Special in Every Way

What does it take to make a good therapy horse? Meet five stellar examples. (Bonus: Learn if your horse could make the grade.)

We love a heartwarming story about how a person’s life is transformed by interactions with horses, especiallywhen that person has physical or mental challenges. Such people gain immeasurable benefit from being around horses in a therapeutic setting—caring for them, grooming them, and riding.

Credit: Center photo by Jennifer Kleiner Photography

But what about the horses? What makes them special enough to travel this extraordinary career path? Here, we’ll introduce you to five therapy horses, sharing their stories about how they came into the job. You’ll notice that they share a few traits in common, but their backstories might surprise you. We’ll also offer a checklist of traits that one program manager looks for when considering a horse for a therapeutic job.


Barn name: Hank.

Age: 24.

Place of service: BraveHearts Therapeutic Riding and Educational Center, Harvard, Illinois. 

This AQHA gelding by Doc’s Oak has experience as a working ranch horse and competitive cutting horse. “The rancher we got him from said Hank was the best he’d ever sat on,” says BraveHearts president Meggan Hill-McQueeney. “All you had to do was think what you wanted, and Hank would handle it.”

Hank became a therapy horse in 2009, blossoming into what Hill-McQueeney considers the finest therapy horse at BraveHearts. “He has an uncanny ability to adjust for riders of all abilities,” she notes. His use is as varied as you might expect from his breed: therapeutic riding, foundation horsemanship, Special Olympics events, retreats, veterans’ programs, drill teams, and various certification and continuing education programs.

Hank has interacted with more than 1,000 people in a therapy setting, from therapists and instructors to participants, veterans, leaders, sidewalkers, and other volunteers, helping countless riders learn to feel confident in the saddle. One example is Matt, a veteran with a spinal-cord and traumatic brain injury who participated in last year’s Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship/Wounded Warrior Project Operation Mustang Level 2 course held at BraveHearts. Hank was the first horse Matt rode completely independently; the veteran later rode the agreeable gelding independently while ponying a mustang—a lifelong goal for him.

“Our program wouldn’t be where it is if not for this single horse,” confides Hill-McQueeney. “Every rider advances on Hank as on no other horse we have.” Hank has the kindness to carry a new walk-only rider and the depth to do a flying change or to walk into a herd, work a few cows, and make his rider look like a pro. He adapts to what each person needs, and there’s no question he knows exactly what his job is.

Pocos One Mist

Barn name: Tate.

Age: 14.

Place of service: Colorado Therapeutic Riding Center, Longmont, Colorado.

In his previous career, this 15-hand bay AQHA gelding competed in trail and reining classes in the Ranch Horse Association of Michigan, showing throughout the Midwest states. He regularly served as a demo horse at Julie Goodnight clinics and participated in Clinton Anderson clinics.

In his mid-teens, Tate is an ideal age for a therapy horse. He’s also a perfect example of a horse leased to a therapy program, a common arrangement for many owners and programs. Tate’s owner is a vet tech who’s too busy to keep the gelding in work but wanted to see him remain active in a loving environment with top care. So he leased Tate to the Colorado Therapeutic Riding Center in 2014.

“Tate can do it all,” confirms Lindsey Moloznik, barn manager at CTRC, Colorado’s first and largest riding therapy facility. “Just before we began our lease, his owner had ridden him on a 20-mile trail ride up to 12,000 feet in elevation. That proves his fitness, and his show background gives him an excellent training base. He’s my most trusted horse, and all our riders’ favorite mount.”

Tate handles riders in therapeutic riding, among other programs. “Tate loves people, and it shows,” says Moloznik. “He has what we call a Golden Retriever personality—more curious about the people in the arena than the obstacles we set up, and that’s a fabulous trait in a therapy horse.” She points out he’s not so stoic that she worries about him, though. “He’ll show his emotions, and if he needs a break, he gets it.

“Tate is super-sound and sure-footed, an easy keeper, and seems to enjoy his job as much as his naps in his stall,” Moloznik concludes. “He’s the full package for us, so as long as he stays mentally fresh to the work, he should remain a great therapy horse for a long time.”

Peppers Cindileo

Barn name: Chiquita.

Age: 20.

Place of service: Turning Point Ranch Association, Stillwater, Oklahoma.

Mares aren’t as common as geldings in the therapy horse world, but Chiquita serves as an example of a mare that does the job as well as any gelding. A foundation-bred Quarter Horse with King and Leo in her pedigree, Chiquita is a bit of a diva, according to owner and breeder Natalea Watkins, but she doesn’t let it get in the way of her obligations.

Watkins imprinted Chiquita at birth to be comfortable with human touch. At age 2, Chiquita left the ranch for professional training; later Watkins’ husband briefly competed with the mare in team penning and sorting. Then everything changed for the family in 2000—Watkins was paralyzed from the chest down in an auto accident. This set her on a path to recovery and to involvement with the Turning Point Ranch group. When the program needed a horse in 2006, Watkins’ Chiquita came to mind even though she’d spent most of her time since Watkins’ accident in a pasture.

“Some horses struggle with whether to listen to their rider or listen to their leaders, since therapy horses often have someone leading as well as riding,” Watkins explains. “Chiquita knows when to ignore a rider’s movements or respond to them. She can tell the difference between leg cues and leg spasms, and doesn’t flinch when riders lose balance or make sounds that startle some horses.”

Case in point: One of Chiquita’s riders with autism wiggles and slides but doesn’t self-correct, therefore needing close sidewalkers to help her stay mounted. Chiquita tolerates the helpers’ staying right up against her, a willingness few horses possess. She adapts for more accomplished riders, too, such as one with Down’s syndrome who rides her independently.

King of Hearts

Barn name: King.

Age: 21.

Place of service: Equest Center for Therapeutic Riding, Inc., Rockford, Michigan.

Quarter Horse/Thoroughbred gelding King Of Hearts is a jack of all trades, morphing over the course of his career from a rock-solid pony horse escorting excitable racehorses at the track to a law-enforcement mount to a fearless foxhunter and three-day eventer. Since 2014, he’s added to his resume: serving riders at Michigan’s Equest Center for Therapeutic Riding.

A strapping chestnut at 16.1 hands and 1,250 pounds, King is valued for his size. “We’d been looking for a larger horse that could carry more weight,” explains Kathy Ryan, Equest’s executive director. “Some of our heavier riders need assistance mounting from a hydraulic lift, and we needed a big, strong-backed horse to handle that.”

King’s owner donated him to Equest when she noticed he was moping around his pasture in his retirement. Despite his highly active previous careers, he’s remarkably sound and a part of the center’s music therapy on horseback, Horses for Heroes program for veterans, and Senior Saturdays for elderly riders, among other assignments.

“King is exceptionally stoic, obedient, and in tune with his riders,” notes Shelly Fox, assistant equine coordinator and PATH-certified instructor. “He shifts his weight under riders to help them balance—a priceless quality in a therapy horse—and he’s friendly enough to put his head right in the lap of participants in wheelchairs.”

Interestingly, King’s long stride is specifically beneficial to some riders, helping them build their core strength and work on balance and coordination. “We had a 9-year-old girl with autism, primarily non-verbal, who was highly active,” says Fox, “and originally we put her on a short-strided Paint horse. On him, she’d cry, wiggle, turn around, lie down, and try to jump off. It wasn’t working. I suggested King to her parents because different horses’ movements give riders different sensory input. His big movement had her smiling, laughing, and never trying to get off. The experience on King also jumpstarted her verbal progress, too, as right along with her success on King, she began to use the words ‘horse,’ ‘trot,’ and ‘walk on.’Ryan sums up this former police horse, saying, “King is still serving and protecting—just in a new way!”

Hank the Tank

Credit: Photo by Jennifer Kleiner Photography

Barn name: Hank the Tank.

Age: 11.

Place of service: Bit By Bit Medical Therapeutic Riding Center, Davie, Florida.

Hank the Tank, a Quarter Horse/draft horse cross, was rescued three years ago. Now he’s the most reliable therapy horse for Bit By Bit Medical Therapeutic Riding Center. “A rescue program notified us that he could possibly make a good therapy horse,” explains Kathleen Pegues, Bit By Bit executive director. “We don’t know his prior background, but we do know he was neglected and possibly kept overweight to garner more money at slaughter.

“We immediately assessed him as patient and brave—the best qualities for a therapy horse—but his condition was poor,” Pegues continues. “We placed him on a proper diet and regular exercise regimen right away.” Volunteers nicknamed him “Hank the Tank” because of his large girth and tendency to push through fences to get good grass. In a short time, he was part of Bit By Bit’s program with both disabled children and wounded veterans.

Hank the Tank’s steady personality earned him a spot in Bit By Bit’s “tandem hippotherapy” program—a treatment strategy in which the therapist/health professional sits on the horse behind the client to provide specific therapeutic guidance and handling. Hank’s large physique and trustworthiness made him ideal to safely carry a therapist and a child together.

 “He’s been a fine addition to our herd,” says Pegues. “He’s loved for his ability to be calm if a child with autism has a rough day and melts down while riding him. He’s also appreciated by wounded veterans for his tolerance and patience as they fight to regain their balance after a painful amputation or traumatic brain injury caused by an IED.”

Hank and two other therapy horses participated in the Historic 2016 Great Florida Cattle Drive, where 50 head of cattle were driven 50 miles in honor of Florida Cracker Cowboy history. Hank impressed everyone as an enthusiastic cow horse that loved being part of the 400-horse drive in January.

“We were all rescued when Hank was rescued,” says Pegues. “His story emphasizes the need for people not to neglect or destroy loving animals that have so much to offer society.”

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