Horse Selection for Therapeutic Riding 2.0: Exceptions to the Rule

The other weekend I attended the PATH Intl Region 4 Conference and thought it was great! The sessions were informative and the retreat center Potter’s Ranch was beautiful. My favorite session was about horse selection for riders with disabilities because the presenters highlighted how sometimes the general guidelines shouldn’t be followed. So in this post I’m going to share with you those thoughts!

Horse Selection for Therapeutic Riding 2.0: Exceptions to the Rule

For general guidelines about pairing horse and rider, see these posts:

However, it’s not always so cut and dry as following the rules! The PATH Intl Region 4 Conference seminar  “How to Select the Best Horse in Your Herd to Meet a Therapeutic Riding Participant’s Needs” by Kim Berggren of Cheff Therapeutic Riding Center and Amanda Bubb of Reins Of Life, Inc. discussed some examples of when the usual guidelines may not be the best course of action.

When a horse with issues can be used.

Ex) The horse has an inconsistent movement pattern.

  • Usually this is not beneficial to the rider, who needs symmetry of movement on both sides of their body. However, upon a closer look you may realize this horse is actually asymmetrical because it’s being led by inexperienced handlers who pull his head to the left and unknowingly created imbalances in his body! Instead of getting rid of him, put educated leaders with his, or alternate the side he is led from, as well as incorporating an exercise riding program for him.

Ex) The horse has some issues but is perfect in other areas.

  • Usually TR horses need to meet a full checklist of qualifications to be accepted into a program. Obviously don’t ignore the safety factors, but depending on your program and riders, you may be able to use him anyway. For example, you have a great horse who hates being led and having sidewalkers, but is perfect for independent riders and those who want to show. If you have a large program or mostly independent riders, it may be worth keeping him for the benefit of those riders. “Some horses have issues, but for your riders’ goals they may be invaluable.”

When the rider’s goals take priority (aka When a high tone rider can use a saddle)

Ex) The rider has high tone and left side hemiplegia and wants to ride in horse shows.

  • Usually for a high tone rider we would prescribe the bareback pad, using the horse’s warmth and movement to relax her muscles. But since she wants to show, she needs to be in a saddle. You may think the saddle widens the spread of her legs, but actually the right saddle can sit her higher and narrow her base and where her leg falls on the horse. Try to use a thin saddle with a narrow twist. If the rider’s legs cannot hang under her hips, hang the stirrups in front of the saddle for them.
  • Usually for high tone we put them on a smooth horse, and for left side hemiplegia (paralysis) we need a horse that neck rein steers (because the rider can only use one arm). However, your smooth horse does not neck rein, and your reining champ has more movement than you’d like. So put her on the reining champ in a saddle, because saddles mute the movement to some extent, and she’ll be able to show him more independently. Also, the saddle may be better for the horse’s back if the rider puts more weight on one side.

When a low tone rider should use a saddle. 

Ex) The rider is low tone and rides in a chair seat posture.

  • Usually for low tone riders we want more stimulation, so we put them on a trappy horse, with lots of front/back motion, and in a bareback pad so they can get more movement from the horse. However, if the rider rolls back on his pinpoint seat bones, this can hurt the horse and change the horse’s movement. So for this rider it may be better to use a saddle, or a western/gel pad under the bareback pad, so as not to hurt the horse or affect his movement.

When riders needs the opposite of what you expect.

Ex) The rider has ASD or ADHD.

  • Usually we think that riders with ASD and ADHD seek stimulation so we pair them with a high movement horse. However, sometimes these clients are actually overstimulated and may need a slow horse to calm them down. Notice how the rider is around people: if they are calm with calm people, give them a calm horse. If they are calm with a hyper person, give them a stimulating horse – or just go faster and up your own energy!

So those are some interested examples of when the usual recommendation for horse selection might not apply.

To end, remember, as the presenters said, “The only hard and fast rule is to be safe!”

Those are just the few they discussed. Do you have any to add?

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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 judgement!

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