How to Choose a Horse for Therapeutic Riding

A calm, affectionate horse can make a great therapy animal. Since the animal's temperament is so important, set aside plenty of time to interact with it before making a final decision. Since you know more about the person who will be riding the horse, make sure you consider any other factors unique to his or her situation.


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    Narrow down your options. Ask the horse owner if there are any especially calm horses. This includes older horses and horses with a slight injury, as long as they can still take a rider. A calm temperament is the most important feature of a therapy horse. The horse should also be quiet, friendly, and enjoy handling even from strangers.
    • Draft horses and other large horses tend to be calmer than smaller ones.
    • Some breeds tend to be calmer than others, but upbringing and individual characteristics make a big difference. Don't make a snap judgement based on appearance or breed reputation.
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    Approach the horse slowly. Approach from the front and slightly to one side, so the horse has a clear view of you. Let the horse sniff you and check you out before you continue.
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    Watch the horse's ears. If the horse pulls its ears back, it may be nervous about your approach. Stop walking and see if the ears relax again. Keep an eye on the ears during the steps below to see if the horse calms down. If the ears remain agitated during your whole visit, the horse may be on the anxious side.
    • If the ears are turning to the side or forward, the horse is probably curious.
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    Pet the horse. Start with your hands flat along the horse's neck, rubbing in the direction of its hair. Rub with slow, even strokes and avoid sudden movements. Give the horse a minute to get used to you, then move your hands down along its back and side. Stay within view of the horse and watch its ears. If it doesn't relax within a few minutes, move on to a different horse.
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    Lean against the horse. If the horse is still calm, gently lean against its flanks. A well-trained horse should give way to this pressure instead of pressing back. If it does give way, reward the horse by relieving the pressure.
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    Lead the horse around. Pick up the lead line and try leading the horse from the ground. A therapy horse should agree to move at a human walking pace. If it tries to get ahead, pushes you, or refuses to walk, it has poor ground manners. Pick a different horse.
    • If the horse licks its lips and hesitates, it's probably considering what to do. Let it think for a minute or two before you insist that it follows you.
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    Show it a strange object. Many trainers desensitize horses by handling plastic bags around them until they relax. See how the horse reacts when you show it a plastic bag from a distance. If it doesn't react, move closer slowly. Let the horse sniff the plastic bag, then run it along its side. If there's still no reaction, tie the bag to the end of a lounge line and rub it against the horse's legs, standing outside of kicking range. Stop at any point if the horse starts showing alarm. Many horses will spook in this situation, which makes them unsuitable as therapy horses.
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    Check for specialized training. Depending on the person who will be riding the therapy horse, the following trained behaviors may come in handy:
    • Excellent response to voice commands
    • Stopping immediately when the rider falls off.
    • Responding to "ground tie" commands (staying completely still)
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    Ride the horse. If the horse has passed all these tests, it's time to see how the horse reacts to a rider. If you are a competent rider with full mobility, you may try this yourself. Otherwise, have an experienced horse owner try it for you. The horse should be very cooperative and move at a slow, steady pace. If the intended rider has limited mobility or coordination, the horse should be trained to move at a smooth, comfortable jog or lope to make it easy to stay on.
    • Ride around other horses, unfamiliar people, and loud noises to see how it reacts.
    • The disadvantaged rider may tug the reins harder or give leg cues lower down than most riders. Test this out to see if the hose can handle it calmly.
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    Borrow the horse for a trial period. Any reputable seller should agree to let you do this before buying. See if the horse remains calm in unfamiliar areas, including noisy places such as rodeos. Give it at least two weeks and let several strangers handle it before you commit to selecting it.
    • You and the seller should sign a contract agreeing on what to do if the horse becomes sick or injured during the trial period. You may want to check with the horse's veterinarian, farrier, or trainer first to see if there are any problems you should know about.
    • Unscrupulous sellers may even sedate the horse before you inspect it. The trial period will provide time for the drug to wear off.


  • When in doubt, ask an experienced horse owner for help.
  • If you're purchasing a horse and moving it to a new environment, give it a few days to get used to the new place and people before riding it.
  • If a normally calm horse starts acting agitated, there is probably something legitimately wrong. Look around for possible dangers, or inspect the horse for injury.


  • Purchase horses from trustworthy sellers only. A mistreated horse will be much more difficult to handle.

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Categories: Riding