The Perfect Fit – What Makes the Ideal We Can Ride Therapy Horse?
Last updated: October 1, 2019
Not every horse has what it takes to be an equine therapy partner. Our horses are uniquely suited to help in our important therapeutic programs. They must have a willing and calm personality and the ability to respond to each client’s individual needs.
Every horse typically works year round in 8-10 hourly sessions per week. At first glance, the therapy doesn’t look too difficult. Often, it is time spent being groomed, handled and ridden at a walk. The horses are also called upon to carry inexperienced riders who have varying physical disabilities.
Yet each session brings a unique set of challenges. The horses must respond patiently no matter the circumstance. They must serve consistently and reliably, alongside multiple handlers, therapists and instructors with varying degrees of equine experience.
Most importantly, they need to stay focused and tranquil, behaving in a way that bolsters a client’s confidence and keeps them relaxed.
Luckily, we are continually offered dozens of horses as possible new members to our herd. Some horses are donated, some we lease from the owner at no charge but before they can join us we use a carefully designed criteria to evaluate each individual.
In general, we are looking for horses aged 8-22. We don’t target a particular breed – our current herd boasts more than 10 different varieties!
While we don’t limit our selections based upon a horse’s history, we do want to know what kind of a job the horse had in the five years prior to our meeting them. Our herd members include formerly successful show horses, race horses, and even highly trained dressage horses.
To begin with, all horses must meet these basic standards:
- The horse must be functionally sound at the walk, trot and canter.
- The horse must be generally in good health without major health problems in the past.
- The horse’s vaccinations must be up-to-date.
Once these boxes are checked, we explore the social and emotional aspects of the animals.
The horses need to be quiet and naturally friendly. They must be easily caught in the paddock and led into the barn. The leading aspect is especially important, as they will be used in many sessions where side walkers and leaders help facilitate therapy.
Potential We Can Ride horses must be comfortable working with lots of people. Although it may seem surprising, some horses become stressed by too many handlers.
One of the most important characteristics is a low flight response. Horses’ survival throughout evolution was dependent upon the fight or flight responses built into their DNA. As a flight animal, they are easily triggered by unusual noises and sights.
Our horses must have a lower flight response to stay composed with our clients and volunteers at all times.
Some other questions we ask:
- Do they display overall good ground manners? Do they demonstrate a good attitude being groomed and tacked?
- How do they respond to people? Are they social, patient, engaged and forgiving?
- Are they careful on their feet? These horses need to be aware of where they are in relation to all the humans they work with.
- Does the horse get bothered by tight leg grips, swinging arms or clapping hands? How do they respond to unbalanced riders?
- Do they mind having toys and other objects in the arena when they are working?
- Do they have good balance at all the gaits and when working in circles?
Once a horse passes the initial evaluation, we introduce him to our We Can Ride herd. This is a very important process. We have three distinct groups with different personality traits. It is essential that the current horses accept their new addition and that he or she is comfortable in their surroundings with their new herd-mates.
As they settle in, we give them a 90 day trial. We observe how they handle the We Can Ride routines and we work extensively to help them become comfortable with the new activities they will experience.
Our schooling team of experienced staff and volunteer riders spend hours riding and handling each horse to get a precise picture of how happy and content they are as they settle in.
At the end of that 3 months, the horse will either graduate into the program or go back to its former home.
We are truly fortunate to have such wonderful horses cheerfully helping hundreds of clients each year.