Riding therapy program’s founder wants to help her horses’ slashers, too
By Justin Jouvenal,
Davorka Suvak believes that horses can heal.
On Tuesday evening, she led children with cerebral palsy, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and other conditions on rides around a ring in Herndon’s Frying Pan Farm Park. The goal of the Spirit Open Equestrian Program is to unkink palsied muscles and soothe frayed nerves.
The kids, who blanch at other therapies, swayed blissfully atop the docile creatures.
The scene couldn’t be more incongruous with the brutal crimes that have targeted the nonprofit organization on two nights in recent months. Attackers have slipped into the horses’ paddocks and slashed the animals, in one instance allegedly with a 22-inch machete.
Suvak, 50, thinks that the attackers, too, have wounds to be salved. As she watched the children ride on Tuesday, she made an extraordinary offer to the perpetrators after they are brought to justice: Join our program.
“I don’t see these attacks as being against my horses. Some people would say the individuals were seeking help,” Suvak said. “We want to be part of their healing — to change their mind. It was painful for us, but we want to be part of their change.”
The challenge would be the biggest yet for the woman known as “Dada” and who has dedicated more than three decades to offering therapeutic riding to children with physical and mental challenges. Suvak started in her native Croatia and then began Spirit after she and her family immigrated to the United States in 2005.
With small donations, six loaner horses and a cadre of volunteers, her nonprofit organization now works weekly with about 40 children with such conditions as autism and muscular dystrophy. The goal of the therapy is physical and emotional: The kids tone muscles, bond with the animals and build self-confidence.
Perhaps, more than anything else, they get a chance to experience the simple joy of motion that others take for granted.
“It’s an incredible feel of control to have a 2,000-pound animal under you,” said one of the instructors, Linda Trochim. “These are kids that often don’t even have control of their own bodies.”
Nick Dalton, 14, of Fairfax Station has been in the program for more than three years. The muscles on the right side of his body are wracked by cerebral palsy, he can not speak and his vision is limited.
On Tuesday, volunteers placed a step-stool next to a horse. As Nick got to the top step, he carefully lifted his leg over the saddle with great effort. Once firmly in place, Nick cracked a smile and gave a thumbs up — he communicates with sign language.
Suvak yelled, “Walk on!”
Nick replied as best he could with his version of “Walk on!”
The horse took off with a volunteer guiding it. They looped around a ring for 30 minutes before practicing a trot. As he rode, Nick stretched his right arm over his head in coordination with his left. His mother, Candy Dalton, said it’s a struggle to get both halves of his body working together.
“It’s therapy, but he doesn’t see it as therapy,” Candy Dalton said. “He will do things on a horse he will not do in physical therapy. His doctors have noticed a difference. He is utilizing his whole body.”
Nick’s even pushing the envelope: He’s asked instructors to jump, a request they have gently turned aside.
The program’s trouble began in late April. A volunteer arrived at the program’s paddocks adjacent to the park and discovered three horses — Lucinda, Tessa and Spirit — with long, bloody gashes on their flanks and hindquarters. The wounds were serious enough to require stitches. The bizarre attack drew headlines and sent a chill through the park.
At the end of May, a handful of animals — including a goat and a chicken — were cut at the park’s Kidwell Barn, and the mystery deepened.
Things turned even stranger in June, when police arrested a teenager in the cases. An informant told investigators that a 17-year-old Herndon resident had gone to the paddocks to film a video of himself riding one of the horses, according to a search warrant filed in Fairfax Circuit Court. The Washington Post generally does not name juveniles who have been charged in crimes.
The teen had donned a black outfit and mask and climbed on the back of one of the horses, but it threw him, the informant told investigators. The teen grew angry and began hitting the horses, according to the search warrant.
The informant said the teen later took him to the paddock and showed him a horse with blood running down its leg and displayed a bloody machete he said he had used to attack the animals, according to the search warrant. The informant said the teen told him that he was behind the attacks at Kidwell Barn.
At the time of the arrest, Suvak had said it “gives us a sense of peace.”
But it was a short-lived feeling. Lucinda was slashed again sometime between 8 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m. Sunday, police said. The teen arrested in the original attack was in custody, so police are exploring whether it was copycat attack or possibly someone who knows the teen.
The instructors have done their best to shield the children from the attacks. Suvak has emphasized the local community’s outpouring of support and donations.
Lucinda was back in action Tuesday, apparently unfazed. And Suvak has no plans to change what she does in the wake of the attacks. In fact, she hopes to engage the perpetrators in a way few victims of crimes do. She has faith in the ability of her horses to heal.
“Sitting up there on the horse gives the taste of success that we all need to achieve in daily life,” Suvak said.