Tiny Horses Big Impact

A Miniature Therapy Horse Named Scout and a Large Friend

The Miniature Therapy Horses at Gentle Carousel Miniature Horse Therapy have big jobs — both promoting literacy here in Ocala and helping heal those in need throughout the country.


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.”

Therapy horse Mercury at a literacy program at the library.

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.”

Garcia-Bengochea explained that when one of their volunteers, who are often retired education professionals, reads a story aloud and then the main character walks into a classroom, even the shy kids or tough kids or kids that think they’re too cool to pet a pony usually end up connecting to the animal in a genuine and heartfelt way.


“Kids think deeply, but they’re not given a lot of credit for that,” said Garcia-Bengochea “Our reading programs are based on positive stories – rather than anti-bullying, they’re pro kindness, if you will. One was about our dogs and horses and the theme was, ‘just because we’re different doesn’t mean we can’t be friends’. It’s really a one-of-a-kind program, it’s very novel and different.”

In addition to the reading program, some schools have implemented a program to encourage kindness, based on one of the books. Gentle Carousel has a miniature horse named Circus that has “leopard appaloosa” coloring, with spots like a dalmation dog. The book is called “Spots”, and in the story, every time a child does an act of kindness, like letting another child sit with them, a spot changes color. So by the end of the book, he’s all different colors. Now the school has a program where teachers hand out “spots” when kids are caught performing an act of kindness.

“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 – that has a huge impact.”


“Then we bring the horse in and we have washable, non-toxic paints and they use one finger to paint a spot on Circus and say something kind about a classmate or teacher, and then that person comes up and says something nice about another person. It’s pro-kindness. They’re bringing spots to school for the kids to give to each other, and I think it’s helping teachers who might not be recognized either. We have certificates with a picture of Circus on them that say, “You’ve been spotted being kind”, and if a child earns one they can take Circus for a walk.” (They have double lead lines so that an adult can assist the child).


While Ocala may be “the horse capitol of the world”, there are many children who live here who do not have access to horses. In addition to improving literacy, the program aims to connect children with horses and the equestrian community, potentially improving future employment prospects in the ever burgeoning equine industry.

Garcia-Bengochea said, “There are so many job opportunities in this area with horses. We’re mainly doing the elementary schools; even though it’s the horse capital of the world the vast majority of children here have never touched a horse. In addition to the reading program, it’s bringing horses to children who wouldn’t have that opportunity, and it’s such a horse community.”

The main idea is bringing the books to life as a former school principal, Garcia-Bengochea said, “I really love that! It can really change the way they think when they read. We’re also doing fundraising to leave books in all the schools, and some are already in local libraries, but we want kids to have access in the school libraries.”

She added, “The messages of the books are very positive. When you leave a classroom and you’ve got a photo of the kids with the horse and the books in their hand it’s very meaningful. Having horses in the schools is a wonderful introduction. They’re also planning on doing farm visits with high school kids; horses are a multi billion dollar industry and there are all kids of opportunities – be a vet, a farrier, an exercise rider – there’s all kind of care for horses and we’re part of that introduction. We’re doing Pre-K to 3rd Grade, though some schools are up to 5th grade.

She continued, “That’s also the most important time with reading; you go from learning to read to reading to learn, and kids who haven’t found the magic of books, that’s a difficult thing. We want to get them excited to read books, and if the character happens to be a horse walking through the door, all the better! Finances can be an issue for smaller libraries but they know when a horse comes to the library, people show up. It’s important to us to keep kids reading all summer long, and a lot of kids are getting their first library card because we’re bringing the horses in.”

She recounted that one young girl was amazed that she could take out books and movies at no cost from the library. “Children come to the library with parents, and we also talk to parents about the importance of reading to their kids every day. There are some parents who take this for granted, but others don’t realize the importance of taking 15 minutes every day to read to your child. If a child is not reading by 3rd grade their opportunities are diminished.”

The program also works with preschools, and she said that when a horse walks into a classroom, students give it their full attention – which is why they wait until after the book has been read to bring the horse in.

Garcia-Bengochea said that their volunteers also make the read-aloud sessions special. “All of our volunteers are retired teachers, and one is a reading specialist. Our only problem is the schools keep trying to hire them! But they’re good with kids and know how to keep someone’s attention. That’s a huge part of the program as well. It’s a really nice program, and I don’t think there’s anything like it anywhere else. It’s important what we’re doing with horses and education, and how important reading is.”


While the literacy program is making a huge impact, Gentle Carousel also does some tough but important work. The special bond between these miniature horses and humans is something that Gentle Carousel aims to share with people suffering from trauma, and the horses have visited survivors of well-known traumatic events including the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT; the shooting at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida where they comforted the Medical Examiners working on the incident; and the children of Tulsa, Oklahoma who were sheltered in an elementary school for days while their community was devastated by massive tornadoes.

Magic at Sandy Hook.

“Sandy Hook called us that night because they wanted their kids talking about minis, not monsters,” she said.


Ocala Horse Properties’ Matt Varney was a student at Columbine High School in Colorado when a school shooting took place there, and as a survivor of gun violence in schools he found the connection with Gentle Carousel and Newtown particularly relatable.

Varney said, “Personally I was moved by Gentle Carousel’s work with the Newtown Elementary School survivors. The horses were used to calm the survivors, who were young children, while they told police about what they had seen that day. The story of the horses helping these children through this traumatic experience undoubtedly moved me and showed what an impact therapy horses can have.”

One of the horses, Magic, works with the Ocala Police Department, visiting schools (officers also take part in the read-aloud programs), encouraging the 911 operators and helping people overcome trauma. One of the police officers recently lost their child, and Officer Magic will attend the funeral and provide comfort to the child’s classmates.


The miniature horses have been featured in numerous books, publications, television shows and documentaries, but Garcia-Bengochea said that all of this fame does not necessary bring fortune. As a non-profit, they provide their services free of charge to those in need, and with the high cost of feed and veterinary care, she said that they are really on a month-to-month budget. This includes maintaining the 12-acre farm in Ocala where the horses live, providing feed and veterinary care, and maintaining and running the customized horse box that transports the horses to schools, hospitals and other locations.

Therapy horse Magic at the Ronald McDonald House of North Central Florida. This is the program’s 17th year of working with kids at
this location.

Horses also visit patients in hospitals and hospices and she added, “A big part of the cost is the insurance; being in hospitals, and in schools, the horses carry two million dollar liability insurance, and then they wanted more. The school board was even tougher than the hospitals!”

As a charitable organization, Gentle Carousel does not charge for their services, and they do not have a steady stream of income. Instead, they rely on donations to keep the horses fed, housed and cared for.

“People think we’re really well-funded, but it’s really month-to-month,” she said “There are around 65 schools in Marion County, then the private schools, the pre-schools, and the libraries. What we’re taking on as a small charity is huge. We’ve done a little of everything; we did the premiere of the documentary about our horse Magic, at a theater, with a red carpet and everything. We’ve done different kinds of fundraisers but at this point, we’re really asking local businesses to help.”

She pointed out that having a well-educated community is good for business, and they hope that local members of the community recognize this and step forward to become literacy leaders. “There’s a link on the website so that businesses can contact us and my hope is that people say, hey, that’s something that we can get behind.”

Returning to the top of careers with horses, she said, “We would love to create a coloring book to pass out to kids highlighting careers with horses. Not everyone wants to go to college, and there are plenty of people here who started out mucking stalls and now they’re the CEO of horse businesses. It just takes funding. It was a two-year process to get school board approval, to get through the red tape and insurance and so on. I think for the Ocala horse community it could be something really special and unusual. Especially for kids who have never touched a horse, when a horse is in the classroom and you’re giving kids that kind of opportunity, it’s really special.”

Therapy horse Scout, who is a Junior Ranger with the Florida State Park Junior Rangers, with a fellow Junior Ranger. The State Parks offer a literacy program where people donate used children’s books and Scout gives them out to children.

Ocala Downtown Market

Every Thursday at 10 a.m., starting June 1st, 2023

Gentle Carousel also organizes a reading program at the Ocala Downtown Market, in a large, covered location. According to Garcia-Bengochea the crowds just build and build over the summer.

“Students come, camps bring group, and some assisted living programs bring seniors, who have the opportunity to spend time around children and families,” she said. “We have little stuffed horses – all one-of-a-kind handmade horses – that children were able to give to the seniors, so we’re reading a book about acts of kindness and the then the kids are able to perform an act of kindness right on the spot.”

The library program is in partnership with the Ocala Chamber of Economic Partnership, which has an equine initiative program to connect people who aren’t typically around horses with people in the equine industry. Every child who attends will receive a free, brand-new book each week.