Therapy horses are heroes, having the gift to improve lives physically, emotionally, socially, and cognitively. Part of my job at Equest, a 40-year-old therapeutic riding center in Dallas, is to assess horses and see if they can be a part of the Equest family, providing hope and healing to children, adults and veterans with diverse needs.
Not all horses can be a therapy horse. They require certain characteristics to give clients and staff a safe and beneficial riding experience. Assessing them can take weeks – sometimes several months – and only a special few are selected. The following characteristics are critical for a horse to be accepted into a therapeutic riding program.
Of course, temperament is number one on our list of selection criteria. The horse must be calm and quiet in varied situations – in the arena, on the trail, at the mounting block, in the stall, in the cross ties, at a horse show. They must be able to stand and be patient. They also must tolerate lots of different handlers for grooming and tacking as well as leading and sidewalking.
Training is number two on the list. At Equest, we take riders of all levels to competitions across Texas and out of state. We like our horses to have experience in the show ring, so they travel well and stay calm in new arenas. We have riders competing in a variety of disciplines, so we need horses trained in multiple events, or we need a variety of horses to fill those niches.
Therapy horses must be comfortable carrying a rider with a herd of people around them. Many horses come to us and need to have this part of their job introduced. Some horses do not enjoy people walking next to them or getting mixed signals from leaders and riders at the same time, so they must be taught to accept all the extra input.
Therapy horses must be strong enough to carry unbalanced riders. This can be difficult for horses with weaker backs or leg issues. Many riders with disabilities have physical issues that prohibit them from riding like an able-bodied rider, and they may not be able to correct themselves to balance in the center of the horse’s back. This can be very taxing on the horse, and the equine needs to learn to tolerate and compensate for this imbalance.
Therapy horses need to be sound! Our horses need to have strong legs and muscles to do their jobs even if the job is just walking. Our riders need an even gait to develop bilateral strength with symmetry. Also, we would not ask a horse to work if it was not moving sound. Many people want to donate their horses because they are no longer sound for riding. Our program would not be able to accept a horse that was not comfortable at the walk, trot, and canter because our riders need to be able to execute all those gaits.
Horses are prey animals and live on high alert, but therapy horses can still be peaceful and forgiving, allowing for the development of the social and emotional connection with our clients. Because the horses are prey animals, they are extremely able to interpret or read non-verbal communication. They can observe, evaluate, and respond to social stimuli. At Equest, they respond to clients’ verbal and nonverbal behavior and positive coping skills. They help our clients’ emotional regulation just because of their being, reactions, and engagement of our senses — sight, smell, sound, and touch.
Horses do not need to be a specific breed. A majority of ours tend to be Quarter Horses due to their size and nature, but we also have Thoroughbreds, Haflingers, Fjords, Welsh Cobs, draft horses, and Miniatures. They come from all different walks of life. Some have been show horses of English or Western disciplines, trail horses, or even police horses. Our therapy horses are either donated from generous donors, purchased, or on lease, which brings me to our last characteristic: affordability. Equest, as well as many other therapeutic riding centers, is a nonprofit and does not have a large budget to purchase horses. Right now, we have 30 wonderful therapy horses and are looking for more.
About Amy Causey
Amy Causey is Director of Program Quality & Development at Equest (www.equest.org). She earned a bachelor’s degree in Equine Science from Colorado State University and ran her own horse training business prior to entering the therapeutic riding industry. Amy is a USEF-licensed judge in the Arabian, hunter, jumper, and hunt seat equitation divisions and enjoys officiating as well as coaching riders at horse shows. As a PATH Intl. Certified Master Instructor, Interactive Vaulting Instructor, Therapeutic Driving Instructor and an Equine Specialist in Mental Health and Learning, Amy holds certifications in all specialties currently offered by PATH Intl.
Photos provided by Amy Causey.