by Paul Burdziakowski
Just because your horse has gotten older and is no longer show worthy doesn’t mean that it can’t continue to serve an important purpose. All across the country horses are getting a second wind serving as instruments of healing through a service known as equine assisted therapy.
Equine assisted therapy is a special form of treatment that is used to assist people who are dealing with physical, emotional and mental challenges. Participants are usually able to come away with a variety of different benefits by closely interacting with a horse through activities such as riding, lessons on horse care, grooming, saddling and basic equestrian. The reason horses are so effective in human therapy has to do with their highly developed ability to detect subtle changes in stance, muscle tension, breathing and arousal in predators, horses and people.
A horse will usually respond to people by mirroring their emotions and acting in a similar manner. This response by the horse often causes people to change their behavior, which deepens the effectiveness of the therapy. This type of therapy, known as psychotherapy, is a great help to people suffering from emotional difficulties such as anxiety, mood disorders, behavioral challenges, post-traumatic stress disorders as well as any major life transitions or losses.
People with various physical disabilities can also benefit from equine assisted therapy. By using specific muscles to stay balanced and keep from falling off the horse people suffering from traumatic injuries, multiple sclerosis and stroke can show improvement in balance, coordination, core strength, muscle strength and flexibility.
Equine assisted activities and therapies usually take place at specialized equestrian centers located all across the country. These centers range from small, one-person programs to large operations with several certified instructors and licensed therapists. Whether small or large the one thing they all have in common is that they are generally nonprofit organizations that are staffed by volunteers and supported by donations.
These donations go towards the general care of their horses which includes proper shelter, food, water, grooming and exercise. Some centers also offer regular veterinary visits which consist of dental care, hoof care, inoculations, vaccinations, deworming and workups as needed. Additional donations usually go towards general maintenance, repairs and improvements of the facility. Centers may also use money for participant needs such as saddles, bridles, pads, horse care items, riding clothing and boots.
The first step in donating a horse requires the owner to reach out to an equestrian center that specialized in horse therapy. This usually consists of a phone call in which the owner shares the horse’s qualities, background and health records. Other times an owner can go online and complete a brief questionnaire or assessment form in regards to their horse. In some cases, an owner must submit a video of the horse while it’s being groomed, tacked and ridden.
If the center believes that a horse will be a good fit, they will contact the owner and request that it be brought to their facility for a trial period. This period can last upwards of 90 days but is necessary in order to determine that the right horses are accepted into a center’s program.
The trial period allows the horse time to understand his new surroundings and work while building a bond of trust and confidence with his riders and instructors. During the trial period the horse will be ridden and evaluated by center’s staff on a regular basis. Staff members will take the opportunity to expose the horse to all the different aspects of a center’s therapeutic riding program and the horse’s body language and reactions will be noted and graded. They will also be looking for a set of desired traits, which are required to give clients a safe and physically beneficial riding experience.
American Quarter, Appaloosa and Paint horses are among the most frequently used horses for equine assisted therapy centers because they have the most ideal characteristics for working closely with people. This doesn’t mean that other breeds of horses wouldn’t make good candidates for therapy. It comes down to evaluation because every breed has good qualities and each horse has to be viewed as an individual.
A horse that is in good health and has no major medical conditions is a must. Most centers just don’t have the time or money to spend nursing a sick or lame horse.
Most centers prefer horses that are between 15 and 20 years old because at this age they are usually not broken down physically and have plenty of riding experience.
Horses that have a height of 13 to 16 hands are the most useful because they can serve both children and adult riders.
When it comes to gender, geldings are the most preferred because they are generally the easiest to work with. Mares can be moody but with the right temperament they are accepted as well. Due to their aggressive behavior and uneven temperament stallions are not accepted as a therapy horse.
The horse must be completely saddle broke and trained in obedience to both voice and leg signals. Most centers prefer well-schooled horses of English or Western disciplines. Some centers even accept horses which come from vaulting and dressage disciplines.
The quality of the horse’s movement is what most benefits the participant so having a sound walk, trot and canter, with three rhythmic and balanced gaits is important.
Therapy horses will need to be tolerant with a low flight response because they will be working with people who have special needs. At times they will be exposed to various assistive teaching devices that will be handled by the volunteer or carried by the rider. They may also experience various loud noises, such as music or vocalizations by participants.
Participant safety is of paramount importance so a horse needs to have a calm temperament towards people. More often than not a horse will be working with a rider as well as one or two people walking and trotting beside so it needs to be well mannered and accepting of the extra attention.
After a successful completion of the trial period the owner will be notified that their horse has been accepted into the program. The owner will then need to complete some paperwork before officially releasing the horse to the center’s care.
To remain in the program, horses must be able to perform their jobs and remain useful. Horses that are no longer useful to the program will be returned to the owner. There are several possible reasons for why a horse might be removed from a program. One is that the horse has health, injury or soundness issues which renders it unable to perform its job. Another reason is inappropriate, unsafe behaviors such as bucking, rearing, biting or kicking. A third reason is that the horse becomes emotionally or physically unable to cope with the pressure.
Just because the horse is in a center’s possession doesn’t mean the owner can no longer see their animal. Most allow owners to make a scheduled visit to see their horse and learn about how they have helped participants in need.