Wrong Therapy Horse

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Dear Miss Julie Goodnight,
I am a Wounded Warrior at Ft. Leonard Wood, MO, and have sustained spinal injuries in Iraq. I have had surgeries and now am left using a cane due to nerve damage in my legs. I have waited 15 years to have a horse of my own. I was recently given a quarter horse that is about 7yrs old. I was told he would be a great therapy horse. He was abused, and prefers women. He is a lover, but has a very suborn side and is very spooky. I can saddle him without issue and lead him with a saddle on, but once in the pen and I’m on him he won’t budge. He has thrown my sister off while I was leading him with her on him. I was hoping to teach him voice commands, but am now a little leery. I cannot afford a professional trainer at this time due to my disability. Am I biting off more than I can chew? I don’t want to give someone else his problems.
Thank you for your time,
SGT Barbara

Dear SGT Barbara,
First, let me join all my readers in thanking your for your courageous and selfless service to our country and acknowledge the personal sacrifices you have made for others, both in Iraq and here at home.
Secondly, let me go on record as saying that horses can be a powerful tool in healing—not only physically, but mentally and emotionally as well and I am so glad to hear that you are started down this path. But given your circumstances, I think it is critical that you start down this road with a safe and reliable horse. You cannot afford another injury at this time—who among us can? Furthermore, you deserve to have a horse that will help you heal and grow stronger, not take away your confidence and possibly cause you to get hurt.
This horse has some serious issues that probably need to be addressed by a professional trainer. My guess is that his problems are not insurmountable for someone more qualified, but it does not sound like an appropriate horse for you at this time. Who knows what led him to this state but the fact that he was given to you could be a red flag. It is true that there is no such thing as a free horse and yes, you should always look a gift horse in the mouth.
Believe it or not, the purchase price on any horse is the least amount of money you will spend—their upkeep and maintenance is where the real expense lays. There is nothing wrong with recognizing that you have a horse that you are not equipped to deal with and moving forward—it is the best decision for both you and the horse. No horse is worth getting hurt over and besides, this horse will be better off in more capable hands.
If possible, I would try to return this horse to the person that gave it to you. If that will not work, I would suggest contacting a horse rescue group for assistance in finding this horse a more appropriate home. Just because you are not in a situation to deal with this horse, does not mean that there are others out there that can’t. As long as you are honest and up front about the horse, you are not passing the buck but simply doing the right and sensible thing for your own personal safety and for the good of the horse.
You deserve a horse that is safe and steady and that you can start enjoying and progressing with right away—you’ve spent a long time waiting for this and you need it—but you want to start out right. These days, with the unprecedented glut of unwanted horses, I am confident that there are plenty of horses out there that would better suit your needs. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that right now, there are people reading this article that have a suitable horse for you that they would be thrilled to see put to such good use. If so, perhaps they could contact me and I could put them in touch with you.
I’d like to see you with an older horse, say 16 or over, that has “been there, done that.” Even a horse in his 20s will have a lot of usefulness left in him and the value of that life experience is huge. You know exactly what you’re getting with a horse of that age. They are set in their ways and generally there are no big surprises.
Whatever horse comes your way, you should evaluate him as if you were paying $10,000 for him, even if he is free. Have a trainer or a very experienced friend ride the horse and give you their opinion before you make a decision. Have a vet examine the horse to make sure he is sound and healthy. As you’ve seen already, just because a horse is free or low cost, doesn’t mean it’s a good deal if it costs you a fortune in training and vet bills; not to mention the cost of one trip to the emergency room.
Perhaps you can put it out on the Internet and at websites like dreamhorse.com that you are looking for a horse to help you recover from the wounds you sustained in Iraq. I feel confident that there are lots of people with more suitable horses that would love to help you.
Again, thank you for your selfless service and I hope that you find the horse of your dreams to help you grow strong again.
All the best,

–Julie Goodnight, Clinician and Trainer

Burned Out

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This Issue: Burned Out

Recently I was a speaker at the PATH International therapeutic riding conference—the annual convention. The crowd was full of hundreds of physical therapists, mental health specialists, therapeutic instructors, horse handlers, side walkers and barn managers that work for therapeutic riding programs. My presentation was on avoiding and resolving burnout in therapy horses.

Now, this is a very popular subject because every therapeutic riding program out there shares this problem. While only the best-tempered and most qualified horses are used in such a program, their job is stressful (both physically and mentally), tiring, boring, repetitive and sometimes downright obnoxious. Sometimes as many as five adults are hovering over the client and micromanaging the horse’s every step. With a high dependency on volunteerism in TRPs, the horse has to get used to a revolving door of handlers. Sometimes the client is off balance, moving spasmodically or unpredictably, laughing or screaming loudly. Most therapy horses work hard for a living and many of them also have to make ends meet by working extra hours packing around able-bodied riders in lessons—a novice rider that thinks she knows what she is doing is often harder on the horse than a therapeutic client. As you can imagine, burnout is an occupational hazard in these horses.

Every therapeutic riding program I’ve worked with has problems with horses biting, horses that learn bad habits or avoidance techniques (particularly around the mounting block), horses that develop bad manners, and worst of all, the horses that learn that they can get away with stuff like biting the handler when there is a client on its back because they know the handler won’t take the risk of disciplining the horse with the client on its back. Maybe you’ve had some personal experience with this, if not in a therapy horse how about in a show horse? I consulted with Disney World a few years ago and they had this problem with some of Cinderella’s ponies (you know, the little white ponies that pull the pumpkin carriage). Disney horse handlers are strictly forbidden from taking any disciplinary action at all when the horses are in the park in front of guests and unfortunately sometimes clever little devil ponies learn they can get away with stuff like biting the handler in the park, but they never do it outside where the handler could take disciplinary action. This is a very bad deal because once they learn that there is a certain place that they can get away with stuff, you cannot unlearn it. So we must do our best to prevent the horse from learning this to begin with by being diligent to the horse’s behavior and obedience and taking corrective action before the horse figures it out. Fortunately, most horses are not that smart.

Have you ever had a horse that learned he can get away with things in certain settings? It reminds me of when my sisters and I were little and my parents dressed us up and took us to a very fancy restaurant where we promptly staged a revolt and crawled under the white-linen table and refused to come out (it was my sister’s idea; I was just a pawn in her scheme). We just knew they wouldn’t do anything to us there and that there would be no spanking in the fancy restaurant. Little did we know that later, at home, we would come to regret our actions. Unfortunately, with horses, punishing them after-the fact will serve no purpose other than to confuse the horse and teach him not to trust you. Regret is not a train of thought your horse will follow. As I am fond of saying—once three seconds goes by, it’s a whole ‘nother day to the horse and there is no connection whatsoever.

Although a lot of these behavior problems in therapy horses have to do with the difficult and stressful job they do, much of this it has to do with poor handling and the ever-revolving door of handlers with varying degrees of competence. Many larger and well-funded programs employ a full-time trainer whose job it is to maintain the therapy horse’s training, avoid bad habits and take care of the horse’s mental and physical needs. But the smaller programs are scrapping for every labor dollar they have and usually can’t afford this luxury, so they have to do the best they can, with the people they have.

I wish I had had more time for the presentation because we had about 8-10 therapy horses from several different programs here in Colorado, with a variety of interesting issues. It was way too many horses to work with in the 90 minutes allotted to me. There were a many points that I wanted to stress in training the volunteers and in the day-to-day handling of the horses, but I found myself focusing again and again on a few key points: don’t micro-manage the horse, don’t crowd and grab the horse and be sure to maintain a level of authority with the horse.

Biting horses is probably the most common problem TRPs deal with, a problem that many horse people encounter, but the therapy horses are way more prone to it than any other population I know of. I’ve spent some time pondering this problem and have observed many different operations and to me, the cause is quite clear—the horses are sick and tired of everyone being in their space! These horses get so over-handled with so many well-intentioned people that don’t always do the right thing. The horse handler crowds the horse’s face, often choked up on the lead rope and micro-managing every movement the horse makes (if he’s being used in a TRP, he knows what he is doing; he does it every day and usually knows it better than the handler). Worse, the handler sometimes leads with the reins or clamps down on the reins just behind the bit; both of these actions are VERY hard on a horse’s mouth. Is it any surprise so many therapy horses bite?

It’s just like with riding a horse—at some point you need to quit micro-managing him and just trust the horse to do his job, especially when it is something he knows how to do. Step back, put some slack in the lead (or reins) and let him do his job. You cannot prevent a horse from moving by holding him still (who are you kidding if you think you can hold a 1000 pound horse still?) but you can train him that it is an expectations of yours that he not move his feet without a cue, then step back, loosen the lead and expect him to stand; correct him if he doesn’t. Don’t try to prevent him from making a mistake, just correct him when he does.

This will only work if you have authority over your horse and he respects your leadership; otherwise, when you step back or loosen up, he just does whatever he wants. I have written a lot about this subject—it’s all over my Training Library—and I spent a lot of time in my NARHA presentation just teaching simple ground manners to the horses (and teaching the handlers what to do and what not to do). A horse doesn’t automatically respect you, trust you or accept your authority over all things unless you earn it. And if everyone knew how to do that, I’d be out of a job!

It was a great workshop and I really enjoyed it. The session ended too soon and as usual, I could think of about a thousand things I wish I had time to cover. If you were there, let me know what you enjoyed the most and what you wished we could’ve covered. If you’re involved in a TRP—good for you! It is a valuable and satisfying field and TRPs are always in need of more volunteers, so check it out. If you cannot afford the time, maybe you can make a donation to your local therapeutic riding program(cash is king for these low-budget non-profits). If you are not involved in a TRP, perhaps you can still find some useful information here to help you avoid problems with your horse.
Enjoy the ride!
Julie

–Julie Goodnight