Turn ’em Loose

Sometimes you just have to trust your horses.

One of the biggest things that struck me when I started helping with therapeutic riding was how extremely protected and helped the riders were. On one hand this safety aspect was enlightening, and I became appalled at how unsafe some of the things were we had done at the horse camps I worked at. But on the other hand, I felt that some riders were capable of so much more than we were allowing them to do.

It also struck me how much I trusted those camp horses – how much I had to – and how little I was willing to trust our therapy horses. At camp we had 8-10 kids in an arena or on the trail with no leaders or sidewalkers, and I had to trust that the horses would take care of them, and they did.

I have been told that for adapted riding you only unclip your rider if you are sure that they could stay on and control the horse if anything were to happen. But I think that for some riders, you can unclip them if you are sure they could stay on even if they can’t control the horse, because the only way they are going to learn to control the horse is if you don’t do it for them.

I had a rider recently, a nonverbal adult with ASD, who had great balance, has been on trail rides at state parks, but would not participate in lessons except for tossing the ball no matter how hard we helped him. His caregiver mentioned that at home he cooks, but if you help him even the slightest he immediately stops trying. So last week I turned him loose, unclipped him, kept the leader spotting, and that horse wouldn’t move unless he directed it. It took lots of verbal prompts, some physically starting off the correct movement for him, and lots of patience, but by the end of the lesson he was using his legs and reins to control the horse more than he ever had before. I couldn’t believe it. And I had to trust his horse. I wouldn’t have done that with any horse, but I knew this one would take care of him.

I had another rider once, a young child with ASD, who they used to have trouble just keeping on the horse and holding the reins (read: always a thigh hold, hand-over-hand, and hypervigilence). Eventually he held the reins but would not focus on what he was doing or steering. So one day I gave him a super loose lead rope and told him his leader would not help and his horse would not do anything unless he himself did it (and told the leader to support him right away when he cued his horse, to give him that immediate feedback). He got very worried at first but I told him “You can do it” and you could see the wheels turning in his head as he figured out HE could actually control his horse. It was extremely exciting for him. After I moved I heard he started riding unclipped, which I never would have expected when I first started working with him.

Sometimes you just gotta take the training wheels off. It can be extremely empowering – for the rider to gain independence, and for you to trust your horse. Be smart about it. Maybe not during a thunderstorm, or with every horse, or with every rider, but sometimes you just have to trust your horse, and turn ’em loose.

Thank you for listening to my musings.

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Note: This is not professional advice, this is a blog. I am not liable for what you do with or how you use this information. The activities explained in this blog may not be fit for every rider, riding instructor, or riding center depending on their current condition and resources. Use your best personal judgment!

4 thoughts on “Turn ’em Loose

  1. This is a really useful post – thank you, and it reinforces what we are trying to do in the UK with our disabled/ASD riders. Trying to let them have more independence in their riding and unclipping the horse. As you say, it is not easy especially if you have a horse who doesn’t go forward easily (but they’re safe) and then have the frustrated rider tapping away with his legs – we’ll get there though, I’m sure. Great Post!

  2. I agree with you. Many of those we work with are so restricted in many facets of their daily lives and riding is the perfect avenue, when done safely, to help foster independence and put even a small amount of control back in their lives! I have had many riders who just sat on their horse for a glorified pony ride when being led, but once that lead rope came off they took charge and progressed exponentially, even when they still had a full team of volunteers! I don’t believe they have to be 100% capable of riding independently in order to experience the excitement and progression of riding off lead! My goal is always to empower my riders as much as possible in a safe environment, and that often includes riding off lead!

    • Love it! —> “I don’t believe they have to be 100% capable of riding independently in order to experience the excitement and progression of riding off lead! My goal is always to empower my riders as much as possible in a safe environment, and that often includes riding off lead!” —- Thanks so much for this comment, Dionne!

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