I don’t know if it’s the service-oriented attitude of up-and-coming high school seniors, if it’s advocates for equine-assisted therapy like Olympian Courtney King-Dye, or if it’s just a growing field nationwide, but in the last year and a half, I’ve spoken to a ton of students who have an interest in going into therapeutic riding or equine assisted therapy as their career after graduating from college. Colleges and universities too seem to be jumping on this bandwagon; in addition to places like Centenary College, which has a long-established handicapped riding program and offers its students the opportunity to certify as P.A.T.H. International (now the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International, formerly NARHA, or North American Riding for the Handicapped) instructors, universities like St. Andrews have recently added majors in therapeutic riding as part of their equine degree programs.
The beauty of having an interest in a field like therapeutic riding, hippotherapy, or equine-assisted therapy (and there is a difference between these things – more on that in a minute) is that, despite the lack of schools nationwide who offer a specific major in the field, there are a plethora of academic programs that can actually lend themselves to a career that blends a student’s love of horses with the desire to use them in a therapeutic manner.
But before you begin your search, this is where understanding the terminology comes in handy. Here goes:
A therapeutic riding instructor is someone who works with disabled or handicapped children or adults to teach them riding skills. Physical and social limitations, as well as increased mobility, spatial reasoning, and coordination can be acquired and improved through work with horses and interactions with instructors and volunteers.
Someone who helps individuals through hippotherapy, on the other hand, is one who uses the horse as a tool to deliver physical, occupational, or speech therapy. (The Horses for Heroes program through P.A.T.H. that connects disabled or traumatized veterans with horses as part of their recovery is a great example of this.)
As a result of the differences between these two job descriptions, the majors that students will need to find work in the field can be somewhat divergent. Therapeutic riding instructors may want to major in education, psychology or some other cognitive field, or even get a traditional equine degree with an emphasis on riding instruction. Certification through P.A.T.H. can be completed at any time during or after a student earns his or her undergraduate degree. Meanwhile, a budding hippotherapistwill be better-served by following a more medically-focused route, such as obtaining a degree and certification as a physical therapist, an occupational therapist, or a psychologist. (These routes will most likely require more schooling than that of a therapeutic riding instructor, but once certified, the opportunity for a successful hippotherapist to make more money in their career is greater than that of a therapeutic riding instructor.)
Ultimately, I’m excited to see the world of horses as healers expanding and I’m also pleased to know that so many young people are embracing it as they seek their future careers. As with any job, however, I strongly encourage my students to do their due diligence and research not only what path will fit them best after school, but also what school (and academic program!) will help get them started on the road to follow that dream.
(And if they need help along the way, that’s what I’m here for! If you want help in your college search, let me know!)