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leading hippotherapy program horses

From: Beate

Dear Jessica,

I am German and I have been in GA for a little bit over a year now. I ride for many years dressage and brought my Arabian mare over to the States. I studied a lot about horses and was supervised by excellent German trainers all my life. Realizing that the American way of riding and lunging the horse is very different I decided to start my business as a dressage trainer for beginners to intermediate level. Next year I am planing on getting certified with the ARIA, where I heard first about you.

I also work three horses twice a week for a hippotherapy program. I lunge them the German way, forward and down, with side reins in order to build their abdominal/back muscle up to make their life easier. In addition to that I help out with the program once a week. The three horses are very complicated when it comes to the program but when I work with them two of them are just great, trustful, nice and totally proud to perform. Number three, a little mare is halfway willing to work, but she tries to remind me a lot of times that she has got her own mind. But still I get along with her better than most of the people dealing with her.

The problem I see is that the volunteers are jerking and hitting at the horses and the horses fight for their freedom. One of the geldings, he is normally an angel, bites a lot and nobody wants to deal with the mare, because she does not move forward at all. The worst thing however is that most of the people I observed lead the horses not from the leadrope but hold them at the halter and pull heavily to make them going. The horses are not even able anymore to nod their heads in the walk. I told the therapist many times, this is like chaining someone's legs together and expecting the person to run a marathon. Anyway there are a lot of tensions meanwhile and I got attacked by one of the volunteers I had to take the horses shorter because I would endanger the kids and the kids are priority. I told her that making the horses tense and unhappy does not create a safe environment for the kids at all and asked her if she seriously thinks if the horse wants to pull his head up or buckle she could control him. That is wish-borne thinking and in my opinion, I still believe leading the horses on a slack rope and have the horses peacefully walk beside me with the head dropped is still safer than a tense horse, walking with his head not able to move and the ears far back.

Jessica, I guess I need some feedback because I am about to give up. Not only that it hurts seeing the horses being treated like that, I also suffer to be considered a threat for the kids and being told I care too much about the horses and not enough about the kids. Last not least there is never a 100% safety dealing with horses, but a happy horse is a safer horse than an unhappy one. I would really appreciate to hear from you. Thank you for your time, Beate


Hi Beate! I hope that you won't give up, because many hippotherapy programs desperately need to have someone involved who knows horses and understands how they should be treated. It sounds as though you are that person for this program.

The best-run programs are administered by people who understand and love both children AND horses. Therapy horses, like lesson horses, can "burn out" and become sour and unhappy if their needs and natures are completely ignored, and if they are offered no consideration. In any therapy program, the primary focus will, of course, be on the humans - children or adults - receiving therapy. But the horses MUST be considered too, or they won't be useful for very long, and may even become dangerous at some point.

Therapy horses and school horses work hard for a living. Their riders pull and kick, sometimes at random, and hang over them in any number of unbalanced positions. The horses have to adjust their strides to suit the needs of the humans on their backs, and need to be infinitely kind and patient. Fortunately for riding schools and hippotherapy programs, the world is full of infinitely kind and patient horses.

But even the kindest and most patient horse may not remain that way forever, especially if it is being mishandled. The people who run therapeutic riding programs AND those who run conventional lesson programs all need to keep this in mind. It's their responsibility to make life as easy and pleasant as possible for the horses in their care. After all, without those horses, there would BE no therapy and no lessons.

Some people have a distressing tendency to regard horses as mechanical objects, or as pieces of sports equipment. If the people running your program are like this, you may have to find new ways to persuade them to do the right thing. I find that in some cases, even utterly unsentimental humans without a single iota of horsemanship in their souls can be persuaded that their four-legged "sports equipment" ought to be maintained properly, in the interest of prolonging their using lives or "durability". The absolute minimum standards for maintenance would be proper housing, nutrition, and health care, proper attention to hooves and teeth, regular turnout and "days off", a work schedule that can be sustained over time, and tack that doesn't cause pain.

Kind handling SHOULD go without saying, but obviously this, too, must be included in the list of absolute minimum standards.

If the administrators are, as they seem to be, desperately ignorant about horses, but are truly interested in helping the riders, you might also be able to persuade them to do the right thing by pointing out that the entire POINT of hippotherapy is to allow the rider's body to experience and respond to the NATURAL, unconstrained movement of the horse's walk. That's what creates the neuromuscular development in the rider. Take away most of the horse's movement, and you not only make the horse uncomfortable and unhappy, but you deprive the rider of almost all the beneficial results. This isn't hippotherapy - it's nothing more than an uncomfortable, not particularly useful, and not at all therapeutic "pony ride".

The kind of handling you've described, with leading techniques that make the horses tense and high-headed instead of relaxed, low-headed and calm, and that interfere with the horses' ability to move correctly at the walk, is not acceptable. Over time, it will make the horses both sour and lame. I'll modify your example slightly - since horses use their heads and necks as balancers at the walk, in the same way that humans use their arms, you're really looking at a situation that compares most accurately to humans trying to walk normally whilst their arms are tied to their sides. Both the horses with tightly-held heads and the humans with tied arms will be uncomfortable in the short run. They will be even more uncomfortable in the long run, and they will eventually become lame - or they will begin to fight those who try to force them to walk under those conditions.

I fear that at some point, given the situation you've described, those horses will have no choice but to react naturally - that is, with biting and kicking - to the constant torment. Unfortunately, when that happens it will almost certainly be the horses that suffer!

The only way OUT of this situation is for someone to impress upon the people in charge of the program just how very important it is to have the horses handled correctly - and then for someone to TEACH the volunteers to handle the horses correctly, and keep teaching them until they develop the HABIT of handling the horses correctly. A one-time lecture and demonstration won't work - the inept handling and hitting that you've described are typical results when ignorant and fearful humans without training or supervision are put in charge of horses. Someone needs to be put in charge of the training - and of the supervision - and there will need to be some major changes to keep everyone, riders included, safe. The horses in any hippotherapy program must be treated as the valued partners they are, not as adversaries who need to be beaten and hit.

Do your best to convince the people in charge to make some very necessary changes, Beate. But if they won't listen, don't continue to smash your head against a brick wall. If you can't persuade them to do the right thing, it might be in your best interest to go elsewhere and find another position. If things continue as they are, someone - or several someones - will be badly hurt. There's no reason for you to be associated with that - or to live with the resulting nightmares.

If you have to give up on THIS program, though, please do not give up on ALL such programs. Like everything else, they vary widely in quality. Facilities and horses vary too, but at the end of the day, the fundamental quality of a therapy program or a lesson program depends on the calibre and values of the people who run it. Sometimes, if those people are simply inattentive or misdirected, pointing out the truth can make a big difference. I hope that will prove true in this case, but if it doesn't, please don't blame yourself. This isn't your barn and these aren't your horses - so although you know what is right, the only thing you can do is TRY.

I hope you'll let me know what happens - and I look forward to meeting you in person at the next ARIA National Seminar.

Jessica

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