What Makes a Good Therapy Horse?

Most of us are well versed on guide dogs and many of us are familiar with the work of assistance animals.  However, the role of the therapy horse tends to be less understood. This incredible animal serves a multifaceted and dynamic role in the therapeutic riding/equine therapy stable – enhancing the quality of life for hundreds of people in the course of its career.

Although therapeutic horses come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and breeds, they tend to share some common characteristics. Most therapeutic riding (TR) horses fall between 14 hands (the size of a large pony) and 16 hands (the size of the average race horse). A suitable TR horse will typically fall on the “stocky” side, with a short-coupled confirmation.  Because some riders can have low muscle tone or difficulty balancing, even gentle work can be taxing on the muscular-skeletal system of these animals.  For this reason, a sturdy bearing is important for the long-term comfort and usability. Therapy horses do not need to be top performers, but must be sound and possess good, clean gaits in order to produce the type of “three-dimensional” movement (up/down, back/front, side/side) that is associated with therapeutic benefit.

Although certain breeds tend to be predisposed to therapy work, the demeanor, condition, training, and background of an individual horse plays a larger role in the selection process then breed type. The Cowichan Therapeutic Riding Association (CTRA) uses a number of Norwegian Fjord horses in the program (prized for their sturdy build, average size, versatility, and quiet temperament), but also is home to a number of breeds including draft-crosses and quarter horses.

Most of the therapy horses accepted into the CTRA program are “well-schooled” (experienced) in the common riding disciplines (dressage, jumping, western pleasure, etc.) and are of an age to have considerable “life experience” (trail riding, showing, extensive handling, etc.). The greatest commonality of horses engaged with therapeutic work is their connection to people. Whether the horse is used for riding or un-mounted therapeutic work, a great therapeutic horse demonstrates consistent compassion, patience, kindness, and enthusiasm for the job.

When a horse enters the CTRA program, it is taught an additional set of skills that help it to communicate with and assist participants with special needs.  Examples of this training include learning to understand adaptive “aids” (for example a hand-held stick used instead of a leg command) or training to the “lift” (a mechanism that assists riders from wheelchairs to the saddle). Life in the CTRA program is highly regimented to enable the training of these animals. From the feed schedule to specific instructions for handling – the top-quality care these animals receive is specifically designed to support their ability to do this very important job.

CTRA receives horses for the program from a number of community sources. Some horses are donated or loaned to the program while others are purchased by the association (usually with the assistance of a grant). All candidate horses for the program undergo an assessment (or trial) period which can last several months. Because the job is so specific, and hinges on the horse’s affinity for the work, it is almost impossible to determine suitability without allowing the horse to fully integrate into the program. The CTRA herd is maintained through community support, and several individuals and groups in the community contribute funds directly as “horse sponsors.”

Some Common Questions about Therapy Horses

How does CTRA acquire therapy horses?

Most of the time, therapy/para-sport horses are donated to CTRA or “loaned” to CTRA on a “free lease” (the owner retains ownership while CTRA uses the horse and covers the maintenance costs for a determined period). Occasionally (dependent on resources) CTRA may purchase a horse. 

What about "gaited" horses?

The therapeutic value of a horse’s movement works depends upon the horse having a steady, rhythmic, and even gait. As such, therapeutic horses must be sound. Typically, “gaited” horses are not suitable therapy horses because their modified gait does not resemble the “three dimensional” (up/down, side/side, back/front) human movement patterns in the same beneficial way of a non-gaited horse. Gaited breeds include the American Saddlebred, the Icelandic Horse, the Missouri Foxtrotter, the Tennessee Walker, and the Standardbred (if a “pacer”).

Is this a suitable "retirement home" for my elderly horse?

Because participants can have low muscle tone and difficulty with balance, therapy horses work very hard every minute they are mounted to compensate for changes in their riders position and centre of balance. Hence even the most seemingly low-intensity activity is actually a lot of work for the muscular-skeletal system of our therapy horses. Even unmounted work is psychologically taxing on our horses. As such, therapeutic riding centers are not “retirement homes” for aged horses – therapy horses lead demanding, if rewarding, lives.

I think I might know of a suitable horse – what is the process for evaluating therapeutic horses?

Because of the very sensitive nature of what we do - we take all prospective horses on trial - whether they are a purchase, a free lease, or a donation.  Because of the unique work, our horses are slowly acclimated to the program with the utmost concern with safety.  We take our time and introduce the horse very slowly to the program (despite how experienced the horse is): first starting off with introducing ground handling by the staff, then “under-saddle” work by the instructor staff, and eventually exposure to low-risk roles in the program. Because of these gradual introductions, it takes time to see whether or not a horse will be suitable.

CTRA is accountable to our donors and supporters for the use of program funds.  As such we look after our resources very diligently. The expenses and resources associated with housing/maintaining and selling/transferring a horse that is no longer working in our program are significant.  Because of all of these factors – we stick by our policy of insisting on a trial period for any horse we are seriously considering using in the CTRA program.

If you would like any more information on our therapy horses please do not hesitate to contact us.

Thank You to Purica for the Gift of Herd Health

The CTRA therapy horse herd thanks Trevor Watkins and Purica for the gift of health and soundness. Recovery EQ is an incredible supplement that "increases the structural integrity of connective tissue structures and maintains optimum tissue hydration." Through the use of this amazing product, CTRA therapy horses have stayed remarkably sound and fit well into their elder years.  We cannot recommend this product enough and have anecdotes by the handful of times when this product played a significant role in our herd health. The CTRA herd thank Purica for the generous donation of this vital supplement to our program. To learn more about Recovery EQ visit their website at: http://www.purica.com/recovery_eq.htm