. Additional expenses include activity books ($5.50 each) which are given to each child during a school visit. And, of course, there are fuel costs, new tires, and oil changes for the transport van — all reasons she is grateful for the grants and donations she receives to keep the program going.

“We don’t actively charge for anything we do. My philosophy is that we don’t ever want someone to not benefit from the activities that we offer. Grants help us offer our services in that way,” she said. “One hundred percent of anything we receive is used in the program or to care for the minis. People know that if they give $50, $50 goes into the program.”