Miracle Workers: Therapy Horses at Work

Photo courtesy of Maryland Therapeutic Riding
Bob, one of the therapy horses, giving a child a ride during a session.

Nearly everyone is familiar with therapy dogs, who visit hospitals, nursing homes, disaster victims and even universities during finals week to provide comfort and lower stress. But did you know there are also therapy horses? There are — and they can help with more than just emotional well-being.

The horses at Maryland Therapeutic Riding (MTR) work in two basic programs. One is hippotherapy, which is performed by licensed physical, speech and occupational therapists. "They're using the horse's movement as a therapy tool, just as they'd use a ball in a clinical setting," says Kelly Rodgers, program director.

The other program is therapeutic riding, where certified instructors teach riding skills to people with a wide range of disabilities, including autism, cerebral palsy and PTSD.

"It takes a very special horse to do this job," Rodgers says.

The Job Description

One fundamental quality these horses need is the ability to be comfortable with a wide range of people. More than 150 volunteers assist in the programs, and clients can be kids or adults, some using canes or wheelchairs. "There are riders that might have balance problems or behavior problems," Rodgers says. "[The horses] have to deal with a lot of different noises."

The riding tasks can also be unusual. Some riders use an automatic lift to help them mount a horse. "The therapists may have the client ride backward or sideways — a lot of things that are not very natural for a horse," she says. "In our lessons we have some clients who need full support — that means someone leading the horse and someone on each side of the horse."

Rodgers says many of their horses are retiring from another career, such as show jumping or trail riding, but the organization generally doesn't use older horses as some people expect, since it's actually a very physically demanding job.

"In a regular setting, they have riders that can balance themselves and can carry their weight," she says. "This is different for them, so it's important that the horse is 100 percent sound and physically fit." They're kept that way with a strict exercise schedule to get the kind of workout they don't get in lessons, and close attention is paid to their nutrition, health and saddle fitting. In addition, the horses are kept up-to-date with all vaccinations and farrier and veterinary care.

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