By Deb Marsh

On a recent sunny Saturday morning, a handful of children were reading aloud—everything from fiction featuring a horse-loving protagonist to science fiction. What was remarkable is that each child was reading to a horse.

The Dumb Friends League’s Tales for Tails program started with cats at the Leslie A. Malone Center and grew to include dogs. The benefits of such a reading program to kids and shelter animals alike has been proven over time. Youngsters are encouraged to read to listeners who never correct or criticize, and nervous or frightened animals calm down when they hear peaceful, earnest young voices. But such collaborations are rare where equines are concerned.

Humane Education Manager Amanda Kludasch says it started with parents calling in to the League and asking, “Do you have a reading program with the horses? My daughter/son wants to read to a horse.” With a can-do attitude, Kludasch reached out to Harmony Equine Center Managers Taryn Hillman and Brent Winston to see if such a program might be feasible, and the equine version of Tales for Tails was born.

The first class was held in March 2021. Hour-long sessions are open to children in grades one through twelve. For a $15 fee, the kids start with a 20-minute PowerPoint presentation that introduces them to horsey body language. “What’s posture mean?” one small participant asks. An older child answers, and the instructor clarifies. Photographs of horses exhibiting different behavior help all ages understand the lesson. Then, it’s time to meet the animals.

Each child has brought a favorite book to share. Chairs are set up just outside the fence of several runs at the adoption barn. A few weanlings (young horses recently separated from their mothers) are among the chosen animals. They offer their readers an abundance of curiosity, while older animals often stood to be petted. A black mini horse was skittish at first but rewarded her patient reader by gradually allowing her face to be stroked.

One girl, Adrienne, runs down to an adult paint horse named Cleo, whom she had previously spotted on the adoption page of the website. After a petting session, she opens the classic “National Velvet”and begins to speak softly. “I’ve read a lot of horse books,” the soon-to-be fifth grader tells me. Her mother heard about the program when Adrienne’s teacher sent the link in an email of things to do over summer break. The family had adopted two cats from the League and knew about Harmony but had never visited before.

Addy is also going into fifth grade, but she preferred to read a book about aliens to Birdwell, an 8-month-old sorrel who sticks his head through the rails to get close. Addy’s mom found the program on the League’s Facebook page.

Petting and reading were intermingled throughout the session. Good manners by all ruled the day. Shy animals responded to slow moves as readers and horses gained confidence in each other. One participant made sure his horse was enjoying the book by holding it up for the horse to see the pictures.