Considerations of the Therapy Horse

As the equine manager of a therapeutic riding center, I receive lots of calls from people who want to donate their horse(s) to us. I get more calls in the winter than any other time of year; some people seem to view TRCs as horse rescues and are frequently surprised (and sometimes angry) when I tell them we aren’t currently accepting or seeking new horses to add to our program. It’s the truth- the center at which I work has twenty horses. We’ve had twenty horses since May 2012. The feed, vet, farrier, and general care budget is planned around this number. Our hay quantity is planned around this number. (All of our hay is donated; we sell what we project will be extra.) There’s certainly some wiggle room, but generally, winter is not the time to begin adding horses to the program. 

There are a lot of reasons to donate your horse to a therapeutic riding program, but not wanting to feed them through the winter is not one of them. And before you call your local center to gush about how great you think your horse would be as a therapy horse, consider the following:
  • Is your horse sound? Your horse or pony doesn’t have to be sound enough to go out an gallop a cross-country course tomorrow, but it does need to be able to endure up to three hours a day of walking and some trotting, frequently with very unbalanced people aboard. We have a few horses with some issues: a horse with low scale chronic laminitis; a horse who tore a suspensory ligament a couple of years ago; several senior horses with mild to moderate arthritis. These are issues than can be handled relatively easily with a good farrier, glucosamine injections, and careful consideration of workload. If your horse is dead lame most of the time and limps around the pasture, please don’t call me. Therapy horses do work and need to be able to hold up to the load.
  • How old is your horse? The average age of a horse at our center is about 20 years old. Our youngest horse is 10; our oldest is 31. We’re open to evaluating horses of any age as long as they’re in reasonably good health, but many centers will not consider a horse over about 15 years old. While older horses usually have more experience and exposure than their younger counterparts, they also come with the potential for more health issues and more expense. If your horse’s teeth are falling out and he has one hoof in the grave, either euthanize him yourself or let him live out his days peacefully at your place. Not only is it expensive for TRCs to care for your very senior horse, it’s extremely traumatic for our students (who are all special needs) when a horse dies. Conversely, we are definitely not interested in your yearling. 
  • What kind of experiences has your horse had? I spoke with a gentleman a couple of months ago who wanted to donate an ungelded yearling and an unbroken three year old. Clearly, he thought we were conducting a different type of program. Recently, I received a call from a woman was interested in donating a four year old mare who’d had about sixty days of training around two years ago. She assured me the mare was very gentle and had wonderful manners. I assured her we were not looking to add any more horses to our program at this time. Therapy horses are exposed to all kinds of stuff- from riders who hum and rock back and forth to wheelchairs to Christmas trees in the middle of the arena. Horses that come from show backgrounds (especially rodeo backgrounds) and trail riding families are usually okay for therapy work, as they’ve seen and heard enough commotion to be unfazed by Sally Sue screaming at the top of her lungs and bouncing a rubber ball off the horse’s poll.
  • How big is your horse? We never, ever need a 17hh+ horse. Ever. Period. Typically, we aren’t looking for miniature horses either, although some centers with driving programs may be interested in them. Most of our horses are around 15 hands, though we do have three ponies that are about 12 hands tall. Remember that many special needs riders require lots of assistance mounting and dismounting. Mounting ramps are used for many riders, but even lifting a 150 person two feet onto a horse’s back can be difficult. Lifting them any higher is damn near impossible. Dismounting from a large horse can be troublesome too.
  • What vices does your horse have? My center has a whole slew of horses that pace around their stalls. This is an easy vice to deal with, especially since the horses are turned out almost all the time. Vices that are deal-breakers include kicking (people or other horses) and biting. Occasionally, some horses get cranky and begin nibbling on people leading them; we usually deal with this by working with the horse to address the issue (as opposed to immediately kicking them out of the program).
Other things you’ll want to consider before donating your horse:
  • What options are their for giving your horse to a TRC? The center I work for is part of a state university; as such, horses that are donated become property of the state. The owner gets a tax write off and relinquishes control of the horse. Since the horse is state property, it’s disposed of as such if we decide it’s no longer working out for us. Generally, we try to find someone to foster the horse, but sometimes the horses are sold. Oklahoma state law dictates that state property must be disposed of at public sale or auction. We don’t ship any horses down to the stockyards, but we do advertise the horses for sale in local newspapers and on the university’s website. On the advertised date of the sale, sealed bids are submitted for the horse(s) and the highest bidder wins the horse. If you’re concerned about where your horse might end up after his therapy career is over, I’d encourage you to talk with your local TRC about what they do with horses that aren’t suitable for therapy any more. Not all centers are bound by the same restrictions we are, as most are not affiliated with a state entity. I know of one center in another part of Oklahoma that essentially uses donated horses as fundraisers- they take all horses as tax-deductible donations and if the horses don’t work out, they sell them at the stockyards. Please take the time to ask for clarification and understand what happens to your horse when he retires. Ask if there’s an alternative, like a long-term lease. This is the option I encourage people to use; in a long-term lease, you retain ownership of the horse. If you decide you want him back, you just submit a written notice. If we decide he’s done with therapy work, you get him back to do whatever you want. You don’t get a tax write-off for long term leases, but many people feel better about their horse’s ultimate fate.
  • Are you sure you’re done with your horse? Once you’ve given your horse to a TRC, he’s there to work. Our horses average five rides per week and are sometimes ridden twice a day. If another horse is injured, your horse might have to pull double-duty. (For example, last semester when one horse was recuperating from an eye injury, we had a big pinto gelding pick up most of his riders. That gelding ended up with nine riders a week.) We encourage owners to come visit their horse as often as they like and I send owners three letters a year with pictures and an update on their horse. Don’t expect to ride your horse once he’s at a therapy center, though. It would be difficult for us to schedule a time for you to come ride him; most horses are under a heavy enough work load that we prefer to let them rest on days they don’t have riders. If you still want to take your horse on trail rides or occasionally hop on him bareback and ride around the pasture, please don’t donate him yet.
A career as a therapy horse is a great option for a mature horse that’s retired from his first job but isn’t ready to be turned out in the pasture 24/7 yet. Horses that enjoy people and like to work, but maybe aren’t up to the rigors of reining or roping or regular gallops are good candidates. It’s rewarding as an owner to see your horse helping people with disabilities achieve their goals. 
If you want to give your horse a new lease on life, don’t do it because you can’t feed him this winter or because you’re tired of paying for the medical expenses of your senior horse. Do it because you love him and want to help other people.


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