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.”