Have you hugged your therapy horse today?

I know what I’m about to write is probably controversial to many people. But I believe therapy horses need help.

Until our gelding Patches came to live with us, I didn’t know much about the horses in therapeutic riding programs. I thought they were doing a public service and that was great. Now I see remnants of that experience in our horse and have spent two years helping him get confident again. During the past two years, I’ve spoken to others who have either worked in such programs or who have horses from the programs and have also seen similar problems these horses suffer.

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What a lot of these horses have to endure is not something that a lot of people think about. They may figure the horse is really easy going and “happy” so life must be good for the horse. In many cases, a horse that appears to be easy going and lives a life that involves carrying a lot of people who don’t know how to place their bodies on a horse, or are mentally or physically challenged. That horse is carrying a lot. We are not only burdening that horse with a heavy, lumpy, unresponsive or too responsive body in some cases, but with all the other dysfunction resident in that person.

“Therapeutic horseback riding can be a helpful element in treating a number of physical, mental, and emotional disabilities, including Down Syndrome. In particular, by forging a relationship with another living being, riders may experience heightened levels of patience, confidence, and self-esteem — benefits which are recognized by both the American Physical Therapy Association and the American Occupational Therapy Association.”IMG_1888

“Horses provide a unique neuromuscular stimulation when being ridden through their one of a kind movement. Horses move in a rhythmic motion that mimics the human movement of walking. While riding, the horses stride acts to move the rider’s pelvis in the same rotation and side-to-side movement that occurs when walking. The horses adjustable gait promotes riders to constantly adjust the speed to achieve the desired pelvic motion while promoting strength, balance, coordination, flexibility and confidence. One does not have to ride to achieve the desired effects of therapy. Horses can act as an aid by giving those with disabilities a companion to care for. Grooming such as brushing, bathing, and currying aid in joint range of motion and have a relaxing and calming effect.” – Wikipedia

Every description I’ve found of therapeutic riding has focused on the help being given to the people, but not on concern for the horse. People who come to therapeutic riding programs  are there to feel the energetic rhythm of the horses’ body because it soothes them, or it gives them an opportunity to ride when they can’t walk. These are all incredible experiences for people who are unable to walk or to express themselves fully. Horses are very good for people. But people aren’t necessarily so good for horses. Caretaking types of horses are chosen for these programs for obvious reasons. Horses don’t deal well with incongruence, and people with serious mental health problems are very incongruent. On the other hand, horses very often develop strong connections with children, and can really help autistic children or children with Asbergers who may have difficulty with relationships.

A horse that is large will be used for very large overweight people. There are people who are not mentally engaged in life, and their engagement with the horse is minimal. The volunteers who help in these programs typically can volunteer without any horse knowledge whatsoever. Some people are not sensitive to a horse’s need to be cinched up gently, or bridled without bumping his teeth. Horses need to form bonds, just as we do.

A retired director of a therapeutic riding program recently told me horses tell you when they have had enough. A volunteer told me that many of the horses have very bad habits – they bite, kick, are cinchy, balk, and show other types of resistance to their work. This demonstrates that they are in physical pain, it’s not just behavioral. They may become physically ill or lame. If their behavior becomes too out of line, they are sold out of the program.

I have worked with many horses who fit this description. One became thrilled when he got to do trail rides with an experienced rider and as a result, lost his job as a therapy horse, and she ended up buying him. A couple of others are only good with children. I just recently read an ad for a therapy mare who cannot bear to be in an arena with other horses, so she will be sold as a trail horse. Even schooling horses can show some of these symptoms from years of insensitive handling.

Kaiden riding bareback
Kaiden riding bareback

Horses will fill in for people when they are sick or injured. When I was on crutches after a pelvic fracture, my mare Zuzka was very upset about it and wouldn’t come near me at first, but once I sat down in a chair and put the crutches on the ground next to me, she stood over me as though I was her foal. She wanted to protect me.  Once it was time for me to get back in the saddle, my gelding Khami came forward to help me with that. He knew he was the horse for the job, and although I could only sit on him for about five minutes at first, and my body was very lopsided, he took care of me and was completely attentive. We also did horse and rider integration to get me to be able to sit better in the saddle and for him to be able to carry me without pain.475270_2937453925295_198726_o

I believe this experience was as it was because my horses and I had a longstanding relationship. I was one of their herd, and they wanted to take care of me.

Even though they wanted to take care of me, I have to recognize that the job they were doing was taxing emotionally, just as being a human caregiver can be taxing, no matter how much you love the person you’re caring for. In therapeutic riding programs, horses are being expected to caretake people whom they don’t have strong bonds with in many cases, and who put huge physical strain on their bodies as well.

Horses would have an easier time in therapeutic riding programs if people understood what horses need. Relationship building between the therapeutic clients and the horses would be wonderful, incorporating some herd behaviors that horses do with each other. Also bodywork in the saddle strengthens and deepens your riding relationship, so that the horse doesn’t feel just like a locomotive, and you a passenger. The horse and you are bonded and understand each other’s frailties and can help each other without resistance.

Horses in such a program could spend less time in the program so they don’t reach the burnout stage. Perhaps they could have dual roles such as trail riding with good riders for some of the time so they can get out of the arena. Find homes for the horses who are leaving the program where the horses are appreciated as special, not just as a locomotive to get children and adults around and provide all these therapeutic mobile benefits.

These horses must be tested to make sure they are “bombproof,” i.e., they don’t spook at loud sounds, plastic bags, don’t respond to potentially frightening things. In short they are supposed to be desensitized. They can become robotic. They are asked to suppress their instinctual horse behavior almost completely, so being able to return to being a horse is vital for them.

Once they receive this acknowledgement, through liberty training and bodywork, they begin to blossom. They begin to express opinions.

They may no longer appear as push-button horses. Get ready for a horse with an opinion! This will be a good thing for everyone concerned, leading to happier, more productive relationships. Some of these horses really like children a lot and are not so fond of adults. I think this may be because they have been mishandled by adults or the adults have been too heavy. We want the horses to maintain their caretaking skills while at the same time knowing that they are acknowledged.IMAG0122

Karen Corn, who has studied liberty training a long time with Ruella Yates at Spirit Horse Liberty Foundations, takes her mini Elijah to the children at a therapy center so that the kids can enjoy him, but he is completely under her supervision. No one else handles him while she is at the center, or hospital, or wherever she takes him to visit. This way Elijah doesn’t get handled incorrectly and enjoys the attention of the kids.

Elijah visiting school
Elijah visiting school

There are many other jobs we ask horses to do for us that could be made better for them. Horses need jobs, otherwise we don’t have a horse industry. Therapeutic riding programs provide many valuable opportunities for people from all walks of life to experience the healing power of horses. However, to keep them productive in jobs like this one, they need to feel met in different ways. I know the part of Patches’ life he enjoyed was kids, because he gets so excited when kids are around him. He also loves liberty work and helping people learn Liberty Foundation Training because he has a big heart.

I might add that since we’ve had Patches, I’ve seen his heart grow in capacity. I feel he has outgrown that therapy horse experience and grown into his natural sweetness.

There is a lot of responsibility involved in providing the right job for the right horse, and recognizing when that horse has had enough, needs bodywork and liberty care, needs to move onto something else, or is otherwise ready for the next chapter in his or her life.

If anyone with a therapeutic riding program is interested in learning Liberty Foundation Training or receiving bodywork in the saddle, or bodywork for their horses, contact me at the number listed below.



Copyright (c) Susan Smith


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We will interact with the herd in the morning, and work with horses in the arena in the afternoon. We may possibly go to lunch at a nearby restaurant or bring a lunch. Excellent herd to liberty experience! Space will be limited, be sure to enroll soon to ensure your spot. Location: Mac’s Overnight Stables, Canoncito (near El Dorado), Santa Fe, NM.  Time: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. $150 Early Bird before Oct. 1, $160 after Oct 1. Contact susansmith@orthohorse.info or 505-501-2478 for information.

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21 thoughts on “Have you hugged your therapy horse today?

  1. This is a great article. Too many folks just take the horses for granted, but you are SO right to point out that they need attention, too. My horses get two months off summer and winter (only partly because of the weather), and I try to keep a careful eye on them to make sure they’re not overly stressed. Some of my clients have severe psychological issues, and the horses are pretty clear if the stress level is too much for them. This is especially true of my two younger horses (4 and 7). The Wise Old Man, at 28, can handle most anything, but he gets special treatment, too.

    Love your blog!

  2. What a beautiful post, Susan, reminding all of us that taking care of caretaking horses is essential! Thanks for mentioning my students Karen and Elijah, who are amazing!

  3. Totally agree with your article. All therapeutic riding should have budgets for hiring body workers, energy workers and folks to teach the volunteers and people how to interact with the horses and donkeys in ways that do not harm them. I have a passion for giving back to these animals though the logisitics are tricky. THere was in the recent past a very good article in Trail Blazer magazine by Dutch Henry on this topic…Yay Karen and Elijah too!

  4. What you say is true of horses that work with any person or people, not just people with disabilities or mental illness. Its seems a little unfair to focus on the few people working with horses who have hurdles to overcome when there are so, so many people without those hurdles who treat their horses or the horses they work with the same risky behaviour. I mean absolutely no disrespect to your position, which I agree with, but in my view there is a much bigger target group to work with as a priority. Most horses are, by nature, so generous and forgiving. It often places them at risk. Which is why the trust of a horse is both a blessing and a responsibility.

    1. Good points made, Jacquie. I’m not singling out people with disabilities but rather, asking that those who facilitate the therapeutic riding programs increase their awareness of the effects on their horses and work to make the experience less stressful for them. Granted, I could do a story on horses that work in feedlots, racehorses, or any group or organization, but this one is special to me because the horse particularly needs an advocate here as the attention is on how good the experience is for the people.

      1. Yes, I didn’t feel you were singling this group out. It was just a way to address this very seldom mentioned dynamic. Having experience with it, I immediately grasped the intention and your point.

  5. Good to read this article Susan, thank you for posting it.
    I cover the topic of therapy horses in my book ‘Connecting with Horses:The life lessons we can learn from horses’ . Whilst researching the therapy horse industry for that book, I was horrified at how few people considered the needs of the horse, calling horses tools etc. As I state in that book, a tool is something that I keep in my shed or garage. A horse is no more a tool than you or I. And still there is no comprehensive code of conduct by therapy horse organisations, to protect the horses. What does that tell us about the human therapists !

    Horses are more sentient than humans are, yet continue to be grossly misunderstood and mistreated. Time for global change is long overdue.

    Margrit Coates

  6. Horses have their missions too.
    And their own stories, most of them of mistreat, they diserve our considerations.

  7. I want to hug you! I left a really good job at a very good adult residential facility for people with dually diagnosed developmental disabilities. I managed their in house program and just couldn’t tolerate what was expected of the horses. Inside I was dying even though I knew the horses were being well cared for in most ways. I just couldn’t bring myself to subject them to the imbalance, repetition, outbursts, weight, etc. The better the horse the more was asked of them. I understood all of the protocol recommended for therapy horses as well as the benefit to some. But in my heart I just couldn’t reconcile the unnatural use of the horse and how it conflicted with the way I always try to relate to my horses. Hated to leave but I just couldn’t do it. Thanks so much for addressing this “controversial” subject. You are very brave.

    1. It took me a long time to write this, Jennifer. It had been percolating for a long time, and I wanted to be sure it brought awareness to a difficult subject, for the good of the horse. I so appreciate your observations from the “inside” and I can fully understand why you had to leave that job. You are very brave!

    2. It took me a long time to write this, Jennifer. It had been percolating for a long time, and I wanted to be sure it brought awareness to a difficult subject, for the good of the horse. I so appreciate your observations from the “inside” and I can fully understand why you had to leave that job. You are very brave!

  8. Reblogged this on Body Language and commented:

    I’m leaving for a clinic today so I thought I would repost this blog, one of my favorites on the lives of therapy horses. I’m hoping some light shed on this topic will help people consider the lives of these wonderful souls.

  9. I own a therapy horse and volunteer at the therapy center where he is boarded and I understand this article and where it is coming from I just wanted to be sure to emphasize that not all therapy centers are unfocused on the horses. Before our volunteers are allowed to work with the horses they have to go through training and even after the training we closely supervise the volunteers until we are completely comfortable with how they work with the horses and how the horses respond to them. we pay extremely close attention to the horses and the cues they give us if something is not right. We are sure to give the horses breaks by taking them on trails with experienced riders so they are not stuck in the arena the whole time.
    I do love this article though for those centers who do not focus on the horses but not all are like that.

    1. Thank you for your post. I’m sure that not all therapy centers treat horses in an unkind way, just as all schooling horses are not treated badly. The article was intended to shed light on a situation I don’t think many people think about because the emphasis in many therapeutic riding centers is on therapy for the horses, not the impact on horses involved. That’s the way they are advertised and presented to the world. Having to carry a large person with mental and balance issues is very difficult for a horse over a long period of time, no matter how well trained he is to do this kind of work.

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