Walter Farley believed in the power of imagination, and he felt children should be encouraged to make better use of their imaginative powers. Toward that end, he wrote several beginning-level readers and picture books intended to inspire younger children-including his own-to read. He also made frequent appearances at schools, libraries, and book fairs to promote reading.
Today this legacy is kept alive through the Black Stallion Literacy Project, a national initiative to teach youngsters to read using Black Stallion books and real-life experiences with horses. The pilot program has already involved 6,000 youngsters in the Fort Worth, Texas, and Reno, Nevada, areas.
"You just can't believe the hold these books have on kids-and how the thought of seeing a horse excites their imagination," says Mark Miller of Arabian Nights Dinner Attraction. Miller's Orlando, Florida, dinner theatre is co-sponsoring the project along with the Farley Family.
The concept of using horses to teach reading is supported by research showing that contact with animals and animal-themed educational activities improves children's capacity to learn. "One hypothesis suggests that the human brain is, in part, designed by evolutionary pressure to pay attention to animals and natural settings," says Aaron Katcher, MD, Associate Professor Emeritus of the University of Pennsylvania. "So contact with animals and learning about animals are favored forms of mental activities."
Here's how the literacy project works. First-grade classrooms in targeted schools receive posters and stand-up art depicting the Black Stallion-this whets the children's appetites. Then a horse is brought right to the school for the children to see. (The project relies mainly on local "Friend of the Black Stallion" farms to supply safe, gentle animals for this purpose.) Each child is then given a copy of Little Black, A Pony, Farley's first beginning-reader book. They understand that once they've read the book, they'll have their own one-on-one encounter with a horse.
After children complete the book, their hands-on experience occurs at one of the local participating horse farms. On completion of the farm visit, each child receives a certificate for a free copy of Little Black Goes to the Circus and other gifts.
"It's a win-win-win arrangement," notes Miller. "Children learn to read, schools receive help with one of their most important assignments, and breeders have the satisfaction of knowing they're helping to inspire another generation to love horses."
The project's goal is to teach one million children to read over the next 5 years. The pilot program is now complete; nationwide implementation during the 2000-2001 school year will reach about 40,000 children in 10 states. "After that," says Miller, "we hope to expand the project into all states."
In large cities and other areas with limited access to horse farms, the project is drawing on local mounted police, carriage horse operators, posse groups, and other equine units to provide children with hands-on experiences.
For more information on the Black Stallion Literacy Project, call (800) 553-6116 or log onto www.bslp.org/
This article originally appeared in Horse & Rider, February 2001.