Stress and Therapy Horses

The second senior horse I took in, Thunder, came at 27 years old, just retired from therapy work with at-risk kids. He was a rock solid, bomb-proof horse. If someone was afraid of horses the therapy program matched them with Thunder. He would take care of them. If they made an error and inadvertently put themselves in a dangerous situation, he would make sure they didn’t get hurt. You could trust Thunder with a baby. He helped numerous kids and adults over the eight years he worked as a therapy horse.

I never thought he’d retire from therapy work. He was so dependable. When I received the call about his coming retirement I was shocked. What happened that he needed to be retired? The answer? He started biting people. This horse that would never hurt a fly had reached his limit. It wasn’t just one bite, but a pattern of biting. He was burned out and needed a break.

Therapy programs won’t last long if they have horses that bite people, so as a horse, the quickest way out the door is to start biting.

Therapy work is hard work for the counselors involved and the horses involved. There is constant exposure to difficult feelings and helping clients learn to create positive, healthy relationships.

Horses that externalize their stress by biting and kicking are not selected to do therapy work. Therapy programs need quiet, docile horses that are willing to help people. These horses also tend to internalize their stress. Hence, they don’t typically bite or kick. However, their stress can show up as foot problems, unexplained lameness, difficulty maintaining weight, gastro-intestinal issues, etc.

As equine therapy for people continues to grow, so will the realization of the need for stress management in therapy horses. We know the health problems associated with chronic stress in people. The same is true of horses.

Horses deserve to have a long, happy life in their service to people. A good stress management program will increase the longevity of the horses, and will be a win-win for all parties involved: both the people and the horses.

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