The Making of a Therapy Horse

girls-1With the addition of Veronica and Ashley, two new trial horses into the Adventures Program, I was recently asked, “What makes any horse a good “therapy horse”?”. To my own surprise, I answered, “Shared Governance”. I suppose that this response was a result of November’s Sanctuary focus on the concept, and our recent elections, mulling around in my mind. Nonetheless, it’s a good answer. Shared Governance is about each person, and horse in this case, doing their part to make the whole social interaction a positive experience.  When applied to therapy horses, they have just as much of a responsibility as the rest of us.

Horses and humans share an astounding number of attributes. Genetics and life experiences play co-evolving roles as to whether we feel safe, or not, whether we trust, or not, and our ensuing behaviors. A good therapy horse has an easy going natural disposition, trusts their human leaders, feels safe, and has learned to tolerate a lot of weird stuff.  They are tested daily to demonstrate their willingness to hold this important position. They are asked to stand quietly while loud and erratic kids lunge at them with hoof picks and grooming brushes.  They are asked to stay relaxed while wheelchairs and walkers bump against their sides.  They are asked to be responsive when cued to walk more quickly, to slow down, to turn on a dime, to pick up their hooves, to allow us on their backs.  This isn’t easy stuff for inherently sacred prey animals.  So why do they it?  It’s a social mentality. Just like humans, horses want to trust and be cared for, they want to fit in with the herd.  What sets the therapy horse apart is that they also want to have a greater purpose and they have a clear sense of shared governance.

Thinking it through, it all makes biological sense. It’s not hard to understand the variables and factors that lead to the making of a therapy horse. Even so, that’s not the end of the equation.  After a long number of years working in the field (pun intended), I can also share a beautiful secret about this human-horse relationship. It’s magic. Pure and simple. It’s like the spark of life that makes a heart begin to beat.  It’s an energetic connection beyond simple comprehension, and it’s the real answer to the question of what makes a therapy horse.

Will Ashley and Veronica have this magic? We can’t say for sure just yet, there’s more testing they have to complete.  In the end, it won’t be one person’s decision though, it will be up to a team of eager staff and volunteers who are dedicated to looking for the magic and up to the horses to brings it to the barn. Shared Governance indeed.





Veronica is an 8 year old bay quarter horse mare joining us from Faith Ranch in Apollo, PA .


Ashley is a twenty something Appaloosa mare joining us from a farm in Edinboro where she was a companion to mules.



Glade Run Adventures provides personalized experiences in nature, including horseback riding lessons, guided trail rides, animal care classes, gardening classes, farm to table cooking experiences and nature themed arts and crafts. These activities are prefect for families, school groups, home schoolers, girl and boy scout troops, youth groups and parties.


Glade Run Adventures is conveniently located north of Pittsburgh in Zelienople, just minutes from route 79 and Cranberry Township.


About the Author

Julie Wahlenmayer, Director of Adventures

Julie has been with Glade Run since 1996, shortly after graduating from Slippery Rock University with a Bachelor’s Degree in Environmental Studies. Her experiences in animal and horticultural assisted therapies at Glade Run lead Julie to complete her Master’s Degree in Counseling at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.  Julie’s desire to connect individuals with the natural world around them, combined with her equestrian training and love of gardening, helped to shape our Adventures Program into the exemplary program that it is today. Julie’s vision for Glade Run Adventures is for it to become a model for social, emotional and physical growth and learning.

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