The following is the first installment of the Alabama Power Foundation’s annual report, highlighting the people and groups spreading good across Alabama with the foundation’s support.
Finding a way to reach children with emotional, intellectual and physical disabilities requires a special talent, as each individual child responds differently to different methods.
But few approaches are as fascinating as the equine-assisted therapies offered by Storybook Farm.
The name, Storybook Farm, combines two of the passions of its founder, Dena Little: literature and horses. Little sold her successful bakery in Atlanta and moved her family to a 9-acre spread in Opelika in 2001. An English major and avid reader, she found the pastoral beauty of this part of Alabama inspirational, storybook-like. She sensed the magic in the countryside. “I wasn’t intending to start Storybook when I moved here. I just wanted a smaller community to raise my family. I came down here for a visit and just fell in love with the area.”
So, she moved her family, bought a trio of horses and made a home.
About a year later, while reading the magazine Practical Horseman, Little found herself intrigued by using horses in therapy for children. The therapeutic benefits of interacting with horses have been touted all the way back to classical times. As early as the 17th century, therapeutic riding was prescribed for gout, neurological disorders and low morale. With this in mind, it wasn’t long before Little put her passion for horses and literature together to create Storybook Farm.
In 2002, Storybook Farm opened with a barn, six stalls, three riders, 10 volunteers and three horses – Willy Wonka, Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer. At the time, the whole experiment felt like a short story. Turns out, it was only the prologue to a much bigger effort. “We grew exponentially fast,” Little said. “I had to make a decision whether I wanted to do this full time and commit. I felt like the Lord was leading me in this direction.”
Storybook grew so fast, Little had to sell the initial farm and move to what is now a 51-acre expanse with room to grow. And grow it has continued to do.
They began with a house and a 12-stall barn but have since added a three-stall barn, two riding areas and a horticultural area called the Secret Garden. The next addition? A 2-acre canine area called the Fox and Hound Playground.
At Fox and Hound, children will have six canine friends to entertain them, with names like Ann and Dan (from “Where the Red Fern Grows”), Professor Henry Higgins (from “Pygmalion”), Velvet Brown (from “National Velvet”) and Mr. Banks and Admiral Boone (from “Mary Poppins”).
The dogs will be part of a reading program in which kids read to the dogs. “There’s so much research that tells us that reading out loud is so beneficial, Little said. “And when you’re reading to the nonjudging dog, it’s a whole lot easier than reading for a teacher or your peers or something like that.”
Children who intensely feel the stress of fitting in – of being in a situation where they have to read to their peers or teacher, for example – are the ones who will most benefit from Fox and Hound.
For Tina Ledbetter’s daughter, Channing, it was all about the horse. Channing has a seizure disorder that caused her to develop more slowly than peers. Ledbetter searched high and low for an appropriate activity for Channing – something that would make the youngster feel more confident and accomplished. They tried dance, gymnastics, soccer – you name it – to no avail.
Then, Channing met Mrs. Potts, one of the horses at Storybook. “I thought, ‘This is something that is hers, that she can feel good about,” Ledbetter said of horseback riding. “It’s an extracurricular activity that will build her self esteem and also help her build strength.”
Little understands. “Everyone’s equal on the back of a horse,” she said. “It doesn’t matter what has brought you to Storybook. Now with three full-time staffers and scores of volunteers from Auburn University, Storybook serves some 1,500 children a year. Children with more than 140 different diagnoses have benefited from the therapeutic horse farm.
Moreover, all these children have enjoyed the experience free of charge. Thanks to the farm’s fundraising efforts and to organizations like the Alabama Power Foundation, the farm is able to serve its guests.
“Nothing is ever charged to any family, group, whatever, whoever is here,” Little said. “We just want to be here to serve and be a hopeful place for families.
After so much searching, Tina Ledbetter has found a therapy that’s finally helping her daughter. In fact, Channing is so enthralled with her horse, Mrs. Potts, that she keeps a picture of the gentle, dark bay mare, by her bed. The other day Channing Ledbetter was able to ride the horse for the first time. Her mother will tell you it was a magical experience. Like something right out of a storybook.