Training a horse for equine therapy takes a time and only certain horses qualify for the task. The horses need to be able to be comfortable in crowds and around people and must also feel comfortable being touched: “therapy horses must be able to cope with crowded spaces, people approaching and touching them from different angles, and unusual situations” (Cerulli). Some horses naturally possess these traits, but here at Milestones, our horses have been donated to us which makes training them to be therapy horses a bit more difficult.
Which Horses are best for Therapeutic Riding?
There is not one specific breed or type of horse that is best for therapeutic riding. At Milestones, we use a lot of Icelandic horses just because they are smaller and easier for our therapeutic riders to handle. The best therapy horses are those that are calm and comfortable during ground tasks, such as grooming, tacking, and leading; if a horse can easily be lead by an instructor, it will likely be more easily trainable. Even if a horse is not completely comfortable with these tasks, they can slowly be trained to be okay with it. Trainers will mainly use a concept similar to immersion training to begin training therapy horses.
Before engaging in any real training, the horse is involved in something similar to immersion training. The horse is put into a situation that would simulate a class or an event, which would include multiple people touching and being near the horse. This immersion training allows the horse to become comfortable around unusual stimuli and situations. Not only will the horse be exposed to visual and physical stimuli, they will also experience loud noises: “The horses on trial must also be exposed to various loud noises, such as music, toys and riders with enthusiasm” (Webster). If a horse is already unsound, then it can take a lot of time for the horse to become comfortable in these situations; sometimes horses are never able to become therapy horses because of the overstimulating situations they are put in.
Once the horse has become comfortable around loud noises, lots of people, being touched from different angles, and basic ground tasks, they are then able to begin classroom training. The horse is slowly brought into basic classes and sessions with the instructor. The instructor works with the horse and makes sure to give them positive encouragement and rewards for when they do something good such as responding to vocal cues and directions. Although it is vital for the horse to learn how to act in the classroom setting, the instructor must also understand that the horse has the option to not participate at any given point.
The horse’s health is the most important part of the training, because if the horse is not in a healthy environment, it will not perform to its best ability. Even if the instructor has taught the horse all they can, “all the proper conditioning in the world can be quickly undone in the therapeutic riding class if the horse is traveling in an unhealthy way” (Eklund & Ososki). Once the instructor feels that the horse is following direction well and will be able to handle a real classroom, the horse tries its first real session.
What can we take away From this?
The most important aspect of training a horse to become a therapy animal is making sure the horse is happy and healthy the entire time. For most horses, it will take time for them to become comfortable in the classroom setting and for some, they will never be able to be a therapy horse. Overall, it depends on the personality of the horse and how willing they are to listen to their instructor and the people giving them direction.
Here at Milestones, all of our horses are trained as therapy horses but that does not mean there are certain days that some of them don’t want to be in the classroom, which is completely normal! If a horse is acting different or not seeming to want to come out, we will choose a different horse for the session. We all have days when we feel we need to stay home and take time for ourselves, and horses are no different.
Cerulli, Paige. “Ready for a Special Job: The Basics of Training the Therapy Horse.” Wide Open Pets, www.wideopenpets.com/special-jobs-basics-training-therapy-horse/.
Eklund, Dana, and Karen Ososki. “Conditioning for the Therapeutic Lesson Horse.” PATH International, 29 May 2015, www.pathintl.org/images/content/regions/region-9/2015-handouts/E1-The-Importance-of-Developing-Individual-Conditioning-Programs-for-EAAT-Horses.pdf.
Webster, Sandy. “Criteria for Therapeutic Horses.” Horse Channel, Feb. 2018, www.horsechannel.com/horse-exclusives/therapeutic-horse-criteria.aspx.