Working With Horses For Healing Effects

By Dana Vennen, executive director, Therapeutic Horsemanship of Hawaii

Therapeutic horsemanship? How does it work? It’s a question I get asked regularly, and it always makes me pause. I can talk about how riding a horse can increase core strength and promote flexibility. I can talk about how physical therapists, psychologists and other medical professionals can partner with horses to make huge improvements in individuals.

Kylie Shatz, Brandon Frattarelli and Scott Wegener

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Kylie Shatz, Brandon Frattarelli and Scott Wegener spend some quality time with this pony through THH. Photo by Lionel Seals

But the answer is that I have no idea how it works. I am completely mystified by the connection between horses and humans, and how powerful it is. Somehow, they can bring happiness and confidence and health to people who really need it.

That being said, there is more and more research on the physical, cognitive and emotional benefits of therapeutic horsemanship. Our nonprofit, Therapeutic Horsemanship of Hawaii (THH), is the only Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH)-certified Premier Accredited center in Hawaii, and we have been providing this service in Waimanalo since 1983. We also operate in Kona and in Honoka’a on the Big Island. In Waimanalo, we work with about 100 riders per week, and the program is powered by an army of volunteers.

I have been the executive director of THH since 2004 and have taken the status of “nonprofit” very seriously. I believe that this program belongs to the community, and I have made it a secondary mission to create a gateway for the community to learn about horses and other animals.

We offer therapeutic riding programs to just about anyone – from riders with physical diagnoses, ADD and autism, to adults who want to ride horses in a safe, supportive environment, to soldiers returning home from overseas who want to reconnect with animals and the community. A lot of our riders are just typical kids. My hope is that anyone can have horses in their lives by taking lessons or volunteering with us.

Each May for the past nine years, we have held a very special event in which our riders can demonstrate their riding skills and their dedication to horsemanship. This year’s Special Keiki Rodeo will be held Saturday (May 19) at our facility at the Waimanalo Polo Field. We will have food, drinks and shave ice along with pony rides, bounce house, games, face-painting and our famous stick pony race!

The event is free, and this year we’re happy to welcome riders from our Big Island branches. They will make this event a statewide celebration of therapeutic horsemanship! For more information, visit or call 342-9036.