Therapy horses provide people with invaluable emotional support and are particularly ideal for those who don’t respond well to traditional ‘talk’ therapy. This could be troubled teen boys with anger management or defiance issues or struggling teen girls dealing with low self-esteem or teen depression. Equine therapy has also been successful in helping those with PTSD and even individuals with special needs e.g. autism.
What makes horses such effective therapy animals is their innate ability to sense and respond to people’s emotions. However, not all horses are destined to be good therapy horses. They need to possess certain traits including:
- The right conformation. This refers to the way a horse is put together. Undesirable conformation can limit the animal’s weight carrying ability, movement, and soundness. This will, in turn, affect how it performs certain tasks required of a therapeutic horse e.g. carrying adult and child riders.
- Overall good health. Another major requirement is that the horse should be of good health with no chronic illnesses or equine diseases. Most equine programs run on a limited budget and might not accommodate additional costs of caring for a sick horse.
- A sweet temperament. Due to the nature of their work, therapy horses have to interact with a lot of different people. In order to give clients a safe therapy session, horses that are naturally calm, kind, approachable and human-oriented are preferred over rambunctious, aggressive ones.
- A patient, tolerant personality. A therapy horse has to put up with being ridden by strange people (some of whom might be poor riders), being approached and touched from different angles or with strange objects and even being given confusing commands by unsure riders. Needless to say, horses that are given to kicking or biting won’t cut it in such situations. The more patient and tolerant a horse is with clients, the more effective the therapeutic session will be.
- Trainability. Other than correct manners, a therapy horse also needs to be trainable. This includes having a curious and inquisitive nature, making it easy to learn new things as well as the ability to recall and apply what has been learned.
- Clean gait and movement. One of the reasons therapeutic riding is highly effective is because of a horse’s natural rhythmic and repetitive three-dimensional movement. To benefit the rider, the horse has to have soundness at all gaits i.e. the walk, trot, and canter. This rules out horses with acute lameness, poor conformation, old injuries that throw off the gait or anything else that might cause uneven movement.
- Low flight response. Lastly, equine therapy programs need horses that hardly ever spook. Therapy horses might be exposed to new scary sights, sounds and smells e.g. if working with people in wheelchairs or when going out to visit clients. A horse with a low flight response will remain calm and trust it’s handler instead of spooking, jumping, spinning or running away in such situations.
Just like people, horses have different personalities and while not all might be cut out to become therapy horses, they still remain a vital part of our lives.
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