A Look at Therapeutic Riding Horses’ Stress Behaviors

Stress can impair a horse’s performance, diminish the benefits of therapy, and create safety risks to vulnerable riders.
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It takes a special type of animal to succeed as a therapeutic riding horse. These horses must be well-mannered, quiet, sound, and forgiving, among many other traits. Not all horses that seemingly fit this profile, however, can withstand the stress associated with carrying riders that have mental and/or physical disabilities.

As part of a larger effort to increase therapy horse retention, Robin Foster, PhD, Cert. AAB, IAABC Certified Horse Behavior Consultant and research professor at the University of Puget Sound and affiliate professor at the University of Washington, studied signs of stress-related behaviors in a population of these horses. She showcased her results at the 11th International Society of Equitation Science conference, held Aug. 6-9 in Vancouver, British Columbia.

“Occupational demands can create stress and discomfort that impair a horse’s performance, diminish the benefits of therapy, and create safety risks to vulnerable riders,” Foster explained.

In her study she focused on one Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International Premier Accredited center in Redmond, Washington, where, in 2013, 50% of the horses were released from work due to behavior issues. From January through July 2014, she evaluated stress and avoidance behaviors of 21 horses there during mounting and 120 hours of therapeutic riding classes

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Alexandra Beckstett, a native of Houston, Texas, is a lifelong horse owner who has shown successfully on the national hunter/jumper circuit and dabbled in hunter breeding. After graduating from Duke University, she joined Blood-Horse Publications as assistant editor of its book division, Eclipse Press, before joining The Horse. She was the managing editor of The Horse for nearly 14 years and is now editorial director of EquiManagement and My New Horse, sister publications of The Horse.

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