Magical Learning with Paint Your Own Pony Kits

These are not easy times for art teachers, particularly at the elementary school level. Confronted with budget cuts that have all but eliminated art programs and positions, and advances in technology - computers, the internet, cell phones - that connect kids to worlds and information in ways that consume their attention, not much classroom time is left for activities that nurture creativity

This is why, when we learned that a small elementary school on the eastern edge of Tucson, Arizona, had ordered almost three dozen Paint Your Own Pony kits, we followed up with a phone call. Which explains how Karlynn Keyes, Former President of The Trail of Painted Ponies, and I came to visit Tanque Verde Elementary School one morning, where we met a progressive group of teachers and a lucky bunch of students, and discovered out how Painted Ponies were being integrated into a 4th grade curriculum.

The story behind our visit begins in the fall of 2009. Like a lot of schools, Tanque Verde has been forced to cut back on teacher salaries, and among the first to go had been a full-time art teacher. But recognizing the value of the arts to young students, one of the ways teachers had kept the arts alive was through a fundraiser. Each Christmas, students were encouraged to create a work of art, which would be applied to a T-shirt, a coffee mug, a magnet, that in turn would be sold at a fundraiser for the school.

Years ago, recalling a display of Painted Pony figurines in a local mall, and aware of the universal fascination kids have with horses, 4th grade teacher Barbara Zukowski decided to have each of her students do a freehand drawing of a horse, and color it with crayons or colored pencils, creating their own Painted Ponies on paper. She was surprised with the results. Not only was the fundraiser successful, she was struck by how many of her students genuinely immersed themselves in the assignment. Of course some kids did crazy things with color, but a surprising number of students who were usually reticent about expressing themselves, energetically dove into the project, put their imaginations to work, and took an ownership in the results she had not previously seen.

Being one of those teachers who is always alert to new learning modalities, and who is constantly looking for ways of connecting classroom topics to real world events, Barbara recognized that Painted Ponies had unique potential as teaching aids. So she asked a mom who was part of the volunteer Art Enrichment Committee, Jennifer Maxwell, to research The Trail of Painted Ponies more deeply. When Jennifer learned that students at other schools had engaged in Paint Your Own Pony projects utilizing Paint Your Own Pony kits, she helped put together a request to the school for enough money to purchase thirty-five Paint Your Own Pony kits. One for each of the twenty-five students in Barbara's 4th grade class, and ten more for a special philanthropic project. While on our website, Jennifer had noticed we had a philanthropic commitment and that on the list of different non-profit organizations we had supported were several horse rescue groups. Knowing that a growing problem in the Southwest was the abandonment and abuse of horses that people could no longer afford to keep because of the down economy, it occurred to her that Painted Ponies could also be used to teach kids about the importance of helping others less fortunate. She had added ten more kit Ponies and proposed that they be painted by the students and auctioned to help raise money for Heart of Tucson, a local horse rescue group.

It was an honor for Karlynn and myself to pay a visit to Tanque Verde: to meet these women who were doing such a fine job of preparing planetary citizens; to talk about the history of The Trail of Painted Ponies; and to give encouragement and tips to the students while they sketched designs on paper outlines they would later paint on kit Ponies.

And it was rewarding to hear the teachers talk about the different ways they felt Painted Ponies could be integrated into their curriculums: State, U.S. and World History. Geography. Science. Writing. I especially liked hearing Barbara Zukowski describe the big lesson that was learned. "I watched this one little girl struggle with her design. She was nervous about how it fared when compared to those of her classmates, so she kept it hidden. When the time came to paint one of the little ponies, she struggled again to get it right, painting it three or four times before she was finally happy. In the end, she was so proud. For me as a teacher it was wonderful to witness the evolution of her confidence. This was not something that had a right answer. It was something that demonstrated the value of starting a project that doesn't come easy, working hard, overcoming frustrations, and ultimately creating something that is uniquely your own. It's a lesson that has so many applications in life."

If you are interested in incorporating Paint Your Own Pony Kits into your school's art program, please contact us directly by email:, or phone: 1 (928) 308-6538.

Rod Barker
The Trail of Painted Ponies