Could Your Horse Be a Windrush Horse??
Many people think being a “therapy horse” is an easy job. After all, they don’t have to do much, right? No galloping around race tracks; no jumping four-foot fences. It seems like the perfect retirement job for any well-behaved, sweet old horse, and there are plenty of those around. But becoming a “perfect pony” for the children and adults with special needs who come to Windrush Farm for equine-assisted activities and therapeutic riding is not quite that easy. Here’s why.
- We have clients of ALL abilities.
A Windrush horse works with humans with a wide range of abilities and disabilities. Some of our clients may make sudden sounds or movements, or exhibit behaviors and emotions unfamiliar to horses. Some may need at least three helpers — one horse handler leading and two supporting sidewalkers, one on each side — to even sit on a horse. Others may be able to walk, trot, canter and jump independently (after all, our motto is: “we are all capable of more than we think”). The same horse whose rider’s gently squeezing legs meant “trot” yesterday may today need to listen to a horse handler and “walk,” even though his rider’s legs are constantly moving on his sides.
- We’re a non-profit.
We pride ourselves in taking the best possible care of all our horses, but limits on our staff, space, and time mean we don’t have the resources to work with a horse who needs extensive training, hasn’t been ridden in years, or has behavior issues. We can’t maintain a horse that isn’t working, isn’t versatile, or has long-term, expensive health issues.
- We are a volunteer organization.
Each year hundreds of generous volunteers donate their time to make the Windrush programs possible. Some of them are expert horsepeople; some are not. We carefully screen and train all our volunteers, but we need horses who can accept a lot of handling, from volunteers and from clients, and who won’t take advantage of a human who is trying to learn.
We are always looking for horses who are…
Mares or geldings — 14 to 15.2 hands
- Well-balanced, with good conformation — We don’t care how pretty they look or what color they are, but we DO care about their quality of movement. Having a horse who moves evenly and smoothly is crucial to our clients.
- Body types can vary to support client needs — narrow/medium/wide. We have many different shapes and sizes in our herd.
- We prefer horses who can carry weight due to conformation, rather than bulk or height. (Tall horses aren’t necessarily stronger and can make it harder for our sidewalkers to support clients.)
8 years or older with some formal training or competition experience
- Exposure, experience, and an understanding of basic aids are helpful to any horse who is going to enjoy equine-assisted activities and therapy.
- Age is just a number, but ideally we want horses younger than 17 so they can stay in our program for as many years as possible. We sometimes make exceptions for the right horse, but those rarely apply to horses much older than 20 or 21.
Sound with 3 distinct comfortable, rhythmical gaits
- We need horses that are more than walk-trot sound. We have an older herd so our new members MUST be able to canter and jump little cross-rails.
- A horse doesn’t have to know how to jump — we can easily teach the low level of jumping we do.
- But please, no chronic conditions (e.g. navicular, laminitis, allergies, heaves) that would keep them from working in our program on a regular basis or in our advanced classes.
Steady with a gentle, willing temperament — “that little extra something”
- Level-headed, not spooky or super reactive — Therapy horses have to trust their handlers and understand that new things won’t hurt them.
- “Plays well with others” — Able to be turned out in a herd, well behaved in a group lesson (indoors or out), accepting of other horses in personal space or passing by stall, good ground manners.
- Likes people and tolerant of many hands — The average therapy horse is touched by 15 people each day (!) and often exposed to many humans at once — e.g., three people in a stall, large groups in the barn, small children in costumes.
- Strong work ethic and likes to learn — Honest, tolerant and confident, with an ability to focus, accept new things, understand the job and like it.
Becoming part of the Windrush herd
Almost all of the therapy horses at Windrush are donated or leased by owners who want them to be happy, healthy and do meaningful work. When an owner contacts us about a potential donation, we try to visit and ride the horse in its current home to see if it’s a potential fit. Any new horse who arrives at the farm goes through a mandatory two-week health/safety quarantine and a trial period. “We want to make sure they are well-suited for our program, and that the horse is happy,” says Chief Operating Officer Josselyn Shaughnessy. “The owners want to make sure it is the right fit for their horse as well.”
Trials can vary in length, but usually last at least two months. During that time, the horse is handled and ridden by staff, and evaluated and discussed by instructors, before going into any classes. During the trial period, in addition to basic schooling, we try to expose horses to the experiences they may encounter in their new career — unbalanced riders, strange noises, toys being thrown overhead, voice commands, wheelchairs, crutches, confined spaces, lots of people, mounting ramps, pool noodles, music, overhead lifts. It’s a demanding job and it’s not right for every horse. But for the “perfect pony,” becoming a Windrush horse can mean a lifetime of love and important work in a beautiful place with excellent care. As Mandy Hogan, our former Executive Director and current Consulting Educator, says, “We’re looking for horses that love this work. This is what makes them such amazing healers and educators.”
If you know a horse who could become a Windrush horse,
please contact us any time at 978-682-7855 or firstname.lastname@example.org
And … if you are considering donating your horse to Windrush or any equine-assisted program, you might want to try some of these “games” from an excellent article, Would Your Horse Make a Good Therapy Horse?, written by Anne Reynolds and used here with her permission.