Like horses for any discipline, mini therapy horses need training ... a lot of training.
“They have to get used to certain sounds. They have to get used to certain smells. They have to get used to certain behaviors,” said Lisa Moad of Seven Oaks Farm Miniature Therapy Horses in Ohio. “They have to get used to different types of motion from people coming in and out and things like that.”
The training is exhaustive, and it takes a long time. Horses are not like dogs—dogs retain their training for long periods of time. However, if a horse's training is not used, they lose it, Moad explained.
“A dog would learn to the command “stay,” and they always remember that command, even if it’s used periodically,” she said. “For a horse, if the command isn’t worked on repetitively, the horse doesn’t respond consistently to it.”
Moad’s training process prioritizes curiosity in the horse and making sure the animal has the ability/interest in connecting with handlers because the horse must trust its human partner. Many therapy horses visit hospitals, schools and long-term care facilities. Therefore, they must learn to navigate hallways, go up and down stairways, ride in elevators, and to remain calm around medical equipment.
“We ask a lot of an animal that in the wild looks for anything that could cause it harm, so they must trust their handler,” she said.
Possibilities Farm owner Carrie Brady brings her therapy minis on trial runs to tack shops, pet stores and local businesses. This helps teach the horses about things like sliding doors, narrow aisles, glass storefronts with reflections that look like another horse, and crowded parking lots.
“It is important to foster curiosity and trust," she said. "You have to learn your horse's subtle signals for yes and no so you'll be able to tell right away if they are getting uncomfortable. And you have to learn what helps them to relax if something startles them. Careful observation, as well as experimentation, helps.”
Editor's note: Of course this is just a brief overview. If you are interested in using Miniature Horses as therapy animals, please volunteer at a local facility and learn more about the training and handling of these horses.