I am frequently asked about our training program for our therapy horses. Mostly people want to know how long it takes for a horse to become a therapy horse. The answer is not a short, easy one. I'll go thru a little bit of our process to answer the question.
I choose a horse based on a color or looks, sometimes size, (smaller for kids events and taller if they will do bedside visits) or if a horse is looking for a new home. Once they arrive I look for several things:
are they approachable,
are they inquisitive, and
are they of a sound horse mind.
It is easy to forget that under all that cuteness is still a horse that thinks like a horse and has to be trained like a horse. We begin by going thru an evaluation that shows me how they react to stress, or pressure. They are usually a bit nervous since they are in a new place, away from their old herd and I am new to them as well. I want to know that the horse has not established as its first line of defense: to kick or bite.
Once we make this first assessment, we move to characteristics. I like to see a horse that is a bit curious. Our training is built on rewarding curiosity in the horse. We try to reward the horses and let them understand new things are good because a reward is associated with it. Steps for introducing new things are very slow and each horse goes at their own pace. After the initial “getting to know you” phase, we work on:
basic good horse manners,
basic lead work, and
The time to master these skills usually varies a bit from horse to horse. Some come with a bit of training and some we start from scratch. Our training never stops, horses need constant refreshing once a skill is learned. We are always going over the basics and then adding in a new skill. Just like people, some of the horses are quick learners and some need more time.
Horses advance thru our levels as they acquire visit hours, training hours and advance in the level of difficulty. We have four levels of registration, ranging from Level I to Level IV. The average time for a horse to start making soft visits is 4-8 months. The time required to become a Level IV horse is at least 12 months of very consistent training. Of course, all the time is affected by how much you are able to get your horse out to do all that has to be done.
One level is not deemed better than another; rather - the levels indicate the type of atmosphere the horse thrives in. Some horses will always stay a Level II horse, because the horse prefers singular interaction. Other horses will be placed in the Level III registration because the horse enjoys parades and lots of commotion. Evaluation during training will help determine registration and placement for each therapy horse.
Whenever making visits the handler is ALWAYS the horse’s advocate. If the handler is uncomfortable, they are instructed to pass the horse to another trained handler or leave the premises if they believe the safety of the horse or visitors is in jeopardy.
A Level I horse has completed all the necessary training to be able to make their first visit. They worked thru obstacles, mock-visit training, loud noises and other experiences that are not normal for the average horse. The trainer/handler believes they have prepared this horse, to the best of their ability, to make a safe first visit.
A Level II horse is ready to make a “soft visit”. This kind of visit is usually to a Lowe’s or Home Depot (home improvement) or Walmart stores. The interactions at these events can be controlled, generally meeting one person at a time. The handler notes during the visit any new encounters, and takes these evaluations back to train further.
Therapy horses in this level typically make visits to assisted living facilities or Hospice patients. The visits are controlled by the handler who is able to decide who visits with the horse. The handler is able to position the horse to visit one person in a very safe way.
A Level III horse is able to make “hard visits”. These visits are in a less controlled atmosphere, with more people. The interactions at these events are generally with a group of people, more energy, and more going on. The handler is the advocate for the horse, and relies on the training they have done with the horse.
Therapy horses in this level typically make visits to the airport, children’s events, and community parades. The visits are generally with a group, and there is much more going on. A horse trained at this level is expected to be able to go into most situations with ease or little introduction to a new situation. This level is designed to meet the needs of most usual types of therapy visits a handler will be asked to bring a horse to.
A Level IV horse has been consistently making a high level of visits and training for over 12 months. The select horses in the level have been exposed to all types of visits, and can easily do a visit in any atmosphere. These type of visits require extensive advanced training because of the surroundings, and the activity of visitors is unknown.
Therapy horses in this level have been in regional and national parades such as the Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, California; the Cincinnati Red’s Opening Day Parade, and other large events. These horses have also been trained with shadows and events in the dark. There is always constant training and finesse that goes into this horse. If consistent training is lost, the horse is no longer considered a Level IV.
We are blessed in our therapy program to have trainers with many years of knowledge and also have a true love of our horses. Our main goal is always to have a well trained therapy horse. But, more importantly, having that well-trained therapy horse placed in our program correctly.
All miniature horses can be trained BUT not all miniature horses will make a great therapy horse. Its our goal to pick horses we feel will love their job as much as we do.