Back in the Saddle: Part 4 – Horse Leader

I hope you are enjoying this Back in the Saddle blog series as much as I am. The series will continue over the next few weeks with interviews of individuals who serve in a variety of roles in equine therapy and equine-assisted therapy programs. Have you missed the previous posts in this series? You can read them here. I recently had the pleasure of talking with my friend and fellow Cincinnati Therapeutic Riding and Horsemanship (CTRH) volunteer, Leslie Hancock. Join me in welcoming her to the blog.

Hello, Leslie. We’re happy you’re here! Please tell us how you got involved with equine therapy?

My husband was newly retired and in 2014, we were looking for some place we could volunteer together. At the time, we were living in Northwest Ohio, and I knew of an equine therapy facility that was always looking for volunteers. I loved horses and could be a leader, and he loved helping people and could volunteer as a side walker. We decided this was a good fit for us, and it was also for a very good cause!

 How long have you been a volunteer?

I volunteered for four years at the facility in Northwest Ohio, and I am just starting my fourth year here in Cincinnati. 

What are your responsibilities as a horse leader?
Before Class

As a leader role in an equine therapy class, the horse is my primary concern. I am responsible for bringing my assigned horse into the cross tie area, grooming him, cleaning out his hooves, and putting on his bridle. I am also responsible for keeping the horse still while the rider and assigned sidewalkers are working around the horse, brushing and tacking him up (putting the saddle pads and saddle on the horse). Once my rider heads off to the arena with the sidewalker(s), I finish the tacking process to assure the saddle is secured properly. I then lead the horse into the riding arena and familiarize him with any obstacles in the arena and warm him up for the riding that is to happen. At this point, I am also assessing that my horse is ready to be ridden, is not showing any signs of soreness that might not have been discovered earlier, and is in a good mindset to continue.

As a leader role in an equine therapy class, the horse is my primary concern.

During Class

I then lead the horse to the mounting block area. I try to place the horse as close as possible to the rider ramp to enable easiest mounting for the rider.

During the class, again my focus is on the horse and making sure we are following the instructor’s lesson plans. If I have a great side walker, it is easy to keep my focus on the horse. If my side walker is new or just does not seem to be focused on the rider, I will add in my own instructions to help the rider get the most out of the class. My interaction with a rider also depends on the type of instruction that is being provided in class. A great instructor will see that the sidewalker can be more helpful and guide that person on how to instruct the rider. Other instructors aren’t as helpful, and I will try to do my own thing to help the rider or guide the sidewalker in how to help.

After Class

Once the class is done and the rider is dismounted, I take my horse back to the barn, cross tie him, unbuckle one side of the girth and hold the horse still for the rider to come. The rider, with the help of a sidewalker, removes the saddle, brushes the horse, and takes the saddle back to the tack area. I then finish brushing, clean hooves, and take the horse out to pasture or return to his stall. I sweep the cross tie area and put away the grooming box. Leaders are responsible for cleaning the bridles used in the tack area and writing down specifics of our class in a record booklet kept on each horse as to how the horse was that day and if there were any issues we identified that someone needs to address like behavior or soreness, for example.

What is your favorite part of being a leader?

I was born with a passion for horses! Volunteering has been a wonderful way to be involved with a variety of horses in a way that is totally different from what I do with my own horse. As I have prior experience with horses, I sometimes get assigned the “more challenging” horses to lead! I am happy to be able to help out in that way, and there is always something to be learned from working with different breeds and types of horses. I do enjoy the interaction with all the volunteers, staff, and riders too. 

What is your least favorite part of being a horse leader?

Hmmm…having to go get a horse from the pasture in the rain when I am not dressed appropriately?! There are a few horses I have come across who are nippers. That is not fun when I am trying to avoid a horse’s teeth during a lesson. I have been bitten in a class (not at CTRH – though I have come close to skin being broken!)

What has been the most rewarding experience / memory since you have started volunteering?

My top memory is with a rider from the Northwest Ohio therapy barn, who was mostly non-verbal, and I had been her leader for many sessions. She said a sentence that made sense while riding, and we volunteers all looked at each other with big smiles on our faces as we knew how big that moment was!

When I am working with a horse who seems to have difficulty performing in a certain area, and I’m able to get that horse to overcome the issue, that makes me feel good. I’m able to sometimes successfully pass on what I did to other leaders so they may experience success too. For example, getting some horses to trot might take some different approaches, and I love when I find the key! This doesn’t mean that it will always work in the future but, for the day, I’m happy!

Describe the qualities or quirks of your favorite horse?

The qualities of my favorite therapy horse would be one who is easy to work around and has a very patient attitude and is not pushy. The horse would be quiet and willing to do what is asked. I keep hearing how there are no perfect horses, but I have worked with a few who are very close. Rose, here at CTRH, comes to mind! 

 From a horse leader’s perspective, what benefits does equine therapy offer a rider? A rider’s family?

The rider gets to work around this very large beast, that they most likely have never been so close to, from the ground and in saddle. I love seeing the love that some riders develop with their assigned horse and other horses in the barn. They have this opportunity to develop a relationship. Though some riders who have ridden for many years might have difficulty expressing words, they do have horses they have ridden from their past at the same facility that they remember fondly.

Then there are the actual physical benefits, when you see a rider being able to sit up straighter in the saddle as he/she develops more strength in their muscles and learn to move with their horse. They become more comfortable being that high off the ground and expressing the freedom they feel in the saddle, depending on their physical limitations. The riders get to learn new skills and become more competent in the saddle. Plus doing buckles on the saddles is always a challenge!

The riders’ families get a much needed break, some from twenty-four-hour care they provide. I don’t have as much interaction with the families at CTRH like I did in Northwest Ohio barn. At that barn, the parents enjoyed the social interaction with each other, they shared like experiences with each other, and enjoyed that time as much as the riders enjoyed their classes. It is great when the family members get to see the accomplishments of the riders and see them challenged successfully!

Do you have any tips or tricks to share when working with riders who may be uninterested, non compliant or scared and nervous?

Hopefully I have sidewalkers and an instructor who are able to work with the rider. My focus is supposed to be mainly on the horse. If needed, my advice is to distract the rider with something different to do to take his/her mind off their issue. That might mean we do an obstacle if one is set up in the arena, or possibly back up the horse as that involves a different thought process. Anything to distract. And just talking to the rider about a favorite topic (if known) is also a good distraction. Sometimes I have just talked about the horse the rider is on and provide information on the breed or what color it is…more distractions!

Anything else you’d care to share?

I feel very fortunate that I volunteer where I feel valued. 

I love the fact that I volunteer with an organization where there are so many good people who really care about the welfare of their horses. This organization has a high quality facility, a very competent staff (especially the person we see the most, the Volunteer Coordinator), who recruits great volunteers. And I get to work with the wonderful riders who show up with smiles on their faces and are happy to spend time interacting with these gentle, intelligent, and caring animals in safe surroundings. I feel very fortunate that I volunteer where I feel valued.  So many good things all rolled into one organization!

I couldn’t agree more, Leslie. CTRH is an incredibly special place. Equine therapy programs are not only a blessing to the riders and their families but also to the volunteers who choose to spend time at the barn. Thank you so much for sharing with us.