Horse-related volunteering: therapeutic riding

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!

Photo from Flickr Creative Commons
Photo from Flickr Creative Commons

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.

Photo from Flickr Creative Commons
Photo from Flickr Creative Commons

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.

Author: Stephanie

Equestrian, amateur cook, people person.

16 thoughts on “Horse-related volunteering: therapeutic riding”

  1. Therapeutic riding is actually how I got back into riding after so many years off. I started by just helping groom and tack up, then in lessons as a side-walker and lead and eventually exercising the horses. They only had 7-8 acres of very limited turnout but it backed up to a big park where we could take them to blow off some steam. Volunteering there was so rewarding I actually felt as though I was getting more out of it sometimes!

    1. I’m sure those horses enjoyed outings in a big park! TRCs are a very rewarding experience and I bet you’re not the only volunteer who thought they were getting more out of it than participants were!

  2. Beware of volunteering at a therapeutic riding facility, bonding with the horse that everyone hates and that dislikes disabled people, and eventually finding yourself owning this dreaded horse…

  3. Volunteering at a local therapeutic riding facility was exactly how I began getting horse experience! I absolutely loved it and volunteered all throughout high school. I actually even looked at a college with a degree in therapeutic riding instruction before I decided I didn’t want to niche myself too much. The farm that i worked with also had a program for able bodied kids from more urban area towns in addition to their disabled programs, which was really awesome.

    1. That is totally awesome that they had a program for able-bodied kids! My program had a week-long summer camp for them, but I would have loved to had them more often. It’s definitely a niche field, and I can’t say my experience has translated (although I am now much more proficient at identifying lameness and much less likely to call the vet about all sorts of stuff haha!), but it was rewarding.

  4. Love this post, this is the first year in many where I haven’t had a therapeutic riding barn ‘job’ for at least part of the year. I miss it! (And yes, there is always room for more volunteers – I did everything from side walking to exercising the horses to managing the barn and doing the maintenance. So much fun 🙂

  5. I donated a horse to our local therapeutic facility…. but they gave her back.
    Despite that experience, it is an amazing thing for those with disabilities! Kudos to you for working in that capacity!

    1. That’s too bad that she didn’t work well for them! I always hated calling owners to say “your horse isn’t working out”- I always felt they were being so generous to offer horses in the first place!

      1. I was a little frustrated because they kept her for 3 months. And told me how amazing she was at everything they asked of her. But she was afraid of their tactile trail. (Us outsiders call it the trail of terror. They have a short trail through the woods that has things like pool noodles hanging from the trees for the riders to reach out for and what not.) It perplexed me some why she couldn’t stay if she was so good at everything else. But I found her a wonderful home so all worked out.

  6. I volunteered at a equine therapy place when I was in high school. It was a lot of fun. I’d love to do it again, but it would require spending an hour in traffic each way for the nearest place (it’s 15 minutes away if there’s no traffic, but after school time is when they want volunteers and that is traffic time). Excuses, excuses, right? I do donate $ in lieu of my time, but I feel like I should be volunteering too.

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