LUCI Center

LUCI Center builds handicapped
students’ confidence, character

By Helen E. McKinney
Contributing Writer

(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 to adult.
“Not everybody has this kind of good fortune,” she said. “We work with all disabilities – physical, mental and emotional.”

The LUCI Center staff includes (from left) Lynn Hart, Suzanne Bowman, Paula Nieto and Becky Porter. Below, Nieto poses with one of her horses.

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 horse’s 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 weekends.
“I had ridden for a number of years. Through this program, spouses can volunteer also. It’s a nice way to get involved with the community,” she said.
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 problems.
“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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