Read With a Donkey program encourages kids to read with a nonjudgmental friend |

Read With a Donkey program encourages kids to read with a nonjudgmental friend

Upper Blue Elementary students Jaylin Ortiz, left, and Connor Nolt read to a miniature pony named X-aria at the Far View Horse Rescue in Fairplay in July.
Courtesy Lisa Ferguson

FRISCO — It takes a lot to get kids to enjoy reading these days. During the summer, it’s even more difficult. Too much to do, no time to sit and read — especially if nobody’s forcing you.

The reading void during summer concerns educators, as it creates what they call the dreaded “summer slump,” when reading skills get rusty. That can lead to students slipping an entire grade level in reading when school starts again in the fall.

A local teacher has taken an unusual, yet promising, approach to combat the summer slump by connecting her students’ love of animals with the love of reading. It’s called the Read With a Donkey program.

The idea was sparked when Upper Blue Elementary media teacher Lisa Ferguson read a book to her third- and fourth-grade students. The book, “Saving Winslow” by Sharon Creech, tells the touching story of a young boy and his friendship with a sick newborn donkey as he nurses it back to health.

Ferguson connected the donkey in the story to a real-life sick donkey named Molly, who was being cared for at Far View Horse Rescue, an equestrian rescue and rehabilitation nonprofit in Fairplay for which Ferguson serves on the board of directors. The 40-acre ranch helps injured, sick and abandoned horses and donkeys.

Ferguson said her students were deeply touched by the story in the book, and she was “overwhelmed” with requests to go meet Molly in person, which they eventually did. Ferguson thought they could do better than just meet a donkey. Why not get them to read to one?

Upper Blue Elementary student Jaylin Ortiz reads to Paquita, a donkey being cared for at the Far View Horse Rescue in Fairplay in July.
Courtesy of Lisa Ferguson

Shelters and rescues nationwide have been adopting these “read to animal” programs. The animals, locked up alone and without any human interaction most of the day, get to spend time with kids and improve their socializing skills with humans, making them more likely candidates for adoption.

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Learn more about Far View Horse Rescue at

For the kids, educators have seen improvement in reading confidence as they read aloud to an audience of one, an audience that won’t criticize or make fun of them for making mistakes.

A research study published in the Early Childhood Education Journal, titled “Effects of an Animal-Assisted Intervention on Reading Skills and Attitudes in Second Grade Students,” found that second-graders who read to animals had significantly improved academic attitudes toward reading compared with a control group.

Ferguson applied for a grant from Breckenridge Grand Vacations to support a new program at the Breckenridge Equestrian Center that would have kids read to animals.

Breckenridge Grand Vacations approved the grant and now pays the boarding fee to keep a donkey housed at the equestrian center. Molly, the donkey from Far View, is no longer sick but is still too weak to make the ride up to Breckenridge for kids to read to her.

Instead, the equestrian center has its new mini-burro, Taquita, taking Molly’s place as the quiet listener. Since the program was established, Ferguson has been taking four to five Upper Blue students to the equestrian center every Monday and Wednesday.

The students have also been taking the burro for walks and grooming her. In addition to sharpening their reading skills, interacting with the animal is teaching the kids about how to be responsible, be empathetic and to have a greater appreciation of animals.

“Bonding with an equine does so much good for both people and horses,” Ferguson said.

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