BY ANN JAMIESON
Piccoli is a company born out of a mother’s need to help her son. Kimberly Rogers’ son, Dylan, had been born healthy, but always had an enlarged head. Kimberly was not concerned. “They did an ultrasound at birth and he had a healthy brain. We just thought he had a big head, like his Grandpa,” remembered Rogers.
The pediatrician measured his height, weight and head circumference at his regular well-baby checkups, but noted that Dylan’s head was getting bigger. When he was three years old, it was so big compared to his body that he couldn’t manage to keep his balance. “He would walk three steps and face plant,” Rogers recalled.
When a seizure sent him to the hospital, they discovered his brain was gradually being crushed by the pressure of a condition known as “gradual onset hydrocephalus.” He underwent several neurosurgeries to relieve the pressure.
Unfortunately, Dylan’s condition occurred during a crucial period for language learning, leaving him struggling to speak. In fact, a doctor told Kimberly, “English is a foreign language for him.”
“Are you kidding me?” she asked. Terrified, she worried that her son would never learn to talk. “For a mother there is no sweeter sound in all the world than the first time your child says mommy.”
Kimberly enrolled Dylan in every kind of therapy she thought would be helpful. A speech pathologist provided the first breakthrough. “The job of every child is to play. Language develops when children play,” she explained. As Dylan ran, jumped, skipped, swam, and climbed trees, he began to build a vocabulary. The family made frequent visits to the zoo, where Dylan could play and build sentences about the animals.
Kimberly wondered what more she could do to help her son. Technology was in its infancy 17 years ago when a computer arrived in Dylan’s pre-school classroom. Although she was excited by this new way of learning, Kimberly also knew Dylan needed to speak and engage in physical play, not stare at a screen. “I did not want him to just sit there, lost in the virtual world,” Rogers explained.
Remembering the speech pathologist’s advice, she worked with teachers to be sure that Dylan always spoke his words aloud while he played reading and math games on the computer. He took frequent breaks to do jumping jacks, hop in place or take deep breaths.
However, he needed more, and she knew his stuffed animal would be part of the solution. Dylan loved “Slippery,” his stuffed seal. Dylan held onto Slippery while he learned on the computer, providing the grounding he needed. “That little plush seal was the toy that tied it all together,” she fondly recalled.
Fast forward almost two decades later. Kimberly blended technology with a love for animals to create an app to introduce children to the fun of foreign languages. Through play by “acting” out the words for various animals, children learn little words in different languages. For instance, children learn the word “snake” as they slither and twist across the ground like a serpent.
All that was left to do was to find a modern-day Slippery, so Kimberly turned to Google. “Isn’t that what we all do?” she asked. “Everybody goes on Google when they hit a low.” She typed in “Most advanced animal communicators on planet” and what came up? Horses! Horses, it turns out, use more of their senses to communicate than any other mammal. She had found the perfect four-legged teacher.
To create this physical counterpart, Kimberly developed the first plush horse alongside a local seamstress, Stephanie Denney. The pair was extremely thorough, working through 27 prototypes before landing on the perfect equine partner.
There are two types of Piccoli plush horses: Classic and Racehorse. Both come with adoption certificates, names and a saddle. The horses are designed to stand up on their own, so kids (or adults) can walk them around on the ground and play with them. Under the saddle, the new owner will find a code, which can be entered into a website to learn the horse’s name.
There are also mini horses available. Their saddles are created from re-purposed fabric scraps that would otherwise end up in a landfill. New equine friends are in the pipeline for January 2020. While the app and the horses were designed to be used together, they can each stand alone. Many customers just buy the horse or only the app.
Piccoli horses are available for sale online and in select retailers across the United States. Kimberly holds a special spot in her heart for Tammy Hoehler of The Mole Hole in Somerset, Kentucky. She went into the gift shop initially to have some sample horses gift-wrapped. Though she hadn’t begun selling the horses yet, when Kimberly returned to pick up her samples, Tammy exclaimed that her son had to have one! So Kimberly sold her first Piccoli horse, and The Mole Hole has carried them ever since. Tammy’s enthusiasm and support for Piccoli were a great morale boost for Kimberly during the challenging early phase of the business.
The adorable horses are made of super soft, huggable material, and Rogers was amazed to discover how many have sold to adults, not just children. One tack store sold out of the horses, and the owner confessed, “I didn’t sell a single one to a kid!”
These days, Kimberly and her family don’t just have plush horses now – they also have real ones. At six, daughter Anna told her mother she wanted to learn to ride. Rogers said no, she knew nothing about horses. “I thought, they’re really big, and I’m not putting the most precious things in my life on one.”
Her husband Sean, on the other hand, had grown up on a ranch, learning to ride and rope.
Anna kept insisting that she wanted to learn to ride. Finally, Kimberly realized, “This may not be something I can extinguish. I may have to embrace this.” She threw herself into it with the same passion she later put into her business, volunteering at a farm in Alabama, so she could learn everything about horses. “I told myself ‘you may be afraid of horses, but you’re going to learn about them.’ I opened myself up to an adventure.”
Both Anna and Dylan learned to ride at the farm, El Gezira Riding Academy, where they were taught by Pam Abdulla. “She taught me and the kids everything we know about horses. She’s still their horse mom,” declared Kimberly.
When the family moved to Kentucky in 2007, Kimberly promised Anna that she could have “a real, live horse” in their new home. The whole family now rides. “I love horses in such a way that I just cannot imagine them not in my life,” she said.
In fact, with the kids heading off to college, her husband asked, “How long are we going to have these horses?”
“Till I die,” she answered simply.
Anna now rides on the equestrian team for Villanova University. Dylan, at 19, is exploring options for colleges that fit his learning needs. He is a very active, social teen, and he loves to ride. “He just went to horse camp. He loves it. He’s my little cowboy,” Kimberly laughed.
While the original motivation for creating Piccoli Horses and its complementing language app was to help children like Dylan learn language, it evolved into a different and larger mission: a fun app for all children to learn words in new languages. The app is available in English and French currently; Spanish and Chinese will be future additions.
Combining a super soft, squishy plush horse with an app was an intentional choice. Kimberly hopes that “plugged in” children today will learn that their phones and tablets are tools, but not friends. The Piccoli app gets children talking aloud, engaging and moving their bodies, but the horse is a classic, non-electronic toy – a tangible object to get kids off the computer, and grounded.
One of the most exciting sales for Rogers was when the Kentucky Derby Museum at the Churchill Downs Gift Shop purchased 200 horses and subsequently sold out. “That was a huge deal! We were jumping up and down, it’s the Derby!” Now, the horses are carried in stores in almost every state in the country.
“Looking back on all this, I didn’t know how to do any of it,” Kimberly said. “But I stayed focused on one child – my son – and it grew from there. It’s been an awesome adventure. I’ve grown from this in ways I never imagined and learned from everyone who came into my life.”