I’m a firm believer in volunteer work. It’s good for your mental health, you’re helping your community, and you can meet a diverse group of people. You can also learn new skills and potentially make career-related connections. There’s a volunteer option out there for everyone, including horse people!
Volunteering at a therapeutic riding center is a great way to be involved with an equestrian organization that makes a real difference in people’s lives. If you’re currently unable to have your own horse or take lessons, it’s a great way to get your horse fix. If you’re considering becoming a horse owner for the first time, it can be a good place to get hands-on experience. If you’re currently a horse owner or regular lesson taker, it’s the perfect way to share the joy of riding with others.
I worked at a therapeutic riding center for the better part of three years in a variety of capacities (mainly as the equine manager and as the lead instructor); here’s my best advice for getting the most out of your volunteering experience!
- Call or email someone at the center to ask about what kind of help they need. The answer will probably be that they need help during lessons; many people who participate in therapeutic riding lessons are not able-bodied and require assistance to ride. They may need someone to lead the horse or walk alongside it and help them stay on and balanced. That’s not to say this is the ONLY kind of help that’s needed, just that it’s the most common.
- Don’t expect to do a lot of riding. This was the number one request at the center where I worked; people always wanted to know if they could help exercise the horses and were always disappointed when I had to tell them no. This may vary from center to center, but in general, therapy horses get plenty of exercise through their scheduled lessons. Several of the horses at my center had soundness issues that made them unsuitable for typical riding. When they were ridden by an able-bodied rider, it was usually for their mental health (e.g. a trail ride through the hay meadow) with a staff member.
- Be clear about what you’re comfortable with. If you would rather volunteer to muck out stalls or groom and tack horses, say so! If you are not confident in your ability to lead a horse, or if you have a medical condition which makes walking briskly for half an hour difficult, let someone know. You can help in other ways! Maybe you have a lot of experience fundraising, or you can update the center’s website, or you excel at Excel.
- Be prepared to follow instructions. This seems obvious, but it’s important! During lessons, listen to the instructor and follow their directions. If they ask you to halt the horse, or adjust your hold on a rider, or give less assistance, please do so! There’s usually a reason they’re asking. If you’re helping in the barn, you may be asked to do things a particular way- maybe the stalls need to be bedded with three bags of shavings, or maybe a particular horse can’t eat high-sugar treats. Most centers welcome suggestions and ideas, but the time to address them is not in the middle of ride!
- Wear appropriate clothing and footwear. This is another obvious suggestion, but it bears repeating! Wear sensible shoes for walking around horses. If your cowboy boots hurt your feet when you walk for half an hour, opt for your tennis shoes. If you’re coming from work, plan to bring a change of clothes so your nice clothes don’t get grimy. Just because you aren’t riding doesn’t mean a horse won’t cough up something disgusting and green on you.
- Don’t be afraid! Sometimes, genuinely nice, pleasant, well-meaning people are completely freaked out when presented with the possibility of interacting with people with special needs. I know, because I was one of them. When I first started assisting in lessons, I was concerned about hurting participants, talking to them the wrong way, or upsetting them simply by being typical and able-bodied. But the more I did it, the more comfortable I became, and it wasn’t long before I was comparing favorite Nintendo DS games with a twelve year old boy, commiserating about homework with a teenage girl, and chatting with a woman old enough to be my mother about her experiences teaching birth classes at a local hospital. Of course, not every participant is willing or able to communicate, but you cannot go wrong treating people like they are people- regardless of their ability level. (For some excellent advice on interacting with people with disabilities, check out this link.)
Therapeutic horseback riding is amazing; I’ve seen it have phenomenally positive effects on participants of all ages and ability levels. Most centers could not serve their clients without volunteer help. If you’re looking for a way to volunteer that involves horses, sign up to help today! You can find a center through PATH International.
And, of course, I’m always happy to talk about my experiences in therapeutic riding if you’re curious about its benefits or the process of becoming a certified instructor.