Would Your Horse Make a Good Therapy Horse?
About once a week, I get a call from someone who wants to donate their horse to our therapeutic riding program. Sometimes the horse sounds terrific, and I send the owner a packet with a questionnaire and information about us. Most of the time, though, the horse is completely inappropriate for our program, or any therapeutic program, and the owner is confused and upset when I tell them that we can't use their horse.
Even professionals in the horse industry seem to have very little idea about what makes a good therapy horse. In this hub, I'll explain what therapeutic riding programs do, what they need from their horses, what they can't accept, and how you can test your own horse for therapeutic potential.
What Do Therapeutic Riding Programs Do?
Whether they're big or small, most therapeutic riding programs share the following characteristics that strongly shape how they run and what they do.
Even when run at the same facility as a for-profit lesson program, most therapeutic riding programs have 501(c)3 classification. This means they're likely to have a specific mission statement, a fixed budget, and limited staff.
- A program's mission statement defines the purpose of the program and is usually found on their website. Unless it's in the program's mission statement, they are not a horse rescue or rehab facility. They're in business to help people with disabilities, and they need horses that can do that safely and effectively.
- A fixed budget means the program can't afford to feed a horse they can't use, or one that won't be as useful or versatile as the horses they already have. Even if a horse might be very useful, they'll have to consider carefully if the horse already has long-term, expensive health needs.
- Limited staff have limited energy, time, and resources to work with a horse that will require extensive training in order to be safe and effective. If the horse hasn't been ridden in forever or has many stable or riding vices, the program probably doesn't have the (wo)manpower to get the horse up to par.
Rigorous Safety Standards
All people who are around horses can potentially get hurt because all horses are potentially dangerous. Therapeutic riding programs need to be extra-careful, because clients come with a wide range of physical, mental, emotional, and developmental disabilities that can make the clients more likely to get hurt, and more seriously affected by injuries, than able-bodied people. Programs must constantly weigh the risks and benefits of all aspects of their operation, including the horses they use.
Unique and Unusual Clients
Building on the previous point, people with disabilities will present sounds, movements, behaviors, and emotions that may be completely new to a horse. While programs will not allow unsafe or violent behavior to continue, it still may happen, and the horse needs to be tolerant of it until the client can be removed.
Therapeutic riding programs are lesson programs tailored specifically for people with disabilities. Some clients may be highly involved, require 3 or more hands-on helpers, and never ride faster than a slow, steady walk. Other clients may progress to high levels of western, hunt seat, saddle seat, dressage, driving, or vaulting competition. Each program has specific horse needs that may change over time. Programs need horses that have a wide variety of skills and experiences, to help maximize each client's education.
Because most programs have limited staff, they rely heavily on the time donated by volunteers. Volunteers come with a wide range of horse experience and natural ability. While good programs carefully screen and train their volunteers, every program needs horses that will accept inept handling and not take advantage of someone who is just learning.
What Makes a Good Therapy Horse?
In the packet I send out to the owners of potential therapy horses is a questionnaire designed to get all the information I need about a horse. Because most programs rely strictly on donated horses, we know we can't pick the cream of the crop. However, minimum requirements must be met for the horse to be safe and useful to the program. Below are the qualities I'm looking for in a therapy horse, in roughly descending order of importance.
- Height vs. weight carrying ability: The tallest horse is not always the one who can carry the largest rider. I'd rather have a shorter, stockier draft breed who can carry 200+ pounds than a tall, leggy Thoroughbred type who can't carry as much weight and makes the riders harder to reach.
- Temperament: Horses who are naturally kind, calm, and human-oriented are much more likely to give that "little extra something", whether it's standing rock-solid on three legs while a fallen rider is removed from under them, or turning the way they know the rider wants to go, even if the rider can't ask properly.
- Training and trainability: A therapy horse must have correct manners on the ground and when ridden. The horse must also have the ability to learn new things and apply them to previous knowledge. Unless the horse has been a therapy horse before, there will be plenty to learn.
- Soundness: Therapy horses must be sound in at least the walk and trot in order to benefit the rider. The horse should be comfortable working at least 2 hours a day under saddle.
- Conformation: The conformation of a therapy horse (the way its parts are put together), is only important as it relates to weight carrying ability, soundness, and movement. Blemishes that do not affect these characteristics and have nothing to do with the horse's health should be forgiven. Some of the ugliest horses I've ever seen have made the nicest horses - maybe because they know they don't have looks going for them?
- Health: Because of a program's limited budget, horses with chronic, expensive health issues are not ideal, unless the owner agrees to contribute to the cost of keeping the horse. Therapy horses should be at a correct weight for their body type, with the strong hooves, shiny coat (when clean!), clear eyes, sweet breath, and normal excrement that indicate overall good health.
- Movement: The reason why therapeutic riding is so effective is because of the natural, rhythmic, and repetitive 3-dimensional movement of the horse (this requires its own hub, I'll get on it if people are interested). The quality of movement of a horse is affected by soundness and conformation (which a program can't fix), and by training, saddle fit, and athleticism (which a program can fix). The movement of a horse can be big, little, or average, but it must be clean and correct at the walk and trot, and the canter if the horse will canter in lessons.
- Spookability: Okay, I made this word up, but it's a great word, and a very important characteristic. A program needs a horse that hardly ever spooks, not because the horse is never exposed to scary things, but because the horse is brave about most things and smart about the rest. Horses will look at scary things and want to explore or run away from them. But therapy horses must trust their handlers, and learn that new things won't hurt them, and must never, never choose jumping or spinning away as the first option.
- Age: Age is just a number, and older doesn't always mean better. Older horses are more likely to be calm and experienced, but they're also more likely to have health and soundness issues, and fewer years of usefulness ahead of them. As with all things, it's a balancing act.
By taking into account how a potential horse rates in all of these areas, a program can decide if a horse is right for them. Just as needs change over time, every program has needs that are unique to their circumstances.
Thank You, But No
These are very hard words for me to say, but I need to reject most offers of horses because they have one or more problems that my therapeutic riding program can't handle. Different programs may have different resources, but for the most part, reasons for rejection include:
- Aggression towards people, like biting, kicking, and excessively dominant body language
- Aggression towards horses that keeps the horse from integrating into a herd or concentrating during a lesson
- Acute lameness that affects movement or temperament
- Uneven movement from an old injury, like a dropped hip
- Chronic, serious conditions like navicular, severe laminitis, severe allergies, recurring colic, heaves, or EPM
- General condition and health problems associated with old age (usually above 25) that may give the horse less than 2 more years of rideability
- Stallions (intact males)
- Untrained horses, including racehorses straight off the track
- Sore or "cold" back
- Bucking, rearing, running, spinning, and any bad or dangerous habit under saddle
- Cribbing, pacing, rocking, and any bad or dangerous habit in the barn or pasture
- Hyper-sensitivity to new objects
- Unpredictable behavior in new places
- Dangerous loading or trailering habits (We hardly go anywhere, but other programs might, and we sometimes ship horses in medical emergencies.)
- Inability to accept unusual riders (We put staff members on new horses and "pretend" to be the types of riders the horses will carry.)
- Severe eyesight or hearing loss
- Dangerous behavior for the vet, dentist, or farrier
- Head-, ear-, or body-shyness
- Inability to focus on work when out-of-sight of other horses
- Inability to accept the program's schedule of work, turnout, and stall time
- Wrong size/height/experience for the program's current needs
Test Your Horse!
If you're considering donating your horse to a therapeutic riding program, the following "games" can prepare your horse for a new career. But even if you and your horse will be together forever, these games can tighten the bond between you, give you unmounted "homework" for rainy days, and provide hours of entertainment for you (and for your horse, while he laughs at your ridiculous new requests).
With all of these games, start slowly and easily, and expect better and better results as time goes on. If your horse gets tense, scared, mad, or bored, just change the subject for a while. The more he enjoys his work, the better he'll do it.
- Learn a new language: There are dozens of great online resources about horse body language and how to use it (check out the links below). Therapy horses listen to their handlers' body language as part of the illusion that riders are independent and in control of their horses (they have silent, invisible back-up help from staff and volunteers).
- Word, horse: Voice commands are fun and easy. Start with basics like "Walk on", "Whoa", and "Trot", then get creative. Therapy horses need to respond to voice commands from riders who can't move their bodies to communicate, and "Whoa" is a terrific emergency brake for any situation.
- Be a statue: Teach your horse to stand square, with equal weight on all 4 feet. Therapy horses need to do this when riders get on and off, and when stirrups and rider position are adjusted. Hint: If your horse is reluctant to lift his feet for hoof-picking, check to see if he's standing square. He can stand on 3 feet, but not 2!
- Three's not enough of a crowd: Your horse can learn to appreciate being groomed by 3,4, 10 people at a time (depending on the size of the horse!). Therapy horses are often groomed this way when groups from local organizations come to visit.
- Dodgeball: Okay, few horses actually like this game, but being tolerant to balls and stuffed animals flying over and into them is an important therapy horse skill. Start easy and slow, and remember that once you've de-sensitized one side of the horse, you have to start all over from the beginning on the other side.
- Poke me: Touch your horse everywhere. Clients can find unusual places to touch a horse in no time flat. This is another de-sensitization game, but you just might find a hidden magic rubbing spot you never knew about, like the sides of the base of the tail... Mmmmm itchies...
- Help me out: Lean into your horse at odd moments, and teach him the difference between pressure that says "move over" and pressure that says "support me". He will figure it out, and use it when a rider really needs a steady body to lean against.
- You have WHAT?: Borrow crutches, a walker, a wheelchair, an IV cart, or an empty oxygen tank and teach your horse that these things are cool, and should be accepted unconditionally. The people who use them get enough odd looks during the day; they deserve acceptance at the barn. When your horse gets really good, teach him to walk, halt, and turn while being lead by someone in a wheelchair (with passive back-up on the offside).
- Be a statue, again: Teach your horse to stand still while you mount and dismount, no matter how long it takes or how poorly you do it. Most therapeutic programs use mounting ramps that put the rider at least 3 feet above the ground, so find a safe place to replicate this new sensation for your horse. Have a horsey friend stand at your horse's head to steady him. He'll most likely have a volunteer holding him when he mounts for a lesson.
- Sack of potatoes: Ride poorly. Really, really poorly. Schlump in the saddle, lean to one side, tell your horse to do two things at once. He'll think you've lost it, but you'll know if he has the tolerance for therapeutic riders. Teach him to ignore random moments of imbalance, and kiss his nose when you're done. He'll forgive you.
- Diamonds and pearls: Teach your horse to wear jewelry, like big plastic rings around his ears, hats, and helmets, bells in his mane and tail, a "cape" on his butt, and ribbons trailing off his saddle. We'll do just about anything silly to make a rider smile, and giant sunglasses on a horse look pretty silly, indeed!
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.