How to Start a Therapeutic Riding Program
Starting a therapeutic riding program requires proper planning, recruitment of qualified staff and volunteers, and dedicated fundraising efforts.
The first step to take before starting your own therapeutic riding program is to gain hands-on experience by volunteering with an established therapeutic riding center. There is no substitute for learning the ins and outs of a therapeutic program by participation. You may also be able to find a mentor at the established program that can help you with your program’s planning.
It is important that a therapeutic riding center be fully accessible to physically handicapped adults and children; the facility should have handicapped accessible barns, bathrooms, and parking areas.
The riding arena should be completely fenced for safety, in case a horse should bolt unexpectedly. A covered or indoor arena is ideal, as sessions will be able to go on despite any inclement weather conditions.
If your therapy program can qualify for non-profit status (also known as 501(c)(3) tax exempt status), donors will be allowed to write off their contributions of money, supplies, and other gifts. After filling out the proper paperwork with the Internal Revenue Service it can take three to six months (or more) to obtain non-profit status.
You should also check into the possibility of licenses being required by your city and state. You may need a business license and file additional forms to operate a therapeutic riding facility.
It is important to obtain an insurance policy that covers liability and other potential needs. The coverage will protect you in the event that someone is injured by an animal or is in any other way injured on the premises.
Fundraising & Donations
Donations from the community are one of the primary sources of income for therapeutic riding programs. A website and email newsletter should be available to your donors to demonstrate what is being accomplished with their support. It is important to send acknowledgments for donations and to keep detailed records of all contributions.
Other fundraising options may include applying for funding from grants and endowments, hosting charity benefit events (such as a dinner, fashion show, or art show), asking local businesses to become official sponsors of the program, seeking publicity from the media, and selling custom items such as tee shirts and hats featuring the group’s name and logo.
Donations of goods and services are often as important as financial contributions. Feed companies may supply discounted or free products for the horses. Local pet photographers may agree to donate photos of horses and riders for your website or brochures.
Horses & Equipment
It is important to find suitable horses that are “bombproof”—meaning that they are not easily startled by sudden gestures or noises. The horses will have to deal with a number of unexpected movements and sounds from the riders and assistance staff, so a steady disposition is critical. Horses should also have smooth gaits and be well trained for beginner level riders.
All the usual tack (such as saddles, saddle pads, and bridles) and safety equipment (ASTM/SEI approved riding helmets) will be necessary. Mounting blocks, ramps, or automated lifts are very useful for assisting riders as they climb up into the saddle.
The most prominent certification group for therapeutic riding instructors is the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International (PATH), formerly known as North American Riding for the Handicapped Association (NARHA). PATH instructors are certified in three levels: Registered, Advanced, and Master. There is 3,500 PATH riding instructors and 30,000 volunteers that currently serve over 42,000 students worldwide.
Other therapeutic riding instructor certification programs include those from the Certified Horsemanship Association (Instructor of Riders with Disabilities), Riding for the Disabled (Instructor), Pennsylvania Council for Therapeutic Horsemanship (Instructor), British Horse Society (Riding for the Disabled Senior Instructor), and the Canadian Therapeutic Riding Association (Instructor).
Volunteers must be prepared to assist a diverse group of students facing physical, mental, or emotional challenges. They may serve as horse leaders, side walkers/spotters, or as the arena set-up crew (getting things ready for games and obstacle course events).
Volunteers do not necessarily need to have prior experience, but knowledge of horses and horsemanship will prove particularly beneficial. Local riding stables, horse shows, and tack shops are great places to post flyers to recruit volunteers.
Volunteers may assist with a variety of therapeutic activities such as grooming, saddling, an obstacle course set up, games, and balance exercises. Volunteers should be given a comprehensive training course to familiarize them with the ins and outs of working with horses and students in a therapeutic program.