As the Executive Director and Head Coach at Canada’s largest therapeutic riding and equestrian therapy centre, I see a lot of “potential” therapy horses come and go. Sadly, only a small percentage of horses and ponies we are offered make the cut and end up being successful as a therapy horse.
The reasons for this are many, however the biggest one is typically a lack of “been there, done that” experience.
Many event horses, especially ones that have competed at the upper levels, have not only been there and done that, but they’ve got the t-shirt, and are probably ON the t-shirt!
Let me give you an example. We’ll call this Exhibit A: Grover, also known by his show name Daytrader. I bought Grover back in 2000 as a barely halter-broke 5-year old (whose name was actually Kevin — but that was quickly changed!) from a place called The Ranch in Pritchard, BC. (Haven’t heard of Pritchard? Not to worry, neither had I!) Grover was a diamond in the rough, and I bought him sight unseen at the advice of Sarah Bradley, my coach at the time. It was the best decision I ever made.
Not only did Grover become a successful FEI one-star and Intermediate horse, he was legendary in the eventing community because he is half Percheron. Luckily the other half is Thoroughbred, but nonetheless he is a big dude, and stood out among his peers. His huge heart and willingness allowed me, an adult amateur, to take him all over British Columbia and Washington, to California, Montana and Colorado. But I digress.
One day during the height of Grover’s eventing career, International Paralympic Team Coach, Mary Longden, was in town for an FEI Paralympic qualifier with her team from Australia. She needed a horse with an FEI passport that might be suitable for one of her athletes, as the one they’d arranged for previously was unsuitable. So, I offered them Grover. He competed for the Aussies, winning three silver medals for his rider, and qualifying scores for Beijing. Perhaps I shouldn’t have loaned my horse to a competing country! This was Grover’s second foray into the world of FEI competition.
It was all this experience that created the foundation for a successful second career as a therapy horse, after a high suspensory injury on one leg and a check ligament injury on another, led him into retirement at the age of 19.
Grover is a great para-dressage horse, and even took one of my students with autism to a few three-day events. (BTW – nothing is more nerve-wracking than watching your former Intermediate horse leave the start box at 550 mpm when they’re only supposed to be going 325!)
A few years ago, I was approached by Para Equestrian Canada – would Grover be available for another Paralympic qualifier for a rider coming out from Ontario. So, I dusted off his FEI passport, got it updated, and Grover gave this up-and-coming para-dressage athlete, Jason Surnoski, his first exposure in the big leagues. Jason is now ranked 6th in Canada in the FEI standings. Grover didn’t go to Rio, but he was a contender!
At Pacific Riding for Developing Abilities (PRDA) where I work, Grover isn’t the only retired eventer that has made a name for themselves as a therapy horse. We’ve had Lance, Ben, Deion, Alex, Ohana, Kovu, Galaxy, Maestro, Happy and Jerome (and that’s just off the top of my head)!
A good therapy horse has to accept change easily. They have to be brave, and versatile, and able to focus. They need to know they play an important role in their riding partnership, and I don’t know and other type of horse that fits that bill better than an eventer. Therapy horses need to be steady and reliable, and able to take a joke. Sound like someone you know?
Many of us wonder what our horse can do once they retire from the competition life. We worry they will be bored, unhappy or unsound. As a therapy horse, they will be greatly loved and hugely appreciated. They will get lots of gentle exercise to keep them limber and help keep arthritis at bay.
But most of all, they will have a worthy job, and their bodies and minds will stay active and healthy for many years to come.
Grover is now almost 24 years young, and in my humble opinion, one of the best therapy horses at PRDA, teaching all kinds of people with a wide variety of challenges and disabilities. He is showing them respect, giving them dignity, and rewarding them with the gift of freedom, and I couldn’t be prouder.
So when your eventer looks at you with a bit of a tired look in his eye, consider a second career for him as a therapy horse, and see how truly special your horse really is.