I spent two weeks at a horse farm in India a few years ago, giving a crash course on horse therapy.
Now, you should understand, I am a tall skinny white girl, who was trying to teach Indian men how to work with horses. Which is something that they’d been doing their wholes lives.
Which, for some of them, meant since before I was born.
And here I was, giving decidedly wonky equestrian directions.
Because horse therapy is weird.
Horse therapy often involves checking your ego at the door, and not worrying about how you look. Your only concern is a beneficial therapy session.
Sometimes therapy does go like a typical riding lesson. It has a professional look to it, and it is focused on regular riding.
Other times, you’re on the ground, trying to get the rider to do their exercises by demonstrating those exercises (often very flamboyantly) while you walk backward in front of the horse.
Still other times, you are on horseback with the rider, using your body to support the rider just enough to keep them on the horse, while still making them work for it, and build up their own muscles.
Doing therapy can be exhausting. It’s a lot of work, and while you interact with horses all the time, you may not have many chances to ride where you are not riding double and helping someone else stay on the horse.
The guys at this farm simply could not understand the whole “check your ego at the door” concept.
They insisted that I take a riding lesson, so they could get an idea of my riding abilities.
Let me say first off, that I have never been on a horse who needs that much weight in the reins. I had contact on the reins, but the instructor kept telling me to use more contact. I literally felt like I would pull myself out of the saddle with the force they wanted me to put on the reins.
Then the horse I was riding kept tossing its head and acting up when asked to trot. When they finally admitted it was because he had a bad back and trotting hurt him, I put a quick end to the lesson.
This seemed to give them more ammo for their beliefs that they were better with horses than was I, and therapy was just my way to pretend that I am good with horses.
A quick aside, I have ridden horses on 4 continents, and often with trainers who know what they’re doing. Most of them (other than the guys at this farm in Pune) have told me that, while I lack polish due to not taking proper lessons and just learning on the go, I have a good seat and I am in general a good rider.
When I was volunteering regularly at a local therapy centre, I was the guinea pig, who rode all of the new horses just in case they had a bucking fit in the middle of their test period.
So this isn’t just me complaining because I’m not a good rider and someone called me on it. I’ve done a small amount of dressage, most of my riding has been on trails rather than in a ring, but I know what I’m doing in a basic lesson.
And I definitely know what I am doing with horse therapy.
What bothered me the most at the end of my time there was that they were still acting like horse therapy, as I was showing it to them, was sort of nonsense.
And this was despite the fact that the boy who had been riding for most of the sessions I did with them, a kid with C.P., had such improvements to his muscle tone and balance that his parents raved on and on about it.
But in their minds, being able to make a horse go even if it was uncomfortable, and even if it had a mouth of iron was more important. Especially because one looks more professional doing that than one does waving one’s arms and giggling with the rider you’re helping.
The last I checked, the farm is no longer doing a therapy program. They enjoyed claiming that they had a therapy program when therapy could be nothing more than leading someone in circles on horseback, and calling it therapy.
Therapy is either something you can do, or it isn’t. Therapy takes a lot of you, and if you can’t take the time for it, nothing will ever happen.
I’m not saying that a focus on therapy is any better than dedicating your time to mastering dressage, or training a trouble horse, or doing any other horse related thing that you can choose to do.
But I am saying that those who do horse therapy, even though they spend a lot of their time on the ground, are not second class equestrians. We may not be able to get our horses to dance, but to the riders, the horse may as well be dancing.
Our horse may not jump 4 feet, but to the riders, the bounce of the trot is one of the most exciting feelings in the world.
And we may not be the most polished riders when we ourselves get on horseback, but we are no less passionate about horses and all things related to them than any other horse person.
If you enjoy reading about horses, horse therapy, and the relationship between horses and humans, check out my kickstarter campaign and get yourself a copy of my soon to be published book.