Horses are the lifeblood of our programs. Without the horse, therapeutic riding does not exist. So how do we make sure we are choosing the right horse? First, we need to identify the individual needs of our center. This includes looking at strengths, weaknesses, threats, and opportunities. After we do that, we can start discussing how to choose a horse.
I’m going to make up an example here that is probably common to a number of centers: expanding services. Let’s take a smaller center as an example that does not have it’s own facilities and needs to pay for horse care, including board. The center is ready to expand into a veteran’s program, but does not have a horse that can currently handle large, independent, adult riders.
First things first, create a budget for the horse before going on the hunt. This way, it is immediately obvious if a horse is not an option. Will the center buy a horse? Does the horse need long-term veterinary or additional farrier care? Does the horse require special feed, turnout, blankets, tack, etc.? You might find a great horse out there, but the horse costs $5,000 upfront and the annual care is another $2,000. That is likely out of the budget for most small therapeutic riding centers!
After establishing a budget, identify what the horse will be used for and what qualities it needs. I mentioned expanding into a veteran’s program. Will the horse need to walk and trot under saddle or is it a walk only program? Will the veterans ride or is it solely ground-based? Does the horse also need to be used for therapeutic riding lessons, hippotherapy, equine-facilitated psychotherapy, or other programs the center runs?
Once we know what the horse needs to do, we can start narrowing down characteristics. Let’s assume the horse needs to walk, trot, canter under saddle for beginner to intermediate adult riders and be used in some ground-based activities. We are talking about a big horse (15.2 HH or more) that can handle over 200 pounds. The horse needs to be consistently sound and able to be ridden by beginners. This requires a steady gait and a steady mind. The horse also needs to be handled on the ground. A horse with bad ground manners, but great under saddle doesn’t sound like the right fit. A horse that is too large (over 16.3 HH) might also not be the right fit if it will be used for ground activities. If you want the horse to be in the program for long-term use, a younger horse is a better option than a horse already in it’s mid-to-late twenties.
The last piece to consider when choosing a horse is how soon will the horse need to be used? Is there time to train a horse if it needs work on its ground manners? Can you spend time bringing a horse back up to regular work if it’s been out to pasture for a couple years? Can you manage without the horse for a short time if it has a difficult time transitioning to a new barn and herd?
Once you have answers to all these questions and have a clear picture of the horse you want, then you can put the word out to your community and get your horse!
After writing this post, I may also do a separate post on choosing a horse for therapeutic riding specifically. There is more consideration that goes into the attitude, personality, size, and movement of a therapeutic riding horse than a ground-based or EAAT horse. Let me know if you would be interested in that post in the comments below!