What could be more precious than seeing a child read a book to a miniature horse or donkey dressed in fun outfits? It would have to be knowing that this simple activity could be a life-altering experience for the child.

When Terry Holmes-Stecyk started Tender Little Hearts in 2018, her goal was to provide emotional therapy and literacy programs with the help of her tiny equine friends.

“I’ve been around horses my whole life,” said Terry. “I’d been volunteering with another mini equine reading program, but the woman who ran it moved away. After she was gone, I saw the hole left and decided to form my own organization.”

Terry has four mini horses and two mini donkeys, and together they visit nursing homes, memory care centers, rehabilitation centers, schools, group foster homes, and libraries.


“The senior population desperately needs visits, not just for comfort, but also for therapy,” said Terry. “We often work with Occupational Therapists in their rehabilitation efforts.

“One woman had been in a car accident and had a serious brain injury. After our visit, her daughter contacted us to tell us her mother had always wanted to open a horse facility in California. The time she spent with our mini horses brought her so much happiness because it made her feel like she could be close to her dream again.”

For many patients in memory care, being around a horse triggers memories, transforms their demeanor, and brightens their day.

“In one memory care facility,” said Terry, “an elderly woman who used to have a ranch always thought these were her horses when we came in. She’d check them over and ask what we were doing to care for them, so we played along. One day, her grandkids visited, and she gave them grooming lessons with little hair brushes. She had a bonding experience with her grandkids she would never have been able to have otherwise.”


Tender Little Hearts

Terry is passionate about using her horses and donkeys to promote literacy among children. She pays close attention to statistics about reading, such as:

  • A child who is a poor reader at the end of First Grade has a 90% chance of being a poor reader at the end of Fourth Grade.
  • A child who hasn’t learned to read well by the end of Fourth Grade has a much higher chance of dropping out of High School and is statistically more likely to remain illiterate throughout life.
  • Nearly 70% of Fourth Graders in the U.S. read below grade level.

Armed with this information, Terry targets those young age groups with her program by taking her minis to schools, libraries, and group foster homes.

“It’s key to help kids feel safe, comfortable, and happy while reading,” Terry explains. “Many times during these programs, they’re sitting on a parent’s lap and reading books together. Then the child gets to read out loud to one of the horses or donkeys. And I just love it when the kids turn the books toward the minis to show them the pictures. It’s so sweet.”


Tender Little Hearts

Sometimes, these sessions with children turn into more than literacy sessions alone.

“One time, a young boy was not orally developed very well and couldn’t read well. His speech therapist told him about our program where he could read to miniature horses and asked if he wanted to try that. He got so excited that he practiced really hard to read out loud for two weeks before we arrived. On the day of the event, he read an entire page of a book to the horse, and he just lit up inside and had the biggest smile on his face.

“We often have no idea how we’ve impacted someone’s life,” continued Terry. “We see the smiles. We see them hold their forehead to the horse’s head in intimate connection, sometimes for up to five minutes straight.”


When Terry created her end-of-year report for 2022, she was surprised to see just how much impact Tender Little Hearts had.

“We’re usually out doing visits three days a week, sometimes more,” said Terry. “We only had two big events last year, and the rest were just our regular visits. But when I finished my report, I realized that we’d touched the lives of 5,000 people last year. That’s a lot for these little horses and donkeys.”


Many of her visits are to Fountain Hills. She works with the Fountain Hills Library, MorningStar Assisted Living, Fountain View Village, and their skilled nursing facility (now called Fountain Hills Post Acute.)

“I’m also planning to take the minis to Fountain Hills Elementary School this fall,” she said.


When Terry first started, she covered most of the costs from her own funds.

“Like most other things over the last few years, my costs for care and transportation have gone from about $2,500 a year per horse to about $3,500 a year. I’m so grateful to have received grants from the Fountain Hills Community Foundation and the Four Peaks Rotary Club. The Rotary Club invited me to speak to their members, and we’re discussing future donations for the program at the Elementary School.”

Terry also relies on donations from individuals and corporations to reach 5,000 people a year with therapy and literacy programs.

“One little boy loved his experience so much that he sent us some of his allowance money. That was so sweet, and I’ll never forget that,” she said.

Donations can be made through their website at TenderLittleHearts.org.