Follow this multi-part series to get a glimpse into how High Hopes chooses its’ horses that work in its Equine Assisted Activities and Therapies (“EAAT”) programs.
Making of a High Hopes Horse
Part 3: The Infamous Trial Period
Once we have determined that a horse is appropriate for us, that it is healthy, and there are no other roadblocks to a successful outcome for it at High Hopes, we schedule it to come to our farm for a trial period.
There are lots of details to work out prior to its arrival. Since High Hopes is a Premier Accredited Center (PAC) certified through the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International (PATH), we are held to specific standards of screening for suitable and healthy horses to enter our program. Just saying that a horse is X, Y or Z doesn’t hold up for us – we need to see it in action and have those statements verified either by evidence in writing or by evaluating those promises in person ourselves. This also means that horses need to have all appropriate vaccines administered by a veterinarian before they arrive – this is important for both human exposure (as in Rabies) and the exposure of our other horses to the new kid coming onto their block. Just as in people, there are infectious diseases that horses can spread to each other, and so we need to see evidence that a horse has been evaluated by a veterinarian and deemed to be in good health before arriving. Some of these health certificates are required by law for horses to be transported on a public road (includes rabies vaccine certificate and evidence of a negative Coggins test), so verifying them is important in meeting our due diligence to uphold the laws around animals arriving on our farm.
Besides documentation of health information, we also need to have completed trial period agreement contracts and liability releases signed by the horse’s owners before the horse gets to our farm. Blah, blah, blah…boring, I know, but hugely important to protecting High Hopes.
Once all the formalities of paperwork and documentation are completed- we get on to the fun stuff!
The trial period itself begins the minute the horse arrives. We want to see self-assured, ‘comfortable in their own skin’ kind of behavior from the very beginning. Usually, we don’t ask the horse to do anything but sit in its paddock and eat for a day or two after its arrival. This gives them a chance to acclimate a bit to our energy – High Hopes is a busy place, and if they are not used to seeing 50+ people a day walk past their paddock at home – it can be mighty intimidating and even scary. The point here, and throughout the trial really, is not that the horse is not intimidated or scared – it’s how they handle those emotions. I’m sure you’ve heard of Emotional Intelligence in people, well it exists in horses too. Some are just better suited to cope and self-regulate when challenged with new things. And since every day it seems like there is something new happening here, it is important that the horse is able to manage those challenges in a way that is safe for the people around them.
The activities – and the order of those activities – of the trial period have been carefully choreographed over many years and with input from many professionals. It is important to expose the trial horse to things in a certain progressive way so as to not intimidate, frighten, or even to desensitize it. We want horses to habituate to the new things in their new environment. That is to say we want them to acknowledge and accept them. Ignoring them or becoming numb to them (as is insinuated by the term “desensitize” – which literally means to make an individual insensitive to something) would be more appropriate if we were dealing with robots. But we are dealing with living things, and we don’t want them numb or insensitive! We want them engaged and participating!
During the first four weeks of the trial, the horse will get to see and participate in all the goings on of our regular program. They will see every toy in our arena, go out on the trail and open every mailbox and play with every activity station. The staff riders will wiggle and bounce and laugh gleefully loud, all just the same as what you’d see in our classes! We also want to be sure the horse is easy and consistent to handle in the barn and paddock and for the horse handlers in class as well. We add in sidewalkers to be sure that the horse won’t be upset by someone who leans on their side or falls too far behind on a quick circle. We ride in both arenas, mount at both mounting blocks, and ride in all types of weather we can find during any given season.
Usually by day 45, we are ready to have the horse start working in some classes. Staff will role play as leader, sidewalkers, and riders for the first few go arounds. But, eventually, they will make the transition to working with volunteers and actual riders in our classes. By this time, the horse has jumped through every imaginable hoop we can come up with and done so with character and aplomb.
For the sake of perspective, since this sounds like an arduous process, less than 5% of horses offered to us will be accepted into a coveted spot in our herd. Somehow it seems harder than getting into an Ivy League university, and, in some ways, it is. But nothing but the best for our participants!