I work for the National Center for Equine Facilitated Therapy (NCEFT) in Woodside, CA. We try to improve the lives of children and adults with disabilities by providing equine-assisted therapy and equine assisted activities and promoting research and education in the field of hippotherapy. We recently started a blog in the hopes of sharing our stories, and this post gives a little bit of insight into our approach to training therapy horses. I hope that being featured on your blog might help bring more awareness to our own blog and the benefits of equine facilitated therapy
Original Post: http://nceftspeaks.wordpress.com/2011/06/27/the-therapy-horse/
We ask the world of them. To both tune in and tune out. To be dead to the world and yet so sensitive a touch or a word elicits instant change. We ask them to be therapy horses. Friends, teachers, soft rumps to lie on, warm bodies to hug. They listen unwearyingly to stories, quietly endure bouts of tears, and show heart-breaking tenderness.
The question is, are these horses born or made? We say the answer is both, born with kind souls and carefully shaped into solid citizens. In the process of auditioning potential horses we come across quiet horses, loving horses, easy horses. Yet, rarely do we find therapy horses. Why? What training techniques result in Expectations. The steadfast belief that one’s horse is not only capable of the task at hand, but that the task itself is unassuming. The NCEFT staff currently has the pleasure of working with a young Fjord, TUF Stormy Weather, owned by our Barn Manager, Bonnie MacCurdy. Having just turned 6 in May, Stormy is shattering expectations by not only participating in daily hippotherapy sessions, but playing roles as a therapeutic driving, vaulting, and riding horse. Though born with the soft temperament essential to therapy work, it was careful training that brought Stormy to his full potential.
Now, don’t confuse careful training with finessed training. Not to say that timing and release aren’t important, but in the immortal word’s of Nike, “Just do it.” We believe our horses can do anything. We approach every task with the simple expectation of success, nothing more. The path to success may be filled with twist and turns, bumps, and dead ends, but we get there. Too often we confuse perfection and success, and as a result, too often does failure discourage us.
Earlier this year we took Stormy and our other two Fjords—7 year old Tonka, and 14 year old Sebastian—to a handful of schooling shows. Our goal: a different discipline every month. None of the shows were perfect. At the Hunter-Jumper show all the horses were a little strong in the ring. The Dressage show found an exuberant Sebastian more interested in hand-galloping than halting at X, and Stormy’s slow jog went out the window at the Western show. Yet every show was successful. Not only did the horses stand quietly between classes, but cantered to a win in the Equitation pattern class, earned scores over 70% in Dressage, and nearly took home a Western buckle.
Many of us are deterred by the idea of failure, making no attempt if perfection is unlikely. We limit our expectations and spend more time analyzing our faults than actually doing anything. We try to teach our horses to canter by spending entire rides trotting a circle, analyzing our bend, suppleness, impulsion, flexion. But we don’t canter.
So, how do you train a therapy horse? You ride them down the road to the tie-rail by the grocery store, you hop on bareback for a game of mounted basketball, you canter on the right lead, left lead, any lead really as long as you’re cantering. You put scarves on their heads and throw balls at their legs, and sing “Old McDonald” at the top of your lungs. You stop analyzing and start doing, and before you know it, somewhere between the trail rides and champagne races you realize your horse has learned to halt off your seat, to sidepass and back, to move forward with a shift in weight. Somewhere amidst all the “doing” you’ve found success.
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