Therapy through horses : Scooter’s Place gives children strength and courage
Adrian Johnson photo
Violet Mizenko rides Belle with her mother Carrie Mizenko there with her as part of a therapy sesson Saturday, March 10 at Scooter’s Place, a program in Monroe for children with special needs to gain confidence and learn skills by working with a stable of horses.
MONROE — At Scooter’s Place, the transformation of kids with special needs sometimes starts just with touching a horse but often ends at a gleeful trot.
The Monroe facility is the passion project of director Jeanine Judkins and a stable of dedicated volunteers, 16 horses and two ponies. Scooter’s Place started with founder Carrie Mizenko and her horse Scooter in Woodinville but moved to the current location about two years ago to offer year-round riding.
In a rustic but freshly painted white arena, a diverse bunch of children as young as age 2 and adults work with a roster of horses as unique as they are.
Riding the gentle mounts is a therapeutic experience for kids with conditions ranging from autism, Down syndrome, and cerebral palsy, to vision loss and depression.
Handlers pair riders with horses aged 5 to 26, sourced from retired show horses to emaciated rescues of all sizes and hues.
“They are ‘been there done that’ show horses, used to a lot of traffic from shows. They’re really bomb proof,” Judkins said.
That steadiness is just what many tentative young riders need.
“He wouldn’t even touch a horse, he was scared to death,” said Rachel Nevoril, about her son Stone. Stone is 17, has autism and is non-verbal. It took months for her son to transition from that first touch to swinging his leg over the saddle, but he’s a champ now, Nevoril said.
The pleased mother said she didn’t know what to expect from her son’s lessons but he has learned how to follow directions, signal for the horse to stop or go, and tell his left from his right.
For 7-year-old Cotton, who has Down syndrome, the equine experience is quite a workout.
Kids with Down syndrome have no core and loose joints said grandmother Michelle Delettrez.
Cotton has gained strength and a sense of balance, plus a rare chance to be the leader with his little brother Jacob, 5, who has lessons at the same time.
“You’ve got a competition pony and boy there, they’ll take to barrel racing real fast,” Delettrez joked as she watched the boys play games and make funny but purposeful poses.
They spread their arms like airplanes, waved them back and forth like chicken
wings and stretched back and forth under the supervision of volunteer guides.
The children gain everything from coordination to spatial awareness on horseback, Judkins said. The motion of the horse mimics walking for kids in the saddle she said.
Judkins also spoke about the mental benefits for children with trauma.
“Physically, they’re all closed up, next thing I know, they’re stretching out, getting strong, focused on a game, not the trauma,” she said.
Sometimes the students become the teachers. I’ve had “kids with extreme anxiety and depression who are now volunteers,” an amazing transformation Judkins
Scooter’s Place is somewhere between therapy center and mainstream barn they explain on their Facebook page. They use an eclectic mix of equine therapy techniques, behavior analysis techniques geared toward those on the autism spectrum, and occupational, physical and speech therapies.
Judkins doesn’t push the therapeutic aspects onto the children though. To them, it’s fun and games, she said, and they are equestrians, not patients.
She also invites families to ride at Scooter’s Place, and many take her up on the offer. Siblings often share
ride times and parents sometimes schedule rides on their own just to have a break.
It takes at least two guides per rider with special needs, Judkins said, so the stable keeps abuzz with activity as guides help riders and care for the horses and their homes.
Each one has a special story, like the children who ride them.
Over the years, Judkins has learned that trying to say no to any of the hard luck horses is usually a losing battle, but she has no regrets.
“I love it, it changed my life, and is the best thing that ever happened to me,” Judkins said. “There is nothing like how rewarding this is.”
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