By Britney Grover
Storybook Farm is well-named: Visiting is like walking into a fairytale. But the farm is much more than just a feel-good story. Thousands of children have had their lives enriched and their futures brightened by taking the Storybook journey — children struggling with anything from bereavement or terminal illness to all manner of physical, mental, emotional or social special needs.
Not only does the Secret Garden encourage curiosity and exploration, but also education and a sense of accomplishment. At the Fox and the Hound Playground, children can pet, play with and read to a pack of pups, building confidence and emotional support. The true heroes of Storybook Farm, though, can be found helping children learn, grow and heal whether it’s with a ride through Paddington Station Arena or as they stand quietly and listen. It’s the horses that are making dreams come true, granting wishes and adding the magic to Storybook Farm.
Once Upon a Time
Every tale has a beginning; Storybook’s begins with Dena Little and her avid horseman grandfather. “I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, right in the middle of the city in Buckhead,” Dena said. “At the age of 7, I didn’t understand why I couldn’t have a horse in the backyard.”
Her grandfather, with the help of Dena’s polo-playing, foxhunting cousin, first introduced Dena to the equestrian lifestyle she would cherish the rest of her life — and use to impact thousands of people. “My grandfather remained a tremendous support of my everyday life with horses,” she said. “He took me to the barn a bunch, he went to every horse show all over the country, he made sure my horses shined as much as my boots did. I was very close to him, and to share that connection was very special.”
Dena began showing pony hunters, and continued showing in the hunter ring through her junior years and as a young amateur. “It was my life — horses still are my life, fortunately,” she said. “I had no idea that I would end up doing something like Storybook at that point in my life, but it was such a grounded foundation not only in horsemanship but appreciating the horse. They instilled a lot of core values in me including work ethic and discipline, a lot of things that I feel are natural byproducts of growing up with horses and competing in the sport. You’re not taking care of a baseball glove; you’re taking care of a living, breathing animal. That connection, I think, is what inspired me to start this farm.”
Before she did, though, Dena pleased her concerned family with a “J-O-B” after completing her English degree: founding a wholesale and retail bakery in Atlanta. “I’m not particularly culinary, which sometimes surprises people,” Dena said, “but I really enjoy business and my whole family are entrepreneurs, so it was no big deal to try something new and there was a niche market in Atlanta at the time because there weren’t many private bakeries.”
She ran the bakery for 12 years, sold it during the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 and started a family. With no family left in Atlanta, Dena decided she wanted to raise her daughters outside a city environment. She discovered the small college community of Auburn, Alabama, fell in love and dove into her next adventure. “I can be spontaneous at times, so I sold my property in Atlanta and picked up and moved,” Dena said. “I had no conception of Storybook then; I just wanted to have my kids and my horses at the same place.”
Dena built a small barn on her nine acres and bought a couple of small ponies. “The next thing I knew, Storybook popped in my mind,” she said. “I thought it would be a great opportunity to invest in our community here, and to make a difference in children’s lives through the horses. At the time, it was 2002 and I really didn’t know what I was doing, starting this non-profit, or the impact and growth it would have. It has totally changed my life, and I believe the lives of thousands of other people in our community and surrounding areas.”
All of a Sudden…
It wasn’t long before Storybook’s waiting list far exceeded the capacity of Dena’s property. After a long search for a large piece of land unowned and unencumbered by pine trees, Storybook began its next chapter with 51 acres. Now, Storybook Farm has served over 10,000 individuals in 10 counties throughout Alabama and Georgia, supported by a constant stream of interns and volunteers from nearby Auburn University. They’ve helped children dealing with illness, bereavement, disability, emotional disorders, trauma and more.
“The horse is just a tremendous facilitator, meeting each child at their point of need whether it’s emotional, physical, intellectual or whatever,” Dena said. “Children keep coming back — it’s not a one-and-done where the family comes for a period of time and they move on. They’re welcomed back for as long as they like; some people started with us as children and are young adults that still participate. That’s wonderful, that we can fill such a gap.
“I really feel like we bridge that gap between hardship and hope,” she continued. “Our mission is to give childhoods back to children, and to enrich their lives through the majestic horse and all the wonderful things horses bring to the table. These children can connect with a horse without saying a word. Whether they can’t articulate what’s going on from having suffered abuse or witnessed a traumatic event or haven’t been nurtured and just need a little something, our horses step up and fill that need. It’s not something I’m creating, it’s just something God has built into this animal.”
Horses have come to Storybook Farm from being backyard ponies or A-circuit show horses and range from a 9-hand pony to a 17.2-hand Oldenburg. In addition to the 15 horses, Storybook is home to three miniature horses, two miniature donkeys, a goat, five dogs and seven cats — all of whom are named after literary characters, from Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson to Mr. Banks and Admiral Boom. “It’s exciting for the kids,” Dena said. “They love to get on Corduroy having just read Corduroy’s books.”
This year, Storybook plans to open Flat Stanley’s Sensory Trail with 15 activity stations, a tractor-pulled hayride dubbed Travels in the Hundred-Acre Wood and Storybook Tails, encouraging literacy and boosting esteem by having children read to Storybook’s canine residents. The biggest addition, however, will be the Papa Bear Horse Center: a new 10,000 square foot, 18-stall barn with three themed learning labs and a veterinary treatment suite to continue giving the animals the best possible care.
Happily Ever After
Now serving 1,500 kids each year, Dena hopes the Papa Bear Horse Center will enable them to expand toward 2,000 — and that means financial support is more important than ever, because those whose lives are enriched by Storybook are never charged a dime. “We don’t charge for the programming,” Dena said. “Whether it’s a family of one or they’re bringing five kids or it’s a school coming with 150 kids, there’s no charge for anything.”
Storybook relies on events such as the acclaimed annual Kentucky Derby Day party, entertaining 1,000 people on the farm itself to watch the live stream of the race, and Storybook Stakes, a virtual horse race featuring their very own horses. But what really keeps the pages of Storybook turning is the Cast of Characters: a group of people that support Storybook on a monthly basis and become part of the Storybook family.
When it comes to that family, horse people are imperative because they understand. “To non-horsey people, it’s sometimes hard to explain how a horse is going to change a childhood,” Dena said. “But for people like myself who have grown up with and benefited from and loved these animals, it’s a no-brainer. We understand it.”
While some Storybook horses have retired from stellar showing careers, others have not — but they each lend their own special magic to Storybook. “These animals are patient, gentle, relational and amazing friends to kids who really need it,” Dena expressed. “Our horses may not have turned my head while I was competing, but I believe wholeheartedly that they are worth every ounce in gold.”
For more information, visit hopeonhorseback.org/
Photos courtesy of Storybook Farm