Training Therapy Horses
I was approached recently by someone who interested in starting a therapy riding center in our area. She is extremely legitimate, she has many years experience in the medical field and professional therapeutic riding instruction. She would like to use horses from out local rescue as therapy horses, but most of the horses have little or no handling. After watching me play with my own horses, and a mustang I have been gentling, she thinks I would be a good candidate for training the therapy horses for her program.
I have almost no experience in this area, What do I need to know? Can anyone suggest any good resources I can study to get an idea what I need to teach the horses?
She wants me to eventually be certified by PATH. I looked at their web site, and frankly I was overwhelmed:oops:, Where do I start?
Any therapeutic riding horse ive seen were older horses that have been childrens horses for many many years.. they would have to be very broke- i would buy an already broke horse with the title 'bombproof' 'deadhead' 'child broke' etcetera..:-)
The lady I would be working with said that was the kind of horse she wanted to avoid. Her reasoning is that "deadhead" horses are nearly as dangerous as flighty green horses, because both are really non-responsive to their handlers. She wants horses that are calm, gentle, and yet light to cues.
Many of the children that she works with are behaviorally challenged, not just physically handicapped, To teach them respect for other living things, she feels that the horses shouldn't be just "push button" horses that are on auto-pilot when around people. Being very particular about what she wants, she wants to have the horses trained to her liking from the ground up, rather than taking on a "finished" horse that may have hidden problems.
While the idea sounds nice, taking a rescue and turning it into a therapy mount is a long process. It would need a good two years of solid work or so before it could be even considered for some beginners...if it even had the right temperment. It takes a very special horse to be able to handle kids with emotions that are all over the place.
We bought my daughter a 22yo earlier this year - she is by no means a "deadhead". She knows her job, is darned good at it, and her age/experience has created a safe partnership that has created great confidence in the child.
I think that perhaps the lady needs to look around at how other places do it. My older guy has been at 2 therapy Centers. He has been free leased to both. Neither place would take any donated horse over 16. Over that age they are a free lease only. It is a great place for the retired horses that cannot keep up a rigorous schedule anymore, and it gives the owner (me) a break in paying upkeep, and allows me to have the $$ for another horse that can do what I need. They come out and "interview" prospective horses and take the cream of the crop.
I think that the plan she is talking about is a HUGE liability, and would bet that any prospective insurer might not be too pleased.
I think you need at least a few 'deadheads' in the mix. While I think it's a good idea to have kids actually thinking about the horse as a living, feeling thing, some special needs are unable to really think in those terms or control themselves (kids with seizures especially) and will cause even a well-trained but still reactive horse to be unnerved, confused, or annoyed. Bombproof (and I use that term lightly; every horse has their kryptonite) horses are not necessarily unresponsive to the handler and if they are, they can be retrained.
But that's beside the point. I would talk to the woman who wants you to train the therapy horses about what exactly each will be doing, and then desensitize them accordingly. Will there be sidewalkers walking with the horse for a lot of lessons? Get them used to people being right next to them, touching them, bumping into them, etc, at a walk and trot. Get them used to wearing all different tack - handles, therapy saddles, no handles, endurance saddles, whatever they'll be wearing during therapy sessions, and ride them in all of them. Teach them the slow, rhythmic 'therapy jog' pace. Make sure the horses are polite and responsive to their handlers. Have the horses work with a lot of different people. Have mock therapy sessions where the rider does a variety of things that special needs people might do - yell, wiggle, rock back and forth, flop to the side, sing loudly, kick or hit the horse (of course, not hard). Do these inside and outside with a variety of handlers, sidewalkers, tack. You can also crinkle a water bottle and drop things while on their back, etc.
Basically, throw everything at them that you can think of and see how they react. :-) That's all the stuff I can think of to do with them right now - lots of desensitizing. It sounds like the lady you're going to work for is looking for a 'golden' horse (sensitive to rider but unreactive at the same time), and those are very hard to come by and will take tons of training. If you're gentling a mustang right now I'm sure you know what you're doing as far as training a horse in the general sense. I would just ask the lady what the horses will need to know before they can become therapy horses.
Best of luck!
It is pretty hard to "desensitize" a horse for someone having a seizure on their back. Just sayin. That would be hard to train, as well as many other circumstances that a good level head is needed for.
I am going to have to spend more time talking to my patron to see exactly what she wants. She definitely has very specific ideas about what she wants from a therapy horse, she has been involved with using horses for therapy for over 20 years. She has started 2 other therapy centers in other parts of the country that are still operating, she wanted to start one more and get it stable to operate without her before finally retiring. Her horsemanship background is vaulting, meaning she wants the horses comfortable with all sorts of ground work and people being all over them.
The horses she is considering are not young horses, they just haven't been used for anything because they have been waiting for homes in the local rescue. Many of them are very well adjusted to human contact and even accustomed to quite a bit of commotion, they just need jobs and time to learn their jobs. She hasn't applied for the grant to start the riding center yet and she wants to get the horses in training now, so I am assuming she plans on each horse having many months(possibly a year+) worth of training before trying to use them in therapy.
I do not think that a really good therapy horse can be made - it has to have the correct temperament and understanding.
I have used all sorts of horses, mainly ponies, some have been as young as four, others in their 30s. One thing for sure, they were not dead heads!
To take unhandled and very green horses would be a mistake.
WHat makes any horse a 'deadhead' is repetitive work, walking round and round the same arena day after day - they need a break and taking out with riders who can let them have some fun with a good trail ride, charging about all over the place. Then they are happy to do the arena work.
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