Tender Little Hearts: Scottsdale ranch connects community through equine therapy

By Jordan Houston

North Scottsdale nonprofit is tapping into the empathetic nature of miniature horses for the greater good, offering therapy and reading services for older adults and young children.

The Tender Little Hearts Mini Tales and Facilitated Equine Mini Therapy is an assisted equine therapy outreach program.

Founded in March 2019 by Terry Holmes-Stecyk, the organization provides assisted therapy for children and adults with special needs or developmental disabilities, as well as those in need of emotional relief therapy, such as homes serving abused or at-risk children, foster homes and centers, hospice, hospitals, skilled nursing care facilities, senior care centers, memory care facilities and more.

She encourages reading and literacy for children through her Mini Tales program.

All services are free and incorporate the use of a miniature therapy horse or donkey, qualified through the Miniature Equine Therapy Standards Association and American Miniature Therapy Horse Organization, according to Holmes-Stecyk.

“You can’t look at the interaction between humans and little horses and not know that there is some therapy going on there,” she says.

“Horses can hear a man’s heartbeat from 4 feet away. They are herd animals, so they sync with that man, and together you see the relaxation of the human, the relaxation of the mini horse, and the magical moments of this positive energy between the two.”

The organization strives to join the forces of miniature therapy teams with psychological and medical professionals through education and collaboration. Tender Little Hearts has won numerous awards, including the Daughters of the American Revolution Community Service Award and the winning spots for the National Society Daughters of the American Revolution Literacy Promotion Contest for the Southwestern Division and nationals.

She says miniature horses are excellent companion animals because they can “mirror and respond” to human behavior. As herd animals, “they rely on an acute stream of sensory data to sense safety or danger; they can also hear the human heartbeat within 4 feet, and research on heartrate variability indicates that horses have a profound ability to synchronize their own heartbeat with that of human beings.”

“Think of where a child’s eyes are or where a senior in wheelchair is. The mini horses are almost eye-to-eye with them,” explains Holmes-Stecyk, who is also a McDowell Sonoran Conservancy steward. “The eyes are the window to the soul, so you look into those big, beautiful eyes and melt.”

Therapists who incorporate herd animals into therapy can tap into the client’s inner psychology through the response of the horse, Holmes-Stecyk notes, considering that the animals respond within the same spectrum of physical and emotional response that are governing their behavior.

“We are providing that emotional connection,” she says. “We go to advocacy centers for children that have been abused in ways we can’t even imagine. You watch these kids and it’s like the world buzzes around them. They brush and braid their manes and talk to the horse, and we let those moments happen for the kids.”

Tender Little Hearts recently started using two chalk-fabric therapy vests, allowing children to write their thoughts and feelings on a vest worn by the horse.

“The children can write their stories on the horse and then it’s more fun than if they are just drawing on a piece of paper,” Holmes-Stecyk says. “They know that the therapist can’t keep that vest, so they feel more comfortable.”

For the literacy aspect, Tender Little Hearts offers several services to promote reading among young children through its Mini Tales.

The vertical seeks to bring reading opportunities to those who could benefit from the interaction with the therapy animals, Holmes-Stecyk explains. The program allows kids to read to the therapy animals or be read to by the founder near horses.

A virtual option, through the Giddy Up and Read program, is also available via the organization’s website. Parents and their children are given the option to listen to a selection of recorded books online and read along while watching the therapy animal through the screen.

“To those families that read to their children, statistically, it makes such an impact in child care and it helps them learn language and learn words,” Holmes-Stecyk says. “It’s such a basic thing to do but has such a significant impact on that toddler, and then they become young readers.

“Plus, for families, you now associate reading with something very good in your life, and that is a family bond.” 


Tender Little Hearts Mini Tales and Facilitated Equine Mini Therapy

13906 E. Montello Road, Scottsdale


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