Imagine a classroom full of young children, engaged in a storybook about a tiny hero: a miniature horse that has a best friend who is a dog, with markings just like them; or who is a member of the local police force and comforts people when they’re sad. And imagine the excitement when the hero from that picture book walks into their classroom. Yes, a horse in the classroom! And not only can they take home a copy of the book, but they can touch the horse, take a photo with the horse, and share the story with their friends and family. The first therapy program in the world to use miniature horses, 2023 is Gentle Carousel’s 26th year as a charity, and they have started the year with exciting news: Gentle Carousel’s Reading with Horses, a literacy program in partnership with the Marion County, Florida School District. While school board meetings can be contentious, the Marion County School Board voted unanimously “yeah” to bring the reading program to the schools. (Humorously, they joked about there being no “neighs” for the horse-related program.) Debbie Garcia-Bengochea is a bestselling author and award-winning commercial artist and photographer, as well as co-founder with her husband, Jorge, of Gentle Carousel Miniature Therapy Horses. “We’ve been doing reading programs for 26 years, in surrounding counties and even other states,” she said, “In this program, a number of different horses are involved and the main point of the program is bringing the books to life; a number of horses have had books written about them, and when the child reads the book, then the main character comes in. The main thing is that it’s been accepted by the school board, and there is a memorandum, so everything is covered by insurance.” Reading aloud to young children has been proven to improve literacy rates, and with more than 65 schools in Marion County, the area is fortunate to have this program available to its students. “Books are great, but when the horses are there too it’s a huge draw,” said Garcia-Bengachoa. “We have books coming out from different authors this summer; National Geographic is doing one, and we’re looking forward to introducing these in the classrooms.” She said, “It seems incongruous to imagine a horse walking into a classroom, but these horses are about the size of a large dog, and they receive two years of training before becoming part of the therapy program. They are “housebroken”, taught to place their hooves carefully when led so that children in wheelchairs can handle them, they use stairs and elevators, and are extremely gentle.” The Miniature Therapy Horses at Gentle Carousel have big jobs — both promoting literacy here in Ocala and helping heal those in need throughout the country. BY AMBER HEINTZBERGER | PHOTOS COURTESY OF GENTLE CAROUSEL OCALA HORSE PROPERTIES | SUMMER SEASON 2023 OCALAHORSEPROPERTIES.COM | 97 Therapy horse “Scout” with a large friend at the farrier’s farm.