An unexplained stroke at the age of 3 left Kristen Hartlage, now 12, partially paralyzed. She had to relearn how to walk and talk and still has coordination issues. Through the years, she “got burned out on regular therapy,” says her mom, Teri. But ever since a shared love of horses led them to The Luci Center in Shelby County, the svelte pre-teen is using her weaker right hand better, has become stronger, and takes pride in her good horsemanship.
Situated on 122 rolling bluegrass acres, The Luci Center is one of more than 650 NARHA-certified (North American Riding for the Handicapped Association) facilities in North America and one of seven in Kentucky. In 1995 NARHA-certified instructor Paula Nieto, 38, began the program in Colorado as a memorial tribute to a beloved yellow Labrador retriever. Returning to her roots, the Lexington native moved back to the Bluegrass in 1998 onto then 80 of the current Center’s acres with four horses.
Today four instructors teach six-week sessions in the spring, summer, and fall, and individual classes in therapeutic riding and hippotherapy (see “Hippo-what?” sidebar below) to riders whose challenges include cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, autism, multiple sclerosis, brain injury, learning disabilities, and emotional disorders.
“The combination of horseback riding and ground skills, such as learning parts of the horse and breeds, gives individuals with mental and physical disabilities the opportunity to improve body strength, balance, and coordination, and thus build self-confidence, self-esteem, patience, and discipline,” explains Nieto. “Riders, horses, instructors, and volunteers work as a team.”
Currently, 33 students ride some 15 gentle and donated horses. Breeds run the gamut from Lippizaner to American quarter horse to an 18-hand Clydesdale carriage horse; backgrounds vary from retired dressage horses to outgrown Pony Club steeds to former runners from the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation (TRF), a national organization that finds homes for rescued racehorses. The Luci Center, whose name stands for Love, Understanding, Care, and Involvement, is a TRF satellite farm, which cares for animals until a home is found.
As if these weren’t enough mouths to feed, the farm animal count is more than 80, including dogs, cats, chickens, rabbits, miniature horses, sheep, goats, llamas, and a miniature Sicilian donkey, many of them rescued. The kids love ’em. Not all the therapy here is administered by horses.
Though most students are children and teens, adults get just as much benefit and have just as much fun. Chance Keller, 23, has mental disability and sensory issues that cause him to be over-stimulated by his environment. Because of loud talking and dishes clanging, going out to a restaurant used to be a real challenge, says his mother, Kim.
Keller’s eyes light up when she talks about what therapeutic riding has done for her son. “It’s helped him reprogram. He’s awesome!” she exclaims. “He’s at peace on a horse, and has grown unbelievably, flexibility- and stamina-wise. He’s learned patience and tolerance and his self-esteem has increased. Now he can socialize in public.”
Chance went to a four-day camp this summer, his first time away from home, and to the zoo with a group of 65 people, successes his mother attributes to this gentle equine therapy.
Students come to the Center in numerous ways, via the Internet and stories in the media, and by referral from such sources as NARHA, Frazier Rehabilitation Center in Louisville, the University of Louisville’s Child Evaluation Center, Down Syndrome of Louisville, the Kentuckiana Autism Society, and the clients’ own physicians, therapists, and families.
At present, 60 volunteers give their time to the Center on a regular basis in ways as varied as the menagerie of animals that share grazing rights with the school horses. All who want to work directly with the horses go through training to learn proper care and handling, then can help groom and tack, and serve as leaders or sidewalkers for the mounted students.
Volunteer coordinator and NARHA-certified instructor Lynn Hart, who’s been at the Center nearly since its inception, explains that, “Others just want to come out and weed-eat or clean stalls. We have volunteer opportunities from farm chores to classes, to fund raising or helping send out newsletters,” she says. “There’s really something for anyone who wants to help.”
Louisville horsewoman Deanna Bond, who “loves the barn smell and creak of leather,” is a sidewalker, someone who walks beside a horse in the ring with a steadying hand on the rider’s leg. Shelby County farm owner Donna Duncan, on the other hand, spends her weekly volunteer time helping in the barn and manning phone contact lists.
“Paula has a vast knowledge of horses and shares that readily,” she says. “All the people here do. We compare notes on vets, farriers, and important topics like where to get good alfalfa.”
Though a volunteer must be over 12 years old, 4-H and Scout groups assist with specific farm projects, like painting barrels, and in return get to meet the farm’s four-legged population.
The safety and health of horses and riders is top priority here and all clients wear approved helmets. After class, the kids dismount in the ring and thank their horse with a pat and words, if possible, while the creatures stand patiently to receive their lauds.
“Sometimes I’ll be working with a horse that’s being a little difficult,” says Hart, “but as soon as one of the children comes in, the horse will stand there and never move.”
NARHA-certified instructor Suzanne Bowman agrees. “I really think the horses understand there’s something special about their job, that they’re connecting with students that sometimes need extra encouragement.”
Nieto has no doubt. “I think horses offer lessons for every human being, be they handicapped or able-bodied,” she says. “I don’t know of any area in life–physical, mental, or spiritual–that can’t be enhanced by an involvement with a horse. We’d love for people to see the beauty and value in our program and be financially supportive. Here people can see where their money goes. Without it, no one can receive these gifts.”
A 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, The Luci Center generates revenue from class fees, donations of funds, services, and products such as tack, riding clothing, and boots, fencing, feed, construction work, vet services and supplies, and from grants, which have so far netted an outdoor arena, computer, carriage for disabled drivers, and hippotherapy equipment.
Fund-raising events include sponsoring an annual public horse health care seminar, yard and tack sale, Christmas bazaar, and collection of cans and Southern States feed sack coupons.
Topping the Center’s wish list is a climate-controlled indoor arena with a resource library and full-time salaries for the now-volunteer instructors. “An indoor space would allow us to service clients year-round,” says Nieto, “and to offer occupational, physical, and speech therapy. A library would provide education for school groups and for our volunteers, who are our eyes and ears.”
Retired BellSouth employee Rich Clausen, a Shelby County farmer who volunteers every Saturday, was wary at first about working with children. But not for long. “These little kids grin at you and your heart melts,” he laughs. “You get teary-eyed.”
There’s never a dry eye in the crowd during the annual October end-of-season horse show, when each horse is washed and groomed, and many riders look like professionals turned out in jackets, breeches, and high black boots from the Center’s stash of donated duds. The kids practice for weeks, honing their special skills, be it posting a trot, sidesitting (sitting sideways in the saddle), saying their horse’s name or breed, or delivering a letter in the trail class from one mailbox to another.
“A lot of these kids can’t do other sports, so this is something they can do and be proud of,” says Bowman. “They’re sitting on top of this huge animal and the animal’s responding to them–it’s magical.”
A resident of Mt. Washington who works full time as an occupational therapist at Hardin Memorial Hospital in Elizabethtown, Becky Porter has volunteered on Saturdays at The Luci Center doing hippotherapy for the past two years.
Hippo is the Greek word for horse, and in this type of therapy a licensed occupational or physical therapist or speech language pathologist uses a horse to assist mentally or physically challenged clients in increasing their ability to function in everyday life by learning skills for the first time or relearning skills lost due to accident or injury.
“The movement of a horse is very similar to the human gait,” Porter explains. “The rhythmical, rocking movement helps to stimulate arousing mechanisms in the brain, so that more learning can occur. When a child or adult is on a horse, I incorporate different types of activities, depending on where their strengths or weaknesses are, to get certain results from them.”
Her bottomless bag of activities includes bright-colored rings and balls to be reached for or put into and taken out of saddlebags, a balancing barrel, puzzle books, lacing cards, and vaulting, or riding a horse in different positions, such as “tall kneeling” (standing on one’s knees on a saddlepad). Not only do clients learn riding skills, but can achieve gains in motor control, cognition, and communication.
Louisvillian Fred Moore brought his son Jonathan, now 6, to the Center two years ago for help with a language deficit and lack of muscle tone. “It (hippotherapy) is definitely the best therapy we’re doing,” Moore says. “Jonathan’s developed a whole lot in strength and verbal ability. He understands the horsemanship he’s learning here and is energized when he gets home. But the biggest change is his confidence in knowing he can learn and improve himself.”
About the LUCI Center
The Luci Center,
7102 Eminence Pike ,
Shelbyville, KY 40065;
P.O. Box 936, Shelbyville, KY 40066,
Six-week sessions in the spring, summer, and fall offer NARHA instructor-led group and individual classes in therapeutic horseback riding and horsemanship, and hippotherapy for individuals with mental and physical disabilities.
Directions: Take Exit 35 off KY I-64 toward Shelbyville, north on US 53/55 for 10.5 miles.
For more information on therapeutic riding and hippotherapy, and for locations of other centers, check out the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association Web site at www.narha.org.