Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Well, if they weren't handicapped before...

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"We are looking for volunteers who want to play with young horses. They range from 2-6 years old. They are gentle but need discipline. We are recently got halters on two of them and they are learning to lead. These horses need attention. We are hoping to get them trained to help run a horse camp for handicapped kids this summer. They have so much potential, they just need time. My father is recently ill and it has been hard to accomplish much without him. One can partly ride, if you have any skills such as breaking, grooming, halter, or show experience we would be ever so happy to have you out. It is supposed to be sunny this weekend so this would be a great time to start!"


OK let's get this straight:

You have an undisclosed number of horses, aged 2-6.

Two or more were not even halter broke.

One can "partly ride." Does this mean you can stay on him for part of the ride?

It is April 8th. Summer is 2.5 months away.

Somehow you actually believe these horses will be well broke enough to pack handicapped children around safely with no training other than free help you can scrounge off of Craigslist? Honey, they wouldn't be safe enough to do that in 2.5 months with pro training by the best trainers in the business!

This is one of the crazier schemes I've read, even on Craigslist. If I were qualified to open a handicapped riding program (by the way, we have names for those "physical therapist"...I'll be surprised if the poster has those credentials), I would be picking up horses like the 22 year old mare that was the first lot in the Enumclaw sale. And I would be finding free horses that are old, retired show and trail horses who have seen and done it all.

I have an ex-rescue horse of my own placed with a therapeutic program. He has been there for going on five years now. When they came out to evaluate him to see if he would be a fit, they knew exactly what they were doing. They rode with a saddle, and bareback. They "pretended" to lose their balance and start falling to see what he would do. They walked up to him and crinkled a plastic bag in his face. (He didn't blink). They bounced balls off of him. That is the level of bomb-proof you need for a handicapped child's mount. It is fairly easy to find among 18 year old Appendix geldings. It is almost never found in horses who have had a whopping 2.5 months of inconsistent training starting with halter breaking!

We've all read the warnings about carefully checking out therapeutic programs before placing our horses there, but parents also need to carefully check them out before considering them for their child. I've written before about the need to be careful choosing a riding academy to ensure the horses are appropriate for lessons and the instructors are knowledgeable, but obviously this is even more important when the child has a disability and even less ability to respond to a crisis situation.

You will definitely want to start your research at the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association, NARHA's
web site. They accredit therapeutic riding centers via actual site checks as well as an application. They provide training materials and hold a conference and do a lot to ensure that the centers they accredit are as well-run and reputable as possible.

However, it is still up to you to check out the facility carefully. If you are considering donating a horse, pay close attention to how the facility's current horses look. Feet done? Weight appropriate? Groomed and cared for? Just because someone is a fantastic physical therapist doesn't mean they are a fantastic horsewoman - you need to make sure the center is equally knowledgeable about the care of both horses and children. I've certainly heard of people diving into the therapeutic biz with no prior horse experience. Scary.

If you are looking for a facility for your child, ask to talk to other parents. Ask about the instructors' training and certifications. Remember, this is therapeutic riding and there should be a medical professional involved who can make good judgment calls about the types of movement and activities a disabled child can tolerate. Not every sidewalker needs to be a professional, but there needs to be a professional supervising.

The two centers I can recommend from personal experience are STRIDES in the Los Angeles area (and if you are there, please give Padu a carrot from me - he'll be the big brown gelding with his tongue out!) and Exceptional Equestrians in DePere, Wisconsin. I know of many more that appear excellent, but those are the two I've been to on multiple occasions.

Please feel free to comment if you've had a good or bad experience with a center, either as a horse donor or as a client!