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Horse speakers: Carousel for Missoula steed provides speech therapy boost

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Friday was V-Day for Jeremiah Martinez.

He’s 5, so his V-Day has nothing to do with stopping violence against women or Valentine’s Day.

Instead, it was literally about the letter V.

Jeremiah, a kindergartner at Target Range School, has a problem articulating some letters. And that’s why he spent part of Friday morning with speech therapist Erin Schwisow and a wooden horse on loan from A Carousel for Missoula.

“Say ‘take a vow,’ ” Schwisow told Jeremiah.

“Take a vow,” the boy said, smiling brightly.

“Good. Now say, ‘loud vacuum,’ ” Schwisow said.

“Loud bacuum,” Jeremiah responded.

“Try again, and remember to tickle your lip,” the therapist said.

“Loud vacuum,” Jeremiah said emphatically.

“Now, do you want to go for a ride?” Schwisow asked.

“Yes!” the boy said. “A long ride!”

With that, Jeremiah mounted a wooden horse named Tex, who carries a bouquet of yellow roses and a blue saddle blanket. Seconds later, Schwisow rolled an excited boy through the halls of the rehab center at Community Medical Center.

“It’s amazing what the horse has done for the kids I work with,” Schwisow said. “Using a carousel horse isn’t really something we learned in school, but he’s been an extraordinary tool for me. The kids, even children who won’t talk, just really respond to the horse.”

When CMC occupational therapist Nancy Kinsey first arranged to borrow a horse from A Carousel for Missoula, she had a particular patient in mind.

“This was somebody who had horses at home and I thought we might find some use for it in his therapy,” Kinsey said. “He was grateful and it was all fine, but nothing really extraordinary.”

Not that anybody would have had extraordinary expectations. After all, it’s just a wooden horse on wheels.

But what happened next cheered the hearts of nearly everyone in the rehab center.

“It’s been an amazing turn of events,” Kinsey said. “Something I never anticipated.”


Not long ago, Erin Schwisow was working with a young boy who has serious problems speaking.

“I took him down for a ride on the horse and he just opened up in a way that I really didn’t believe,” she said. “That sparked something in my mind.”

Soon enough, she was using the horse with most of her pediatric patients.

Using objects is nothing new in speech therapy with children. Therapists often use a series of props to calm anxious children, to bring them out, to spark some affiliation that might lead them to talk.

“We might use blocks, a toy truck, stuffed animals, a lot of books,” Schwisow said.

Schwisow works with a lot of autistic children, kids with severe behavior issues and major problems verbalizing their thoughts.

“With some of these children, the horse has proved to be an incentive, a reward for their work,” she said. “But for others, it seems to have sparked a joy that brings them out and makes them verbal.”

In fact, Schwisow has had kids who rarely utter a sound become verbal on Tex.

“I had one little girl that used maybe 10 words,” she said. “But with the horse, she just blossomed. You can see it in her eyes.”


“Say ‘fast motor vehicle,’ ” Schwisow told Jeremiah. “And then say ‘fun video game.’ ”

“Vehicle” came out perfect on V-Day. But “video” came out “vileo,” so Jeremiah tried a few more times and finally got it right.

“Volcano” came next. Then “violin.” “Play volleyball.”

Then, inexplicably, Tex slowed as Schwisow and Jeremiah made their way down the hall.

“He’s out of word energy,” Schwisow said. “Can you give him some more?”

Jeremiah launched into a enthusiastic version of the ABC song, wrapping it up with Schwisow’s help on the chorus.

“Now I’ve said my ABCs, let’s go horsey, run with me,” they sang in unison.

And Tex moved on, fueled by a linguistic orgy of vampires, vaults and veils.

As the session wound down, Schwisow and Jeremiah gave Tex a “bath,” then rolled him into his “barn” for a “nap.”

“It’s gotten a little silly,” Schwisow said, “but the way it’s opened these kids up, well, it’s definitely worth a little silliness.”

Yolanda Martinez, Jeremiah’s grandmother, agreed.

“He’s really responded,” she said. “He’s so much clearer now. It’s very impressive.”

Impressive, indeed, especially for a wooden horse.

“This has been something of a revelation for me,” said Schwisow. “It’s really opened my mind to new ways we can work with children.”

Reporter Michael Moore can be reached at 523-5252 or by e-mail at

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