Reading to Rescues by Elizabeth Morrisey

Reading to Rescues
By Elizabeth Morrisey

Benefits are all around when local kids read books to rescued horses.

If children can read to dogs, why not treat horses to a book or two? Winter Haven’s Hope Equine Rescue has started a program in which children grades K-8 can bring their favorite book and have story time with a rescued horse. Reading with Rescues is on the 2nd and 4th Mondays of each month.

“I saw people reading to dogs and saw the benefits,” says Jennifer Leaman, director of the program. “We have seen the horses respond. We can tell it’s relaxing for them.”

Eighth-grader Annalyse Jones enjoyed reading “Mr. Lemoncello’s Great Library Race” to Vidalia, an 11-year-old paint mare. “I liked being with her,” she says. Her mom Crissy Grimsley says it’s a win-win for her daughter. “She loves to read and loves animals.”

Of course, horses can’t judge or correct a child’s reading skills, so it’s a safe environment for kids to read.

“It’s important for the animals to have exposure to positive reinforcement,” Leaman says. “Some haven’t been around kids. It’s not intrusive to them.”

Hope Equine Rescue, located at 3805 High Street in Winter Haven, has helped rehabilitate 201 horses since it opened 10 years ago. The average amount of horses being adopted to new homes each year is now about 40. Some have health problems when they arrive and may need vaccines, dental work and grooming.

One of their special horses and mascot for the farm is a 10-year-old mini horse named Winston. His owner lost her home and property, so she would tie him to her car and tried to take care of him. Unfortunately, he got loose in Lakeland’s Munn Park and she surrendered him.

“He’s friendly and cute,” says Leaman. “He’s just a nice little horse with a good personality.”

Leaman says Hope Equine works with other rescues to help horses find permanent homes. “By the kids coming in, they may be future horse owners. Getting them interested is vital to the horse industry,” she says.

Eve Wagoner, a Kindergartener, read her book “Dot and the Dog” to mini horse Charlie. She was excited because she recently rode two horses on a family trip, says her mom Meg Wagoner. “It’s great for them. It’s good for her to show off what she can read,” she says.

And being on a farm may be a brand new experience for some kids. Safety rules are always reviewed before children are allowed to read, such as using a quiet voice, walking, no food and no hands inside the stall. After the reading session, they are allowed to pet and groom a horse, get a picture and they receive a bookmark and sticker.

Hope Equine relies on volunteers and currently has more than 100 helpers. Kids from middle and high school can come help out and get volunteer hours. Leaman thinks kids are the best volunteers.

Erika Bass, 17, has been volunteering at Hope Equine for two years. “I’ve always been into horses and I was looking for a place to help,” she says. “After watching a horse come in who is sick, it’s nice to watch them get better every day.”

The Winter Haven homeschooler plans to help with Reading with Rescues and would like to start her own rescue and be a horse trainer one day.

Hope Equine only has two employees and the rest are volunteers. Todd Taylor, agriculture teacher at Stambaugh Middle School, has been encouraging his students to come help out and also read to the horses.

“Maybe they haven’t shown an interest in reading in class, so it gets them out here and gets them reading,” he says. “I love horses and I wanted to introduce the horses to feeling love from humans again.”

Children can bring their own books or borrow from Hope Equine Rescue’s library. Two sessions each 2nd and 4th Monday are available (6:30 to 7:30 p.m., and 7:30 to 8:30 p.m.) and is limited to 20 students per session. Donations of $5 are appreciated but not required.

For more information on Hope Equine and/or Reading with Rescues visit