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A real black stallion inspires reading

Rafiq, an elegant, pure black Arabian stallion, and Rowdy, a less elegant but much cuter miniature black pony, are about to embark on a literacy project.

The Kentucky Horse Park stablemates don't really know much about it yet, because, while superlative in many ways, neither horse, in fact, knows how to read. Their jobs will be to pose for the camera, at which they're both excellent, turn their liquid eyes on small children, also good, and hold still while they're patted.

Starting in March, the Horse Park and some of its horses are joining forces with The Black Stallion Literacy Project to promote reading in area schools with the help of Walter Farley's two most popular books, The Black Stallion and Little Black, A Pony.

"We want to use these horses to help inspire kids to read," said Tim Farley, Walter Farley's son, as he patted Rowdy, who looks a lot like Little Black, one of Farley's most beloved characters. "Once the kids start reading these books, it's easy to get them to finish."

Tim Farley started the literacy program 10 years ago, and it has grown to reach some 400,000 kids around the country, according to the project's Web site. (Farley's own boyhood was the model for Little Black, a little black pony always trying to keep up with Big Red, as Tim Farley tried to keep up with his brother, Steve.)

The program works with first- and fourth-graders. First-graders in participating schools get a copy of Little Black, A Pony, first published in 1964. Rowdy will accompany his human friends to help deliver the books to about 10,000 children in Fayette and six adjoining counties, said Mollie Jameson, the program's volunteer coordinator.

Fourth graders will get a hard copy of The Black Stallion, the 1941 classic that, together with the sequels, has sold 100 million copies. The students will read the books at school.

Then the children will come to the Horse Park to meet Rafiq and Rowdy, read to them, and learn about taking care of horses.

In May, the fourth-graders will also get to come to the Horse Park to see Arabian Nights, a dramatic performance featuring a black stallion. The program also coincides with the opening of the new wing of the Horse Park museum dedicated to the Arabian horse, and a special Gift From the Desert exhibition on the breed in time for the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in the fall.

Generations of kids

Certainly, The Black Stallion has pleased generation after generation of girls and boys who weren't initially interested in horses.

With none of the heart-rending pathos of Anna Sewell's Black Beauty or the sentimental sweetness of Marguerite Henry's Misty of Chincoteague, Farley wrote in crisp, unsentimental prose about Alec, a plucky boy sailing home from India.

Alec admires the wild black stallion loaded onto his ship and later survives a ship wreck by grabbing the horse's rope. The Black pulls Alec onshore a desert island, where they help each other survive. Upon being rescued, they return home to New York to become champions of the race track.

The award-winning film produced by Francis Ford Coppola in 1979 didn't hurt the book's appeal, either.

Sabrina Reed, a language arts specialist with the Fayette County schools, said 15 elementary schools have already signed up for the project.

"This involves literature and students getting out into our community and being a part of the World Equestrian Games," Reed said. "The kids are really excited to get started reading and learning more about the Black Stallion.

The foundation provides the books and materials, including a variety of cross-curricular guides on subjects including science and social studies.

The rest of the program will cost the Horse Park about $10 per child, a total of $100,000 that Jameson is now trying to raise.

Farley said he likes to see how various children relate to the stories. Many relate to the theme of perseverance and the love between Alec and The Black. In largely African-American schools in Washington, D.C., Farley said, the students talked to him about The Black being taken away from his native land in ropes, but then breaking away and finding his freedom and his destiny.

"We know the effect that horses have on people, and it's not something that started 100 years ago, it's literally thousands of years old," Farley said.

Inspiration for reading

Horses are used as rehabilitation animals across the country, but using them to inspire reading is newer avenue, Farley said. As many libraries around the country have found with dogs, children are often more willing to read to a responsive, but non-judgmental being.

Horse Park spokeswoman Cindy Rullman said the program will not only help connect local children to the horses that surround them, but has a nice corollary for the horses as well. Both Rafiq and another black horse, Shazray Moonbeam, came from the Kentucky Equine Humane Center, the Nicholasville shelter. Rowdy was donated by a local man after he heard about the Black Stallion program.

"The horses get a home and they'll help the children learn how to read," Rullman said.

Farley tells a story about a group of students who came to a farm in Florida that was part of the program. When it was time to load up the buses, one of the students was missing. Farley and the teacher looked around the barn, and there was a little first-grader, reading Little Black Pony out loud to a pony in its stall. The teacher started crying.

"I was glad to find her, too," Farley recalled. "The teacher said, 'No you don't understand, she wasn't going to pass first grade because she couldn't read.'"