Starting Your Therapeutic Riding Center

Credit: Courtesy Horses With H.E.A.R.T.

So you have a love for horses, and the smiles of those very special riders have melted your heart. Your passion has spurred your desire to start a therapeutic center where these extraordinary individuals can come together and share a few moments of joy.

You can envision that special little boy who cannot walk giggling as he sits astride his patient mount. For the first time in his life, he can move about with freedom. Then your mind’s eye captures the sight of the little girl who struggles to be accepted by her peers being totally enveloped in the embrace of a gentle giant.

Then reality slams into your idyllic dream: Where do you start? How do you find that perfect location, the horses, the instructors, the money? Hang on. Take a deep breath. You can do this! Take it in small bites, take your time and do your homework.

Your best resource will be other therapeutic centers. Volunteer with an established therapeutic riding center. There is no better way to learn the ins and outs of a therapeutic program than by participation. Additionally, you may be able to find a mentor at an established center who can help with your program’s development. Or you might decide to throw your efforts toward developing that existing therapeutic riding center as a partner.

The Legal Stuff

What type of legal entity will work best for you?

• Non-Profit: many centers operate under this umbrella.

• Limited Liability Corporation

• Sole Proprietor Each option offers benefits and pitfalls.

Talk to your accountant or lawyer, then decide which one fits best into your financial framework.


• Research your state’s laws with regard to equine activity liability acts. Some state acts require that “warning notices” or a listing of specific inherent risks be prominently posted. You must post signage exactly as the law stipulates.

• Liability Release

• Medical Release


What type of facility will fit into your budget and still provide the amenities you need? Do you have a property, or should you buy a property or lease one? Perhaps you would be better off creating a program at an established stable and partnering with them while sharing resources.

Your number-one consideration will be safety and accessibility. You will need sufficient parking, handicapped-accessible walkways and bathrooms, and seating for family members. Stalls and turnout areas for the horses must be safe and provide sufficient shelter from the weather.

When choosing a site, consider some of the following: Will the program be year- ’round or seasonal? If you would like to have a year-’round program, you will want a covered or enclosed arena depending on the weather in your area.

What You Need

In addition to the usual tack needed for riding, you will want to acquire mounting blocks, a ramp and safety equipment. Start rounding up cones, cavalletti poles, buckets, rings, balls and other toys that will be used in your lessons.

Safety equipment: At minimum you will need ASTM/SEI approved riding helmets in various sizes, safety stirrups and gait belts. Some of this equipment can be found at yard sales or by posting an ad asking for donations at feed stores or on Craigslist. If you are given helmets, be sure to check the manufacture date on the inside of the helmet. They are good for five years from that date.

Horses: your most valuable asset! Where do you find those perfect individuals that are strong enough to carry a heavy rider; mild-mannered enough to tolerate braces, wheelchairs and side walkers; and friendly enough to want to give the love needed for special-needs riders? Are you going to lease or take full ownership?

Take your time! Inquire with local horse clubs, rescues, riding stables and feed stores. Visit other riding centers and local horse shows; horses that can no longer handle the rigors of a riding program might be perfectly suited to walking and occasional trotting.

Your ideal candidate will be:

sound, quiet, gentle and patient. A horse that kicks, bucks, bites, rears or is overly sensitive to new objects should not be considered for your program.

the right size. A height of 14 to 15 hands will be ideal for most riders. Your herd should consist of narrow- to wideframed horses to accommodate the various needs of your riders.

have three smooth, clean gaits. You might want to consider one-gaited (nontrotting) horse for your riders who need an exceptionally smooth ride!

specifically trained for therapy work. A therapeutic setting can be noisy and feature many objects that most horses have not experienced. They need to stand quietly while the rider is mounting from a block or ramp, over the croup or crest, and from both sides. They need to be comfortable being led with two side walkers while a rider is mounted. Your riders will move in the saddle in unexpected ways, which makes a steady disposition critical in your horses. When evaluating a potential horse, make loud noises to see how the horse reacts. Riders will catch and throw objects while mounted, so horses need to be desensitized to those activities. There are physical exercises that might seem “off balance” to the horse, so try horses with an experienced rider who can mimic some of the actions and activities the horse will experience and see how it reacts.

5 to 15 years old. You might come across an older individual that is in very good health and has an excellent disposition. Keep in mind that older horses, just like us, tire more easily and might not be able to keep up with the rigors of a therapeutic schedule.

available to take on trial. It is wise to take all horses on a 30-day trial basis. A horse that is well-behaved when evaluated might be quite different once he is relocated. If possible take another person with you when evaluating a horse. Two pairs of eyes are better than one.

Trained Instructors

Consult with certifying programs such as the Certified Horsemanship Association (CHA) or the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International (PATH) to locate an instructor in your area, and consider getting certified yourself. You can also post an ad with CHA or PATH to find a certified instructor. Qualities to look for in an instructor include:

• the ability to develop goal-oriented lesson plans

• good, safe horsemanship and stable management skills

• the ability to communicate effectively with riders, caregivers and volunteers

Funding Options for Your Center

Donations from the community are one of the primary sources of income for therapeutic riding programs. In order to generate community support, you need to get the word out in a professional manner. Here are some ways to do that:

• Set up a website and create a newsletter to show donors how their support is benefiting the community. Always acknowledge donations given to your center!

• Set up a booth at local equine events such as rodeos, shows and clinics.

• Meet with leaders of other therapeutic riding centers, boarding and training stables, local equine groups and community leaders to garner support for your program.

Other fundraising options may include:

• applying for grants and endowments

• hosting events, such as horsemanship clinics

• asking local businesses to become official sponsors of the program

Don’t overlook donations of goods and services, as they can be as important as financial contributions. Local feed stores might supply discounted or free products for the horses.

How to Find Riders

So you have your facility, horses and equipment. Where do you find riders? Some of the best options are to meet with leaders of schools in your area, rehabilitation facilities and other medical practitioners; host a booth at local equine events such as shows, clinics and rodeos; and post flyers at feed stores and ranch supply stores.

You also might want to host an open house at your center and give attendees the opportunity to briefly interact with the horses. (Don’t forget those release forms!)

Volunteers Are Critical

Volunteers are the folks who will be the heart and soul of your program! They are irreplaceable. They will be your guardians in the arena, then will spend countless hours mucking the pens, grooming the horses and helping with administrative needs.

So where do you find such giving, selfless people?

• Distribute flyers at churches, schools, community and fitness centers.

• Share your passion at social events … kids and horses are contagious! • Invite friends, family and acquaintances on a tour of your barn and share your vision with them.

• Post an ad in the volunteer section of your local newspaper.

As a general rule, it is suggested that volunteers be no younger than 18 years of age. They will need to be able to walk in sandy, uneven terrain for at least an hour with occasional jogging. Horse experience is not necessary unless volunteering as a horse leader. You will want to conduct a volunteer orientation and rider-support training prior to allowing a volunteer to work with the horses or riders. Be sure to express your sincere gratitude frequently so they understand how grateful you are to have them helping you and your riders. Consider hosting a volunteer appreciation lunch and awards ceremony at the close of the season.

Take-Home Message

Lots of details? Yes! Can you do this? Yes! Take it in small steps and seek out support from those who have successfully navigated the waters. Soon, you too will be in awe of those special moments that happen in your arena.

Debbie Holmes is a PATH Intl. and CHA Certified Instructor and Equine Specialist. She is an instructor at Horses with H.E.A.R.T., a PATH and CHA Member Center. After teaching, planning and horse care, she enjoys spending time with “the boys,” her own equine collection. She can be reached at You can find out more about Certified Horsemanship Association at; to find a local instructor or barn in your area, visit


Horses With H.E.A.R.T.

Horses With H.E.A.R.T., where author Debbie Holmes serves as an instructor, was founded in 1993 by Vickie Stuart to provide individuals with disabilities the opportunity to participate in therapeutic and recreational horseback riding.

The inspiration came from Stuart’s time as a speech therapist working with Special Education students at Del Rio Elementary School in Chino Valley, Arizona. One day, she brought her daughter’s pony to work with the students. The children loved “Star” and responded so much better to him than to the traditional “four walls and balls” therapies.

From those humble beginnings, Horses With H.E.A.R.T. has grown to provide services to riders in group and individual lessons, as well as a Special Olympics Team, a Veterans Program and a Silver Saddles group.

In 2012, Horses With H.E.A.R.T. established a new, permanent facility in the Quad-Cities at the Gateway to Chino Valley. The covered arena, sensory trail and open arena are providing many hours of learning for special-needs riders. The organization’s dedicated team of volunteers logged in more than 20,000 hours for 2013. For more information on the center, visit






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