Annie, as her friends call her, has got to be one of the most unusual storytellers you’ll ever meet.
It’s not because she’s short and her hair’s a bit unkempt.
It’s because she’s a horse.
A miniature horse, to be exact.
As an official representative of Equine Learning and Literacy Advocates, Annie — also known as Little Sure Shot Annie — works with avid reader and equine photographer Theresa Fleming to bring children together with fading stories of the old West.
ELLA is a local nonprofit organization founded in 2010 by Fleming and her husband Bill after a 2008 fire ruined their 5-acre ranch, called Blessings Way, located near Parker.
“We used to purchase books out of our own pocket for the kids that came to visit our little horses,” Fleming said. “We always gave books to them on behalf of the horses until the fire destroyed our home and, of course, all the books.”
As the Flemings rebuilt, they decided to form a nonprofit organization as a mechanism to better organize funds and restore the collection of children’s books.
Combining a love of books, horses and history of the Old West, as well as a desire to encourage children to read, ELLA was born.
ELLA provides a home and creates a new purpose for the former unwanted miniatures by pairing the pint-sized ponies and donkeys with a book and character from the Old West.
The hooved storytellers travel to local schools, libraries and other educational events with a bag of books in tow, ready to charm children of all ages.
While the horses can’t actually talk, Fleming said just the novelty of their size creates a sense of interest and helps convey a story.
Asking kids to read a book to live horses can help them discover the excitement of reading and learning about history, she said.
“We had one little girl come visit us and Annie,” Fleming said. “And she didn’t really know the story of Annie Oakley, the famous sharpshooter who traveled with Buffalo Bill. After meeting Annie and reading the book, she went home and asked her parents to take her to the library, and now’s she’s quite the little expert on the subject.”
The smaller horses, according to Fleming, are more appealing to younger children.
“I think their size is not as intimidating as the larger horses, although the kids like to read to them, too.”
Fleming notes that while not all of the small-scale animals on her ranch — some 20 horses and four donkeys — are able make personal appearances at schools and libraries, each animal serves as a storyteller and book ambassador.
“Unfortunately, we have one mare that has been so severely abused she will never be able to leave and visit the kids in person,” she said. “But it’s our goal that all of the horses that live with us are at least able to give books.”
Fleming said that although many of their animals have come to them through rescue situations, ELLA is not a rescue, nor do they place the animals or arrange adoptions.
“We do keep a list of names and can help connect people looking to adopt, but all of our little horses are family,” she said. “They’re not going anywhere.”
Tours and visits are always welcome, but do require an appointment.
When asked if there was a legacy she hoped ELLA would leave, she said it would be simply to keep children engaged in reading and reading about history in particular.
“I’m a native Coloradan and I just feel so much of our Western history going away and torn down,” she said. “And kids just don’t seem to want to learn about Colorado history or about the history of the West, so hopefully ELLA can do that.”
How you can help
• Donate time, hay, books or money
• Volunteers are needed to help with grooming, fencing, building repairs and manure removal costs.
• Storage for books
For more information: