Thursday, November 20, 2014

"Why ~ Therapy For Therapy Horses"

Howdy Friends!

Friends new to our facebook friendship and Coffee Clutch blog may not be sure what "Therapy For Therapy Horses" is, or why I created the simple program, or the free clinics, so I figured it was time to dust off the old story and explain. It started years ago when I was working with my mentor Diane Sept, a Senior Certified Connected Riding Instructor, learning many things about horses, and myself, and helping to rehabilitate Tennessee Walking Horses from the show world.
Challenges are easier with the help of a loving horse
During those years I learned much from Diane, and the horses. Among them the biomechanics of the horse and techniques of Peggy Cummings Connected Riding and Groundwork® and Linda Tellington-Jones' Tellington Ttouch®. Peggy and Linda and their techniques are truly remarkable – they have changed the horse world, and I highly recommend you purchase their books and cds.

When I began writing about "People and Horses Helping Horses And People" for equine magazines shortly after moving to VA, I wrote more than a few stories about therapeutic riding centers, and the magic that happens there. Over the years my health has its ups and downs, and the first stories I did by way of phone interviews as travel was a tad difficult.

Then I decided I wanted to witness the magic first hand and visited the next therapeutic riding center to do my interview. I had for decades already known, felt and understood the healing power of the spirit of the horse, and I wanted to thank in person the horses who shared it freely.

One day while visiting a very nice and popular therapeutic riding center for an interview for their story, I noticed that the horses, while well cared for, had stiffness about them. Upon closer examination I noticed several of the horses there were heavy on their forehand, inverted and weak in the hind end. As part of the interview I watched a few therapy sessions and noticed some of the horses moved with short, choppy strides and had difficulty turning smoothly. This came as a surprise to me.

I did witness magic, and lots of it, on my first in-person interview! And when I wrote their story I was reminded of the excitement on the children's and volunteer's faces. For one little boy it was the first time he'd ever caught a ball. How we cheered! I still get teary eyed thinking of it. I decided what I thought I saw in the horses, was actually me not really getting it ... Yet it tugged at me.

I had the opportunity in the next few months to visit several more equine assisted therapy centers for in-person interviews. I visited centers with both children and adult participants. With horses purchased specifically because their breed enjoys reputations as great therapy horses and centers operating with all donated horses, as well as a mixture of both. Every place I visited was a happy place. Clean well managed barns. Well kept, well fed horses. Wonderfully polite and knowledgeable staff and volunteers. And thrilling, lively and eager participants. I had several great stories to write celebrating the wonderful things that happened in those barns on the backs of and from the heats of those loving horses.

I did however begin to notice in too many of the horses, the same stiffness and discomfort I thought I saw earlier. Unsettled, I did some checking and discovered that yes indeed, often horses who do equine assisted therapy develop a few kinks in their bodies. And in fairness, any horse doing the same job repeatedly does too. Even lesson horses and show horses can become a little stiff or locked up here or there – they are just more likely to let us know they are unhappy about something. But most therapy horses have that frame of mind that they will endure and not show their discomfort too boldly. That personality trait of caring more for others than themselves is exactly the trait that makes them good therapy horses.

Therapy horses take their jobs seriously. From the interviews I’ve conducted for stories, most folks who know say only about one horse in 25 or 30 has what it takes to become a therapy horse. They have a happy but demanding job, and need to possess a way of thinking that puts others first. Therapy horses carry precious cargo and much is expected of them. As they walk along giving healing therapy they must not only be aware of that precious cargo, who may not be able to sit correctly, use their legs, or concentrate, but they must also be careful not to bump the sidewalkers, one on each side. The leader and therapist too must be accounted for with each step. This can sometimes cause the horse to move in ways that tweak its spine, neck, withers or hips. Often equine assisted therapy programs include exercises for the participant to do while sitting on the horse at a standstill, such as upper body calisthenics, or shooting basketball or playing catch. This can be very stressful on a horse's back. Many times therapy horses are donated horses because they've had an injury that forced them out of their careers, so they may also need to compensate for them too. Since many times the centers are working with donated tack as well, it is not unusual for therapy horses to perform their miracles in tack that does not quite fit.

Just as I am compelled to write the stories of, "People and Horses Helping Horses and People," I felt compelled to see how I might be able to, help the therapy horses help. I visited a few more centers and kept a keen eye on the horse's movements and attitudes. What I had earlier suspected seemed to be true. Too often the horses were on their forehand, inverted and weak on the hind end. I even saw horses who protested by nipping the leaders or shaking their heads. From my training and work with Diane Sept I could easily recognize what was wrong and had thoughts about how to help. The exercises she had taught me years earlier based on the teachings of Peggy Cummings and Linda Tellington-Jones were all that was needed.
Me doing the "Poll Wiggle" for my mare Kessy - Support her nose, gently grasp her poll, and wiggle. The release travels all the way up the neck and her spine. Excellent for all horses, anytime, and hugely beneficial to therapy horses.
But understanding how full every day is at most equine assisted therapy centers, how would adding extra duties to their day be a benefit? I called Diane, as I often do for advice, and as luck would have it she was just a week away from presenting a short refresher clinic on many of the basic Connected Groundwork exercises. Perfect! Over the weekend she coached me and helped select the exercises that were most beneficial to the therapy horses, easy to learn for volunteers, and most of them can be worked into the regular routine adding very little extra time to already overloaded schedules. This was great, because no exercise is worth anything if it's not practiced. 

Armed with Diane's suggestions and advice I put together what I call my, "Therapy For Therapy Horses," clinics. A series of easy to do and easy to learn exercises for the horses, and began to offer them free of charge (I do ask for travel expenses) to Equine Assisted Therapy Centers. These exercises help the horses release and relax, carry themselves off their forehand, lift their back, soften their inversion muscles, and engage the hind end into a soft long stride. They also help to relieve the tension built up in their mind, and helps them to focus. Equine assisted therapy is very taxing mentally on horses, and I'm not sure enough people understand that. Another benefit of these simple exercises is the release mentally the horse enjoys.
Kessy and me demonstrating the "Rock Back." Most horses carry themselves on their forehand, not good for them. Gently touch her shoulder and as her to, "rock her weight back." This will free the forehand and engage the hind end, as it should be for proper posture and health.
There are about 15 easy to learn exercises in my "Therapy For Therapy Horses" clinics and while assembled for the Therapy Horses, this series of easy to do exercises is perfect for all horses and all horse caregivers, and if I could have one wish it would be that every horse care giver masters them. Well maybe two wishes, that every therapeutic riding center understood, therapy horses need a little therapy too. 

Gitty Up, Dutch Henry

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