Center builds handicapped
students confidence, character
Helen E. McKinney
(May 2002) EMINENCE, Ky. Nestled on 122 acres in
Henry County, Ky., the LUCI Center offers a therapeutic horseback riding
center for disabled children.
I started the LUCI Center after the death of a yellow lab retriever
of mine, named Luci, said founder Paula Nieto. Her goal is to
connect adults and children with disabilities, with horses.
Nieto said she was inspired by the friendship she had shared with her
lab. The center is open May through November for children age three
Not everybody has this kind of good fortune, she said. We
work with all disabilities physical, mental and emotional.
LUCI Center staff includes (from left) Lynn Hart, Suzanne Bowman,
Paula Nieto and Becky Porter. Below, Nieto poses with one of her
Nieto is a nationally trained advanced level instructor.
When she decided to pursue equine physical therapy as a career, she
focused on cognitive and physical disabilities. She completed her field
training at Equest, a therapeutic riding center in Texas. The month-long,
190-hour course bolstered her confidence so that she could begin her
own therapeutic riding program.
The center had originally been established in Breckinridge, Colo., but
could only operate certain months of the year, due to weather conditions.
Nieto relocated to Denver to find winter homes for the horses when weather
became too bad in Breckinridge. She then decided to move to Henry County,
where winter weather was not as extreme.
She opened the LUCI Center in 1996. The name stands for love, understanding,
care and involvement, which were all strengths she found in her lab.
Nieto said the eight to 10 week sessions offered at the center teach
children with disabilities a number of things. The program is a confidence
builder, as well as a teaching tool for learning life skills and responsibilities.
A horses gait and a human stride are almost identical,
said Nieto. Thus, the children learn coordination, as well as attention
to task by caring for the animals after they have been ridden.
The LUCI Center relies on 60 volunteers to make it a success for the
students, she said.
Suzanne Bowman started out at the center as a volunteer. She is now
an instructor-in-training, working with Paula and learning the
ropes to become a certified training instructor, she said.
Bowman had previously volunteered at a program in California. She met
Nieto while attending a conference to network with others in the industry.
My goal is to teach children some of the basics of horsemanship
and for them to have fun. Bowman said games are often incorporated
into her teaching techniques to better help the children relate to the
horses. By playing red light, green light, the children learn how to
get the horse to stop on command.
Horses are donated to the center from families whose riders have outgrown
or replaced them. They are mostly older animals and must pass a careful
screening process by Nieto to ensure a safe environment in terms of
temperament and health.
We have a great relationship with Churchill Downs through the
Helping Hands Program, said Nieto. This is a program designed
to get employees out in the community as volunteers.
Julie Koenig-Loignon, director of corporate communications for Churchill
Downs, Inc., said she and husband, David, volunteer at the center on
I had ridden for a number of years. Through this program, spouses
can volunteer also. Its a nice way to get involved with the community,
Koenig-Loignon has gotten involved with a new program at the center
known as the hippo therapy program. Hippos is the Greek word for horse,
so this program is based on the idea of providing therapy by using horses.
The motion of the horse stimulates the brain to make a connection
that otherwise would not be made, she said, because of behavioral
Being on a horse is a reward for them, Koenig-Loignon said.
For more information on volunteering at the
center, call (502) 845-2157.
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