Miniature Therapy Horse Welfare Guidelines

 Carolin Schröder, Licensed Veterinarian col. 8251, 

Master in Clinical Behavioral Medicine and Animal Welfare, Zaragoza University, MMA Yale University

Since 1997 and probably even before, highly trained miniature therapy horses have been an important part of animal assisted therapy (AAT), animal assisted education (AAE) and animal assisted intervention (AAI) programs in the United States and abroad. Miniature therapy horses´ unique therapeutical benefit has made them increasingly popular for this type of work. Nonetheless, working with therapy animals to improve human health and well-being presents challenges regarding animal welfare and rights. These challenges have been thoroughly studied and guidelines as well as quality standards have been developed by professional organizations such as the IAHAIO (International Association of Human Animal Interaction Organization), Pet Partners etc. The international guidelines developed share in common the following fundamental  principles regarding animal rights and welfare:

  • Animal advocacy is essential to the ethical practice of all animal assisted interventions. In practical terms this means decisions must be made based “on the preference of the animal, rather than the best interests of a client, researcher, professional, or healthcare team member” [1]. 
  • The animals´ rights and welfare must be protected at all times. In all animal assisted interventions, animals must have the right to choose whether they want to participate or not, and to which extent. Handlers, therapists and clients must respect this choice [2].
  • Animal assisted therapies and interventions must only be done with the help of trained animals that are not only healthy physically and mentally, but enjoy participating [3].

With regards to miniature therapy horses, all the above principles must be applied in any AAI program. Therapy horses are true partners in the therapeutic intervention. They must never be used as a tool. Instead, they must be respected and treated as living beings with feelings, physical and psychological needs and with their own very special soul. 

In practical terms this means highly specific animal welfare criteria must be met, not only during the therapy sessions themselves, but also in all other aspects of the therapy horse´s life, including living conditions, health care and training.

The guidelines published so far include essential principles and welfare requirements that are common to all therapy animals. Nonetheless, little has been written on more species specific requirements, including miniature therapy horses. For this reason, and as a veterinarian, clinical behaviorist and trainer with broad experience in the care, training and work with miniature horses, I have developed the following miniature therapy horse welfare guidelines. These guidelines are applied to all MagicEquus® therapy horses and it is hoped other programs will choose to adopt these guidelines as well. Any MagicEquus® client is expected to fulfill these welfare requirements. In order to help therapists acquire the necessary knowledge and know how, specific training for horse assisted therapists is available. This training is mandatory for those considering purchasing a therapy horse at MagicEquus®. 

The MagicEquus® Miniature Therapy Horse Welfare Guidelines are divided into four parts: 

  1. Living conditions (housing, nutrition, socialization, exercise etc.);
  2. Health care;
  3. Training;
  4. Therapy work.

All four parts are interconnected, a deficiency in any single part will affect many other parts of the horse´s life. For example, a miniature horse being fed insufficient amounts of forage will develop frustration, gastric ulcers are likely to appear, which in turn will lead to further behavioral symptoms compromising therefore both the horse´s physical and mental well-being. 

Therefore, all four parts of the guidelines must be considered equally important and mandatory.

Terms listed in italics can be looked up in the glossary attached at the end of this document.


Welfare in living conditions

Horse welfare regarding its living conditions must as least comply with the principles laid out in the famous three F¨s: friends, forage and freedom.

Friends: horses are highly social herd animals. An essential part for their well-being is the ability to interact and socialize with other horses. Another species can never fully fulfill the horse´s social needs. Therefore, goats, sheep etc. are not substitutes for an equine companion.

Practical points: a miniature horse must live together with at least one other compatible well socialized horse. In general, in very small herds (less then 4 horses), an even number of horses seems to work best, but individual differences do occur. A miniature´s equine companion/s shall be of similar size, as a large difference in size constitutes a real safety risk for the miniature.  Therefore, miniature horses should not be housed together with large horses. Serious and even fatal injuries have been reported even in horses that seemed to get along very well. More precisely, the size difference between a miniature and its companion horse should be less then approximately 50% the height of the miniature. 

Forage: horses are herbivores whose entire physiology and psychology evolved to thrive on a high fibre diet which they ingest slowly throughout the day and night. Limited access to adequate forage compromises the horses health and well-being leading to increased incidence of gastric ulcers, colic and behavioral problems (wood chewing, anxiety, aggression etc.).

Practical points: horses should be fed a diet based mainly on forage, providing full time access to a low sugar good quality hay. In order to prevent undesired weight gain, forage shall be provided in slow feeder hay nets set up in a dynamic paddock or paddock paradise that encourages natural movement. In addition, regular physical exercise is highly recommended. Hand walking, jogging, trekking, working with long reins, agility etc. can all be excellent forms of healthy and mentally stimulating physical exercise. Even the best quality forage will lack certain types of nutrients essential to the horses health. Miniature horses are specially sensitive to a lack of high quality protein in their diet. Therefore all miniature horses must receive an appropriate daily ration balancer, which must include not only vitamins and minerals but also essential amino acids.

Freedom: horses are naturally active and curious animals. Their innate need for movement and exploratory behavior must be satisfied as much as possible. This means that whenever horses are not training nor working, that is during their free time, (which will be most of the day and the whole night) they must be kept in an environment that allows them to freely express their natural behaviors including movement, play, socialization, exploration, sleep, feeding etc. Giving horses the freedom of choice for satisfying their natural needs is an essential element for maximizing their life quality, and translates into more healthy, confident, relaxed and content horses.

Practical points: unless box rest is required due to a disease/accident, weather conditions are extremely harsh, or some other extraordinary circumstance, horses should not be kept locked in stables. Instead, the ideal set up is to provide a large paddock with permanent access to a field shelter or open barn, where the horse is free to come and go as it wishes. The paddock shall be designed in a way that maximizes the horses possibility to carry out their innate behaviors and encourages natural movement. This is achieved by providing various means of environmental enrichment including:

  • Setting up several feeding stations placing slow feeder haynets at different locations.
  • Placing the water trough and the salt as far away as possible from the feeding stations and from each other, thereby encouraging horses to move about, just like they would in nature.
  • Implementing a dynamic paddock (instead of a standard rectangular paddock): forming a circuit of tracks interconnecting different areas of interest.
  • Providing varied types of terrain with different surfaces to walk on (including areas covered with round river stones that promote hoof health), including natural hurdles and hills for muscular development and mental engagement, setting up areas for sunbathing and relaxing, providing scratching posts etc.
  • Using toys for additional mental stimulation. For example the interactive toy “Kong Wobbler” can be used to feed the ration balancer. Specially miniature colts tend to enjoy chewing toys designed for large dogs. Many horses also greatly enjoy playing with balls of various sizes (footballs, pilates balls etc.). The use of toys helps satisfying horses´ natural curiosity and playfulness, provides an additional way for desensitizing horses to “strange” things and, in the case of toys filled with food, helps slowing down their food ingestion promoting gastrointestinal health and preventing choke.


Welfare and horse health care

Only healthy, pain free miniature horses shall work as therapy horses.

This statement might seem unnecessary, but sadly the reality shows that it is often neither understood nor implemented. It is still common to hear people say: “this horse is no good for breeding because it has lung emphysema, patella luxation, dwarfism …but it has such a nice temperament, it would make a great therapy horse” or “this miniature horse has dwarfism and is disabled because of it, but it is a great example of willpower to people with disabilities, plus it is so tiny and cute, it makes a perfect therapy horse….” Such statements and the fact that disabled horses, including those with chronic arthritis, are being used by some for therapy work, show that there is still a significant lack of knowledge about the importance of horses´ welfare during therapy work, as well as the true nature of therapy work. Even though miniature therapy horse work is not usually physically demanding, it can be mentally demanding. Expecting a horse with a chronic disease to work as a therapy horse, is not only completely unethical, but also against all principles of animal welfare and rights. For this reason miniature horses with diseases that cause discomfort and pain, must be excluded at all times from therapy work. This includes most miniature horses affected by dwarfism, as most forms of dwarfism include skeletal abnormalities that result in chronic arthritis, arthroses and therefore pain.

Pactical points: 

  • Only horses free of pain and disease shall work as therapy horses.
  • Handlers must be able to recognize the signs, even the most subtle ones, of pain in horses.
  • Horses must undergo as least one annual veterinary check up.
  • Horses should be vaccinated according to the vaccination protocol recommended by the attending veterinarian. All horses should be immunized against tetanus.
  • Regular external and internal parasite control is mandatory.
  • Annual routine dental care, from age four on, and always done by a qualified veterinary dentist, is essential. Miniature horses have very large teeth in relationship to their small mouths. In fact their teeth are almost as large as the teeth of large horses. This makes miniature horses more prone to certain dental problems. Fortunately most of these problems can be easily treated when detected early on in routine exams. 
  • The horses body condition must be controlled regularly, adjusting their diet and exercise accordingly. Miniature horses in winter hair can look deceivingly “big”, giving a false impression of overweight. For this reason, in winter using visual inspection for assessing body condition is useless and even dangerously deceiving. Instead body condition must be assessed by palpating the relevant anatomical regions.
  • Hoof care with barefoot trimming must be done regularly every 8-12 weeks (depending on the horse and its pattern of wear and tear).
  • To prevent undesired sensitization to touch due to unpleasant medical procedures such as injections etc., it is recommended that therapy horses practice regular positive reinforcement based medical training.


Welfare in miniature horse training

Training is an important part of the life of any therapy horse. Even though a horse has “graduated” as a therapy horse and is already working, training is an ongoing process that must be continued throughout the entire working life of the horse. It is paramount that it is not a dreaded chore to the horse but a fun interaction with its human partner/trainer. Many traditional training methods are not really fun for the horses at all. The reason is that most traditional horse training techniques are still primarily based on negative reinforcement and positive punishment. 

Modern research has shown that training animals using positive punishment and even negative reinforcement can seriously compromise animal welfare by causing unnecessary stress, fear, learned helplessness, and even physical discomfort and pain. On the contrary, training based on positive reinforcement has shown to promote mental well-being, improve the human-animal bond and maximize learning.

Positive reinforcement based training techniques are proven to be highly effective while maximizing at all times animal welfare. In positive reinforcement training animals work with the human because they enjoy it and have fun doing so, not because they are afraid of the consequences for not collaborating. Instead of approaching training with the lema “make the right thing easy and the wrong thing hard” (which implies that the wrong choice will be punished), training and working with therapy horses should be based on the lema “setting the horse up for success”. This means exposing the horse to the different situations and exercises only at the level the horse is able to succeed while being happy and relaxed. This approach is not only more humane and ethical, but also has been scientifically proven to be more efficient and most importantly, 100% compatible with animal welfare.


Instead training being done to them (like during traditional training using pressure release techniques and punishment), horses trained with positive reinforcement actively participate in their own training. Moreover, horses trained this way, can be seen standing at the gate waiting for their turn to get their daily work session!

When working with horses using positive reinforcement, horses are truly free to choose whether they want to participate or not. This means horses can also at any given moment choose to say no. This is not disobedience, as it might be seen by some traditional trainers, but in fact is essential communication. The horse trained this way knows it can choose not to collaborate and that its human counterpart will respect this choice. So it is not only ok, but highly desirable that the therapy horse knows it is ok to say no. And that this NO will always be acknowledged and respected by the therapist. Some might asked, well then if the horse feels lazy it will just choose not to work, right? No, because horses trained with positive reinforcement truly enjoy training and working. This means, that the horse will only refuse to work if, for some reason, it is not feeling well, either physically or mentally. This is a true safeguard for the horses welfare and key aspect for ethical therapy work.

Practical points: 

  • Miniature therapy horses must be trained and worked by using mostly positive reinforcement based, non coercive methods. 
  • Punishment (which also includes certain types of psychological pressure) has no place whatsoever in training and working with therapy horses and must be banned altogether. This includes techniques such as “join up”, (where the horse is scared away and made to run whenever it chooses not to pay attention to the trainer) and flooding.
  • Negative reinforcement based techniques shall be substituted as much as possible by positive alternatives.
  • Training aids that work by applying principles of negative reinforcement and punishment must be avoided at all times. This includes the use of knotted rope halters, pressure halters and show halters with metal nose bands, all of which work by inflicting various degrees of physical discomfort and worst case scenario pain in order to achieve a horse´s compliance [4].


Welfare in therapy work

Therapy work with miniature horses must be based on the premise that ethical AAI with a true therapeutical benefit to the human, can only be achieved when the therapy horse´s welfare is satisfied and the horse wants to participate and enjoys its work. 

Miniature therapy horses allow therapists to work on very different abilities then the ones that can be worked on with therapy dogs. Namely, body language, empathy, awareness of the surroundings and of others, personal space, confidence, mental peace and serenity, all aspects crucial in the interaction with horses. Therefore, the reason to choosing to work with a miniature therapy horse, shall always be based on the treatment goal. In this sense, therapy with miniature therapy horses is complementary to the work with therapy dogs.

Practical points:

  • Therapeutic activities and sessions with miniature horses must be adapted to equine ethology. Therapy with miniature horses should by no means just copy the same exercises and activities that are done with therapy dogs. First of all, because it completely misses the point for working with a horse instead of a dog. Second, because such an approach is likely to generate some welfare issues.
  • The therapy horse is not a tool. It is a partner in therapy. Patients, clients and all people involved should be made aware of this at the very beginning of therapy work, and reminded so whenever necessary. The well-being of the miniature therapy horse comes first at all times. In practical terms this means that sessions must be designed with a flexible plan and alternative exercises must be available in case the horse signals it needs a less intensive participation or even a break.
  • Therapy sessions should have a maximum duration of one hour. 45-50 minutes of duration seems to be a a preferred duration by most horses.
  • The location for doing AAI: when given a choice, the least demanding environment to the horse shall be chosen. This means that doing AAI on the horse´s usual premises/ranch (where no transportation of the horse is necessary) and/or in familiar open spaces shall be preferred whenever possible.
  • When miniature therapy horses are taken to outside facilities for work, adequate transport conditions must be guaranteed, including when necessary air conditioning. Travel time shall always be less then 1 hour. Free choice hay in a slow feeder hay net must be provided throughout transportation time.
  • Miniature therapy horses that work in outside facilities and therefore travel regularly must be 100% comfortable about traveling and the appropriate travel training must be regularly maintained. 
  • A proper workload for each miniature therapy horse must be carefully and individually chosen and adapted as the need arises. Horses age, level of experience, type of AAI, type of client/patient, a sessions environment, and transport duration are all important factors to take into consideration. When in doubt (for example when deciding whether a horse can handle well an additional weekly session in an outside facility), it is always preferable to err on the side of caution. Remember: the horse must have fun doing its job!!! For horses working in outside facilities (nursing homes, special education schools, hospitals etc.) it is advisable to provide the horse with as least two days a week free of traveling. For most adult, experienced miniature therapy horse, a work load of 2-4 weekly outside therapy sessions is adequate. For therapy sessions done on the horses premises, a larger number of weekly sessions can be easily done by most therapy horses. If the miniature therapy horse only works on its familiar premises, daily sessions are possible with as least one full day off work per week. All schedules must be flexible and adjusted as needed by the horse.
  • Withholding food, as some trainers have suggested, in order to prevent horses form having to pass manure while working, is strictly forbidden as it compromises horses welfare by causing stress, frustration and even increasing the risk of colic. When working indoors, horses might wear a discreet poo bag that catches manure. Nonetheless, when working indoors, most miniature therapy horses are used to relieving themselves prior to entering the building or even in the horse van, thereby making a poo bag unnecessary. Nonetheless, some clients simply feel more relaxed when they know there is no chance whatsoever of an “accident” occurring, in which case, using a poo bag is advisable.
  • When horses need to walk on potentially slippery surfaces, whenever possible proper horse boots shall be used on all four hooves. 



Animal welfare: the welfare of an animal includes both its physical and mental state. Because of its broad scientific, ethical and societal implications, no single definition for animal welfare exists. For the purpose of these guidelines, the following definition is considered the most relevant and inclusive: a good state of welfare means the animal is healthy, safe, comfortable, well nourished, able to express innate behaviors, not suffering from unpleasant states such as pain, fear, or distress [5], [6], and living a “life worth living” where negative experiences are not only minimized as much as possible, but daily opportunities are present for plenty of positive experiences [7].

Flooding: exposing an animal to a fear provoking stimulus at its full strength in a context where the animal cannot escape, forcing it to endure the fear until it “submits”. Not to be confused with habituation, where the fear provoking stimulus is always presented at an intensity that does not elicit a fear response, and then gradually increased.

Learned helplessness: psychological state/condition where an individual has learnt it has no control over fearful, unpleasant or painful conditions and that its actions are futile.  Its a state of powerlessness. A horse in this state shows significantly decreased or even no response at all to the stimulus, as well as a remarkable lack of interest in performing any spontaneous behavior. To the untrained eye, a horse in this state can easily be confused with being “obedient, submissive or extremely calm and laid back”. In extreme cases, the horses appears “shut down” and depressed. Learned helplessness can be situation specific or can be generalized. Learned helplessness is a common consequence of inappropriate training techniques (flooding, positive punishment etc. ), as well as inadequate living conditions (social isolation and prolonged confinement etc.).

Medical training: training that is specifically designed to teach the animal to accept routine medical procedures and treatments such intramuscular injections, oral medications (deworming etc.) without experiencing fear. Medical training is best accomplished by combining systematic  desensitization with counterconditioning.

Negative punishment: involves removing a pleasurable stimulus following a behavior. Decreases the likelihood for this behavior to occur again. Feelings associated: frustration, disappointment.

Negative reinforcement: involves removing an aversive stimulus following a behavior. Increases the likelihood for this behavior to occur again. Feelings associated: relief.

Positive punishment: involves adding an aversive stimulus following a behavior. Decreases the likelihood for this behavior to occur again. Feelings associated: fear.

Positive reinforcement: involves adding a pleasurable stimulus following a behavior. Increases the likelihood for this behavior to occur again. Feelings associated: joy.



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Copyright© 2019 . MagicEquus®, Carolin Schröder. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced or transmitted in any form without the explicit written consent of is author Carolin Schröder.