There’s a cartoon of a roadside stand with a horse inside. The sign says, “Therapy.” We all smile because we’re reminded of that saying about a horse being cheaper than a therapist. I’m not sure that’s true, but after a day of dealing with traffic, watching the news, or doing the most dangerous job of all–working at a desk–we could all use a remedy. Heading out to lose time at the barn is a miracle cure.

My cattle dog, Hero, was a therapy dog. We went to a nursing home, making the rounds of the day room first, and then down the hallway where the very sick or frail had private rooms. I was concerned about what I would do or say, like it even mattered. I feared that Hero would hurt someone inadvertently. Once we were there, all my brain chatter subsided as I watched him go to work. I almost didn’t recognize him as he moved quietly from patient to patient.

One night, he crawled over the edge of a man’s bed, careful to not disturb the tubes and bandages, until he was nose-close. He went perfectly still while the old man, as frail as parchment paper, tilted his head to the side, so he was cheek to nose with Hero. There were so many needles and tubes, but in that moment, Hero and the man shared a breath, slow and deep. Who is this dog? After we left, he slept for twelve hours straight–profoundly exhausted.

Most of us know enough about therapeutic riding programs to know what amazing things happen there. During the time I volunteered, there was always at least one ride that gave all of us goosebumps. Total transformations were common place–truly miracles. My respect for those horses was immense but at the same time, it wasn’t surprising to those of us with animals at home. Our dogs know when we are sad or sick; our horses routinely seem to read our minds.

The success of therapy work is well documented and undeniable, but who speaks for the animals? What do the therapy animals do with all that pain and anxiety they take on? Just because horses and dogs are able to soak up stress and pain, is it fair to sacrifice their mental health for our own?

Did you know that most horses in therapeutic programs have fairly short careers there? The work is physically taxing on their muscular-skeletal system as many of the riders have low muscle tone or difficulty balancing, but the work is emotionally draining as well. Did you know that most  rescues won’t adopt to therapy programs because of that early burn-out rate, preferring to find a forever home instead?

I’m not saying that these programs are abusive but we should never understate the impact the work has on therapy animals. Or the impact our own mental state has on our own animals.

Do you have a good, tolerant horse? Most likely he is more stoic than reactive. All horses are sensitive; some show it by being tense and spooky, and some shut down. Those stoic horses get taken for granted sometimes, when the truth is they deserve the same considerations–maybe even more. If a sensitive horse needs a consistent, peaceful rider, then maybe a “good” horse needs it twice as much.

Can you judge the stress level of your horse? Does he blow and stretch? Or is his mouth tense? Are there stress lines around his eyes? Does he grind his teeth? Can you tell the difference between a lick-and-chew and tense jaw/bit anxiety? Horses in high stress competitive training are not the only horses at mental risk. As a trainer, I see horses struggle to deal with the stress of their rider all the time. Can you tell the difference between your problems and his? He needs time to process all dimensions of the ride. Positive training means that we get our egos out of the way, but also our insecurities.

How we feel about ourselves is the truth behind any attempt at leadership. Our horses will be honest about that, even if we pretend differently. Even if we can’t find the strength.

How can we help our horses deal with our stress? Make sure his barn is a peaceful place where he has a social life with other horses who don’t threaten him. He was born to graze, so require free feeding and turnout daily. Most of all, ride happy; breathe and smile. Do it until he blows a relaxed sigh. Discipline your mind to leave the worry elsewhere. And keep that commitment.

Everyone has a bad day from time to time and some saddle time is a good way to escape, but sometimes it’s more. Are you mourning a loved one or a lost relationship? Are you a committed rider who’s always been timid, but lately even more so? Maybe it’s a good time to muck the barn and give the saddle a rest. Consciously work to resolve your stress on the ground. If the dark feelings don’t pass in a few days, be proactive.

Perhaps the best thing you can do for your horse is to take care of yourself. Depression is a common mental illness with resolution available. If anxiety rules your mind, there’s no shame. Be as honest as a horse and if you are struggling, get some help from a professional–with two legs.

Horse people are a tough breed. We don’t like to appear weak. We usually care more about our horses than ourselves. Grow to see that it’s the same thing; that our horse’s welfare is only as good as our own. Horses do make us better humans, but we have to do our part.

Horses are therapy animals naturally. We can’t stop their senses and perception–it’s how they’re made. But at the least, we can listen. And when we know better, it’s absolutely our responsibility to do better.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

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