We probably get a call or email a month from someone who wants to place their horse with us because we do therapeutic riding and they feel their horse would/could serve a noble purpose here.
The call usually starts with “I have a wonderful horse that would be great with kids. Mine are no longer interested.” Or “I really don’t want to put Buddy down, he’s only 26 and would love to give kids pony rides.” Or “She’s a great horse, she does have some lameness issues. We give her meds and she’s fine to do some light work.”
We feel for these callers. They do love their horses, but, they do not understand how demanding the work of a therapeutic horse could be.
No spooking allowed
That simple, no spooking. Yes, your horse may be great on trail rides with other horses. Can have bikes or cars pass without flinching, but what about the kid that belongs to the wiggle club? The rider that screams out for no apparent reason, other than displaying happiness? Or tosses the reins, pulls the reins, or tries acrobatic tricks while riding?
A horse in the therapeutic riding program has to be solid. Oh, a flinch, a quick head lift, or other similar response is fine. These are animals, they still have their sense of flight, but, they have to be trusting and calm regardless of the situation on their back.
No movement at all
Conversely, we have riders who do not move – at all. They are dead weight on the horse’s back. I sometimes equate it to a bag of potatoes, but, it’s more like a boulder. After all, the potatoes may shift in the bag, but a boulder? No movement unless it falls off!
That also means that we have to add 20% to the rider’s weight. So a hundred pound rider is now one hundred and twenty pounds. Okay, that’s not too bad, but, most of these riders are adults. So, even if you say your horse can carry two hundred pounds, as dead weight that becomes two hundred and forty pounds. And is that with or without the saddle?
No movement of the rider can also make the horse’s back muscles sore. The horse moves best when the rider’s movement is in sync with the horse. Will your horse be comfortable with dead weight?
People, offside, nearside, and other issues
Many of our riders require two side walkers as well as the person leading the horse. Some horses are very sensitive to being touched on the rump or hind quarters. When a person walks alongside a rider, sometimes they have to hold onto the rider’s gait belt. Their elbow rests on the area behind the saddle. Will the horse allow that or be uncomfortable?
We also have riders who require multiple boppy pillows to keep them upright. Or the rider who, even with the boppy pillows, falls forward on the horse’s neck.
Mounting the horse can also be an issue. We have one rider who has to back up to the horse, then, be lifted onto the horse and pull his right leg over the horse’s neck while the person on the ramp and another on the ground balances the rider so he doesn’t fall backwards. Very tolerant horse to put up with that.
We also have riders who, for various reasons, have to mount the horse from the offside. This takes training, as most people follow tradition and always mount from the nearside. Similarly, we train our horses to have the rider dismount on either side. More training is required for this task.
The riders love their mount. They come in looking forward to riding their horse. If we have a horse who is not in good health, then the rider must switch to another horse. We all know the gait of each horse is different, so most of the lesson is spent adjusting to the new mount. Some of the riders will show concern that “their” horse is sick and that discussion encompasses the entire lesson.
Yes, horses do get sick and on occasion we have to switch horses for the rider, but, accepting a horse that may not be able to be ridden every week is not good for the rider.
Yes, being in a therapeutic riding program is a great job for some horses, but our experience has been that not every horse, no matter how great s/he is, has the capability and the stamina to work in our program. But those who do are worth their weight in gold!