anuel swings his leg over Rusty’s back, settling gently into the Western saddle. He slides his feet into the stirrups, picks up his reins, and softly says, “Walk on.” Manuel, who is autistic, rides the big bay Thoroughbred during his weekly lessons at Freedom Ride, a therapeutic horseback riding center in Orlando, Florida.
Although Manuel began riding three years ago, he and Rusty have only been partners for the last year. A nervous rider, Manuel would hold on to the horn every time that he rode — until he was paired with Rusty, that is. Over the course of the year, Manuel’s partnership with Rusty grew, along with his desire to learn new skills.
Manuel’s instructor, Farrah Abu-Hijleh, credits Manuel’s bond with Rusty with his progress in the saddle. “Manuel won’t get on unless he hugs and kisses Rusty first, and when he was first learning to steer, he was worried about hurting Rusty,” Farrah says. “The two of them make the best pair — it actually feels like they take care of each other.”
Both Manuel and his parents recognize the positive impact that riding has had on Manuel’s life, from having the increased ability to focus in school to maintaining better posture. According to Manuel, riding Rusty helps him manage his nerves as well. “Sometimes I’m very anxious. The horse helps me stay calm, sometimes. Rusty is a good horse, I love him,” he says.
Rusty is one of four Thoroughbreds at Freedom Ride, and his sweet demeanor and sense of humor make him a rider favorite. Rusty provides comic relief for the riders, picking up cones in his mouth and playing with bean bags and rings. But Rusty’s sense of humor is just one of the attributes that makes him a star therapy horse.
“Rusty is very intuitive — he really feeds off his environment and helps our riders learn how to control their emotions.” Farrah adds, “He has the sweetest demeanor — he’s always very patient with our riders, and very forgiving when he gets mixed signals.”
Manuel and his buddy Rusty. Photos by Maressa Taylor-Levy.
Therapy horses are often imagined as old, slow, lumbering animals, but their personality and mentality are far more important than their age or breed. Therapy horses do not have an “easy” job. They must tolerate uneven weight distribution, behaviors like screaming and throwing things, and being surrounded by toys and props. It also takes a special kind of horse to be able to have bean bags and rings tossed from their backs, walk through hanging pool noodles, and stand quietly while a rider finds their balance. They must also have the kindness and patience to deal with unclear aids. Therapy horses, no doubt, are special.
Anyone that has ever worked with a Thoroughbred knows that they are special, too. Thoroughbreds are incredible athletes with a strong work ethic, and they have the ability to excel in a wide variety of careers, from racing, eventing, hunter/jumper, ranch work, the list goes on. But how likely would you be to consider a Thoroughbred for a therapeutic riding program?
Despite their versatility, the Thoroughbred is frequently stereotyped as a “hot” ride unsuitable for beginners, yet therapeutic horseback riding centers across the country are breaking down the stigma surrounding this loyal, honest breed.
An Athlete That Needs A Job
Thoroughbreds who have completed their racing careers often take on a new job in their next phase of life. Though the Thoroughbred is a popular breed for sport, they should not be discounted for their therapeutic potential simply because is is not a particularly athletic endeavor. But to be a successful therapy horse, Thoroughbreds don’t have to have been a flop on the track.
Fly as an eventer. Photo courtesy of New Mexico Center for Therapeutic Riding.
“People think that if they were successful on the track, there is no way that they could make a good therapy horse,” says Jena Antonucci, a Thoroughbred trainer at Gulfstream Park racetrack and the Vice President of Florida Thoroughbred Retirement and Adoptive Care (Florida TRAC). “That’s just not true. They have traveled, they’ve been handled — nothing really rattles them. Those older warhorses that have just ‘been there, done that’ can be very good therapeutic riding horses.”
"They may not all do therapy work, but they all have a desire to win at something..."
Located in south Florida, Florida TRAC provides OTTBs (off-the-track Thoroughbreds) with professional care and training before adopting them out to loving homes, including working with multiple therapeutic riding centers like Freedom Ride, which has adopted two horses from the organization. To streamline the process and thus encourage racing professionals to participate, the non-profit organization works directly with Gulfstream Park racetrack to provide a direct outlet for horses that retire from racing.
“For any trainer or owner that has participated in racing at Gulfstream, Florida TRAC is an option for them,” Jena says. “We’re finding that as people are understanding more about what we do, and how successful we are in transitioning these horses, it’s becoming a more ‘popular’ option.”
‘He’s the bombproof horse that everyone looks for’
One such horse placed by Florida TRAC is Cool Man Walkin’, or “Cool.” After winning $43,180 in 10 starts on the track, Cool was adopted by Whispering Manes Therapeutic Riding Center in Kendale Lakes, Florida, and settled easily into his new job.
“There is a misconception about OTTBs. They are thought of as fiery and high-strung, but like any other breed there is a spectrum,” says Dr. Erin Bauer, DVM, the Executive Director of Whispering Manes and their resident veterinarian. For Whispering Manes, the decision to adopt a Thoroughbred was easy.
“They are smart, and Cool picked up on what we needed very quickly and transitioned into being a program horse faster than any other horse we’ve brought in. OTTBs also come from an environment where there is a lot of activity around them, so we have found that nothing spooks Cool. He is the bombproof horse that everyone looks for.”
Cool integrated seamlessly into the center’s program, and Dr. Bauer partially credits his easy transition to his early training as a racehorse. Despite the stereotypes surrounding OTTBs, Cool shows no signs of wanting to run — in fact, he is quite lazy.
“Cool has become the perfect therapeutic riding horse in just a few short months. He tolerates beginner riders with no signs of impatience. He was used to being walked in-hand, so it was easy to teach him to have a handler, and he doesn’t care about having sidewalkers [additional handlers that walk on the side of the horse to ensure rider safety].”
In addition to adjusting well to the mounted part of his job, Cool acclimated nicely to his life outside of the ring, exhibiting good ground manners and polite behavior whether stalled or turned out. “He’s been a very adaptable horse.”
Finding Strength in Each Other
The job of the therapeutic riding horse is to give children and adults freedom, independence, and above all, friendship. The joy and inner strength these horses give to their riders is immeasurable, but there is no doubt the horses receive something in return.
Fly proudly donning his 2018 T.I.P. Thoroughbred of the Year cooler with Thomas. Photo courtesy of the New Mexico Center for Therapeutic Riding.
Hadifly, a former racehorse and eventer, is a resident of the New Mexico Center for Therapeutic Riding (NMCTR). He’s not bombproof (plastic bags really are pretty scary), explains NMCTR owner Ashley Armijo, “but the way that he can connect to people is amazing. … He has the incredible sense to know when someone needs him physically, emotionally, or socially.” But when Hadifly sustained a radial fracture in turnout, NMCTR thought that they had lost him. Now he was the one in need, and the students to whom he’d shown so much love and attention gave it all back to him in spades. According to Ashley, they played a major role in Fly’s successful recovery.
“I will never forget the day one of his riders came to see him. He wheeled his wheelchair into the stall and said, ‘Don’t give up, Fly. You didn’t give up on me,’’’ Ashley says. “Fly enjoyed and needed that love.”
After 16 weeks of stall rest, Fly was cleared by the vet to go back to work. Then, in 2018, Fly was named Thoroughbred of the Year by the Jockey Club Thoroughbred Incentive Program, or T.I.P. This program was created to encourage the retraining of Thoroughbreds for second careers, and the award is given annually to a Thoroughbred that has excelled in a non-competitive career. Fly was a worthy recipient.
“Fly needs a purpose. He needs someone to need him,” Ashley says. “When he knows that he is needed, he will do anything. To be a successful therapy horse, they must have the personality and desire for it. Never underestimate the desire to succeed that an OTTB has. They may not all do therapy work, but they all have a desire to win at something — and it’s your job to find what that is.”
And there’s no question that Rusty, Cool, and Fly are all winners in their riders’ eyes.
Feature photo of Hadifly and Thomas courtesy of the New Mexico Center for Therapeutic Riding.