Kelly Peterson, founder of Acorn Hill EAAT in Motley, Minnesota, describes therapy horses as earthbound unicorns. The Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International (PATH Intl.) certified instructor said therapy horses must override their natural prey animal behavior wiring to be good therapy horses.
“They tolerate so much,” she said. “From side walkers, to somebody in front of them, to bouncy balls, mailboxes and riders who can’t sit balanced or who may scream.”
Temperament is only a piece of the puzzle. How the horse moves is equally important, according to Peterson. The rhythm of their footfall must be just right and matched to a rider’s needs.
“One horse might have a really perky trot and another is smooth as silk,” she said. “Somebody with autism may not need that input (active gait). Somebody who has a physical disability or who is healing or learning to walk might need more gait action.”
Most centers have an extended trial period to make sure the work is a good fit for the horses. The “right” horse depends on the center’s needs, according to Kaye Marks, director of marketing and communications at PATH Intl.
“Centers focused on therapeutic riding might require horses to be sound at all three gaits. Some might need a driving or vaulting horse,” Marks said. “Smaller horses might work well at centers with smaller children who need side walkers, making it easy for volunteers, while veterans might require larger horses. On the other hand, some centers work with untrained Mustangs right from the range for psychotherapy work. It all depends on a specific center's needs on a specific day.”
Peterson has found horses under 15 hands to be an ideal height, especially when working with riders who need a lot of support. She borrowed a taller horse for her hippotherapy session and found that it was painful on the helper’s arms and shoulders when working with riders who didn’t have trunk control or muscle strength. Those helpers had to hold their arms up for the entire lesson, which fatigued their arms and shoulders.
“When it came time to actually purchase our first equine for Acorn Hill, we downsized to a pony, and Ruby is our star,” she said.