Therapy Horses - Part One. The Trial Period and a Little Myth Busting

December 28, 2016

When you walk through the barn of Southern Reins Center for Equine Therapy, you will find horses of all shapes and sizes. There are many factors that must be considered when selecting an appropriate therapy horse; from past experience to gait, and even personality. In this post I will be focusing on our trial period and how size and soundness pertain to the selection process.


At Southern Reins each horse goes through a 90-day trial period before they officially become a part of our therapy horse team. We look for horses sound of body and mind, as this can be a very mentally and physically demanding job.


First and most importantly, I allow them plenty of time to settle into their new surroundings and the herd they will be turned out with. How a horse gets along with the members of the herd is very important. If they are stressed out or unhappy for any reason, it will absolutely carry over into their other daily activities. We have multiple large paddocks that allow us to group the horses with others that are the best match. Some are in a herd of 10, and some may go out with only one other horse. Once they have settled into the situation that works best for them, they go through a low stress desensitization process during which allows them to take the time they need to get use to all kinds of different toys and props, as well as medical equipment or support that our participants may require. They learn to work in sync with a rider along with a leader and sidewalkers. This can be tricky for even the most well trained horse, because all of a sudden they are being asked to perform with 3 people surrounding them on the ground. During these training times they are ridden by a staff member, then possibly certain selected volunteers. Once a horse has settled in and has been ridden over the course of several weeks, they begin their journey in our programs with our participants. Depending on how they do in this phase of the trial, the decision is made to accept them into the program.


There is a common misconception that therapy horses must be old and retired, or can be unsound and only usable at the walk or for very light riding. This is actually very far from the truth. Our herd ranges from 10 to 21 years old. They come from a variety of backgrounds and are maintained using a conditioning program similar to those of sport horses. A strong and healthy back and top line are the most important physical components needed for a good therapy horse. It is proper fitness that is key in achieving this. Unfortunately, degeneration from age, as well as pain or stress from even a minor unsoundness can make it very difficult to perform the amount of exercise that is needed to be able to perform this job.


It is also thought by some that really big horses are the best to carry the most weight. Our tallest horse is Teddy, a 20 year old 16.1 Thoroughbred who has the same weight restrictions as Boomer, a 14 hand draft type pony. Looking at the two standing side by side it would be difficult for most to understand why. The optimum size for weight bearing ability depends on the horses bone size; which is either light, medium, or heavy based on the circumference of the cannon bone. The cannon bone supports the horses leg from the knees in front or hocks in the back down to the fetlock (ankle). Teddy is narrow with a long back and long legs, and he has a light to medium bone size. Boomer has a medium to heavy bone size, he is very stocky, and has a short back. The ideal build for the best weight bearing ability is low-set knees and hocks, wide loins and a short back.


Balance and agility of the rider are also important to consider when determining weight bearing ability. A horse can more easily carry a well-balanced, agile rider than an unbalanced or uncoordinated rider. To a horse, a 250-pound rider who is fit, agile, and balanced, can be easier to carry than a rider who is 120 pounds, non-agile, off balance, and uncoordinated. The diagram below offers an example of this effect.



At Southern Reins, our current weight limit is 180 pounds.  This limit ensures that our horses stay healthy and pain free.  We hope to add some heavy-boned draft and draft cross type horses in the near future to be able to increase our weight limit and expand the number of participants we can serve. 


In future posts, I will talk more about behavior, training and maximizing the longevity of a horse in a therapeutic riding program, both mentally and physically. 


Happy New Year!


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