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Young readers at Myakka City Elementary bond with their four-legged 'Book Buddies'

On Tuesday, beneath the shade of the mossy oak trees in Myakka City, a group of young readers sat reading quietly to their “Book Buddies.”

“I was really scared the first time,” said Rory, a first-grade student. “The second and third time I was like ‘I can do this’, it’s fun!”

As she flipped the page, Winnie sneezed, and the little girl broke out in giggles.

Winnie is a miniature horse.

It’s the fourth time Libby Neily has brought her mini herd to Myakka City Elementary School.

Libby, founder and director of The Mindful Horse Program, was accompanied by three miniature horses and two human volunteers.

“It’s been amazing. The whole school is encouraging and creative in putting together programs like this to make learning fun,” said Libby. “It’s a chance to relax and practice reading for 10 minutes, then they get to interact with the mini (horse).”

She believes the connection between humans and horses is a magical one. It can lower blood pressure and lessen anxiety.

“They’re not judging. The horses don’t have an opinion whether you get the word right or not,” said Libby, “they’re just there to listen, and it takes that pressure off the child.”

This partnership is possible thanks to support from The TerraNova Equestrian Foundation, a non-profit organization.

“I see the change in both the horses and the kids because, for the first time, everything is new – they don’t know what to expect – and as the weeks progress, they get to know the horses’ personalities and we (volunteers) get to know the personalities of the kids,” Libby said.

Myakka City Elementary’s reading coach, Megan Hennessy-Seguin, agrees. She says the improvements aren’t just limited to reading, because the students are getting better at social skills too.

The minis, with their flower-adorned manes, are named Anna, Winnie, and Dolly – who shares something in common with her namesake, Dolly Parton – which is a love for literacy.

First-grader Penny was reading “There was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly” to Dolly, when she nestled her muzzle on the pages of the book.

The sweet horse was hoping for a gentle pat on the forehead, and her reading partner was happy to oblige.

“Dolly was funny,” Penny said, “she just started munching on stuff.”

In between readers and sometimes half-way through the pages of “Clifford the Dog” or “Pete the Cat”, the minis were grazing on a snack of oak leaves and grass, before hearing the next tale.

Eli, another first-grader, was paired up with Winnie and Ruby Tevis, Director of Communications and Marketing for TerraNova Equestrian Center.

The Myakka City event center hosts a variety of Olympic qualifying events; show jumping, dressage and more.

Its charitable foundation granted funds for the school’s literacy program.

“It’s a passion project for all of us at TerraNova,” said Ruby, “it’s my second time volunteering, and I’m blown away by the progress of the children I read with today, compared to our last visit.”

After reading “Venus: Super Hot,” Eli said that reading to the horses makes him want to read more.

Meanwhile, a little boy named Jackson reads a book about snakes to Anna and a volunteer, Olga Zarlenga.

“I think she likes snakes,” he said about Anna, after leaning in to give her a hug and say goodbye.

As the horses were led back to their trailer, a line of kindergarten students lined the playground fence nearby, whispering loudly, “I want to read to the horses, too.”

It may come sooner than they think.

“We’re really excited about the future,” said Ruby, “and how this program can grow with partnership from The Mindful Horse program.”

To learn more about The Mindful Horse Program, visit their website: and you can follow The TerraNova Equestrian Foundation on Facebook at

Myakka City Elementary partnered with both organizations for the Suncoast Campaign for Grade Level Reading – Remake Learning Days, a festival of free educational events for families.

Rock-a-Doodle Day is taking place from 11 a.m. until 2 p.m. this Saturday, April 20th.

There will be ponies, food, art projects, a fire truck, hands-on learning, outdoor fun and more!

Myakka City Elementary is located at 37205 Manatee Avenue, which is approximately 20 miles east of I-75 off State Road 70.

Click this link to view more about Suncoast Remake Learning Days: