Follow this multi-part series to get a glimpse into how High Hopes chooses it’s horses that work in it’s Equine Assisted Activities and Therapies (“EAAT”) programs.
What’s our “type”?
High Hopes has the unique position of having a wide variety of programs (mounted, unmounted, carriage driving, etc) and a wide variety of participants with a wide variety of needs and abilities.
This means that we get to – and need to – have a herd of horses who come in all shapes, sizes, temperaments and skill sets. This guarantees that we will be sure to have a horse who will make a good match for each and every one of our many participants at each stage of their progress.
When we are screening new horses for suitability for our programs, there are some baseline statistical criteria that they must meet.
Here’s that list:
-Age: we prefer to acquire horses when they are at their mid-life point. Typically, this ranges from 12-18 years old. At this age range, most horses are well trained, have lots of life experience with different riders and in different places that lends itself to a tolerant and easy-going horse. Just as with humans, with age comes wisdom, so very young horses will not be ready to be a happy partner in our type of work. However, we do not want a horse who is so aged that they have significant health or soundness (pain or disease in limbs, soft tissue or skeletal systems) that will make it uncomfortable or unsafe for them to carry a rider or that will cost a large amount of our funds to maintain with treatments or medications.
-Gender: In horses, only the male horses are neutered (castrated). Females are not altered due to their massive body size – it would be a terribly invasive procedure with great risk. This can mean that mares are a bit more unpredictable in their behavior when they come in and out of “season”. While this is certainly not the case for all mares (we have several lovely and good-natured girls in our herd now), it is a consideration when evaluating the horse for our program. Consistency of behavior and sensitivity is crucial to rider progress and safety for all of those who interact with the horse. For this reason, geldings (castrated males) are preferred. Stallions (uncastrated males) are never suitable for EAAT programs.
-Height: Since many of our riders will need the assistance of a volunteer sidewalker who stays alongside them for the duration of their lesson and lends support through physical contact as well as provides a safety net for that rider in an emergency, having terribly tall horses would make it quite difficult to do those things effectively. Alternately, having very small ponies or miniature horses in large quantities would limit the number of larger riders who could participate. The height of the horse is less of an issue for our participants who attend unmounted or driving lesson, but could still play a role if a participant is fearful of big horses or who cannot bend over to the low height of a miniature horse, for example. For these reasons, we typically seek horses between 14 and 16.2 hands tall as they are more universally suited to a variety of participants.
-Breed: Most horse breeds are just fine to work in our programs, with a few minor considerations. Some breeds are bred specifically to participate in high speed sports (Thoroughbreds for racing, for example) and in those sports it is preferred for a horse to be very sensitive and “high strung”. Those qualities are not desirable in EAAT. Having said that, not every race horse is a winner of course, so they may not be terribly sensitive or “high strung” and would be perfectly lovely for our programs. Other breeds have different locomotion/footfall patterns than the typical horse – this is referred to as a “gaited” horse. These gaits are perfectly normal for these breeds of horses, but are not conducive to the riding skills we teach such as posting to the trot. These horses may also have very specific cues to encourage them to switch between gaits, which can be hard to replicate for a leader on the ground or a very novice rider. On the plus side, gaited horses may have extra smooth gaits that make them a great choice for riders who become fearful during a bouncy trot or who may benefit physically from avoiding a bumpy gait of a typical horse. So, again, it is something to weigh against the specific needs of the program.
-Health: as mentioned above in “Age”, we prefer horses who generally in good health and do not have multiple medical conditions that either make the physically uncomfortable when working or that cost a great deal to maintain with medications or other treatments. But since it is rare to find any horse who is perfectly healthy all the time, we can consider horses who have overcome an issue that may have affected their athletic ability in the competition arena but that does not limit them in a way that would be an issue for us, this is often the case with healed soft tissue injuries of the lower legs. There are other common issues associated with older horses that are not costly to care for or that are not a real issue to manage, such as minor arthritis.
-Training: Horses are trained to work in many different styles of riding and driving, each of those giving the horse a specific usefulness for those disciplines. Generally, most of the “major” disciplines will give the horse the skills that will serve it well in our arenas. Some examples would be: English Hunt Seat riding, Dressage, Jumping, Western riding (this includes many, many different types of activities), carriage driving to name a few. Some other disciplines that might not have given the horse the specific skills we would need to capitalize on might be racing, weight pulling (as you’d see at an agricultural fair), or jousting .
-Conformation and durability: This is probably the most diverse qualification as it has many facets. Horses, just like people, have all the same parts and pieces as their kin but the way they are assembled creates their “conformation” which can vary widely. This is what makes animals of the same species look different! Their conformation not only determines how they look but it determines how durable their bones, joints, hooves, and soft tissues will be. Just as you may be due for a knee replacement due to a joint damaged from wear and tear, a horse can become very uncomfortable in a weak area of their body that takes on the brunt of those forces as well, only the forces are hugely magnified due to their size and the added stress of carrying a rider. Conformation is a huge area of study for many equine professionals and fills many textbooks, so it is too much to cover in great detail here, but the general understanding is that if a horse has a conformational weakness in a critical area it will negatively impact its long-term comfort. We seek horses with the best possible conformation within their breed to have the greatest physical durability.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series: “Prospective horses, a year at a glance”.