Linking Nature Awareness to Equine Care
For many Americans, history and western movies link horses, Arizona and progress in settling the western U.S. In the 21 Century, horse properties still abound within the Phoenix city limits and children grow up in awe of the animals they see around them or in the media. Feral burros and horses still roam in parts of the state.
The Phoenix Zoo’s equine programs provide a prime opportunity to leverage rich Arizona tradition to encourage our guests in increasing horsemanship and husbandry skills plus sensitivity towards animals’ needs. Since 1998, 10,715 students have participated in the Zoo’s equine programs and have learned how to work with and accommodate the needs of these large domestic animals. Their experience translates to a better understanding of the needs of domestic, feral and even endangered species.
The program’s mission parallels the Zoo’s, which is to “provide experiences that inspire people and motivate them to care for the natural world.” The Phoenix Zoo is committed to being environmentally responsible and modeling leadership in conservation through scientific and educational programs and practices.
In 1998, when our Harmony Farm Children’s Zoo opened, the Zoo housed eight mules that were used for a modest riding experience. In the early years of our “Horse Hands” program, classes were offered in a rudimentary facility with limited space to house animals. Kids initially learned caregiving and riding skills with the Zoo’s mules. While mules were wonderful teachers for ground skills, children had a hard time learning to ride them. The program acquired three horses in 1999 because horses are better suited for adapting to the children’s needs than mules are. Staff and volunteers assisted kids, who sometimes weren’t much taller than a horse’s knee, to learn techniques for grooming, saddling
With modern, expanded facilities, the Zoo’s Equine Program entered a growth phase. In 2007, the Zoo dedicated a new five acre Equine area including a 10,000 square foot covered riding arena. The arena is equipped with lights for night lessons and has a seating area for spectators. The covered barn was built with 32 horse stalls, two tack rooms, a feed shed, office, storage space, two wash racks, feed storage area and a small classroom area for un-mounted lessons. Today, following enlargements to meet draft horse needs, 27 stalls are available. On the site are also a turn-out pen, a round pen, compost pile, and a large hay barn.
Program horses are typically donated to the Zoo by private owners who can no longer care for them, but would like them to go to a good home. Following Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) guidelines, new arrivals are quarantined for 30 days to assure they are parasite and disease-free. Once out of quarantine, they are periodically relocated among the stalls to socialize with previous residents.
When horses aren’t working in programs, they get two hours of turnout time in the arena every day. Mares are turned out together in a single herd. Geldings are evaluated together to see who is compatible with whom and allowed to exercise appropriately.
The staff trains new animals in a very specific manner to assure they respond to commands being taught to the students. Before a new horse is used with participants, he or she is put through a series of tests and behavior assessments. Then, adult volunteers or volunteer Zoo Teens will ride the new horse before he or she can begin working with students. The whole introduction process takes about four to six months.
Horses enter the program from diverse backgrounds. Sargent, a Paint gelding, spent his formative years tending cattle. Cruiser served on the Tempe Police Department in his previous career. Jewel, our newest arrival, was a trail horse and brood mare in Cave Creek, Arizona. Chip is a gigantic, gentle Percheron who has excellent kid skills. Sage and Seven have the silky gait of their Tennessee Walker ancestors. Star is of Arabian heritage and Napoleon is a Haflinger Pony. Parfait, a Paint mare, was trained in both English and Western performance skills; Cisco worked in the rodeo as a barrel racer and flag carrier. Scout, another Paint, served the rangers at Phoenix South Mountain Park. Jenny, a 23 year old Sicilian Donkey, is a senior resident in the stable. Brought to the Zoo from the wild, she responds well to volunteers and staff, but is somewhat standoffish around strangers.
Belgian Draft Horses Rob and Roy pull a wagon together as a team for special events. Colonel, a black Percheron, and Magic, our resident Clydesdale, pull carriages for special occasions such as weddings. Our draft horses stand from 17 to nearly 20 hands tall and weigh as much as 2,300 pounds.
Only staff work with these large animals because of their size and specialized draft horse training needs.
Horse Hands classes are held for up to six hours a day, six days a week, with volunteers stepping in to help keepers care for the herd. A total of 19 volunteers, including 12 adults and seven Zoo Teens practice equine caregiving skills, most of which they learned at the zoo. These include haltering, grooming, turning out animals and feeding under staff supervision. Some even launder rags for horse hygiene needs. Besides grooming, Zoo Teens pitch in with some of the more routine chores, such as stall mucking, replenishing sawdust and cleaning water containers. An important skill for all the equine caregivers to learn is picking out horses’ hooves to clean them and to prevent thrush. Each horse has its own grooming bucket and tack for health reasons. Volunteers walk horses in the confines of the equine areas.
All Phoenix Zoo Equine staff have substantial experience with horses and are on duty for 10 hour shifts. Equine Manager Becky Manning grew up in Kentucky and began riding at age five. She holds a C-3 certification in the U.S. Pony Club and has a Level 3 instructor certification in the Certified Horsemanship Association (CHA).
CHA evaluated the instructors, the program and faci lities and accredited the Phoenix Zoo Equine Program in 2008. Most of the staff are already or are soon to be individually certified by the CHA.
Some staff specialize in working with draft horses, while others are skilled at dressage. All staff are instructors, perform all husbandry duties and recognize symptoms of equine health issues.
Instructors teach small classes in which they take students through the steps of meeting horses, recognizing their needs, and learning to work with them safely. Most classes use the western riding style, which is somewhat easier for newcomers, but instructors also teach some English riding skills.
Our equine educational programs teach children the value of caregiving, a responsibility of great importance to the Phoenix Zoo. Harmony Farm, a separate petting zoo facility on grounds that opened in 1998, houses two horses –Jack, a 23 year old Percheron, and Smokey, a 17 year old Quarter Horse.
Pedro is the resident Sicilian Donkey that also lives on the farm. Kids can touch these animal ambassadors and parents can gauge their comfort level with the horses before choosing to enroll them in a teaching program.
Junior Horse Hands is a four-day program series offering a wonderful opportunity to introduce three to six year olds to the Zoo’s gentle equine. Held at the Zoo’s main Equine site, these hands on care-giving classes include learning basic needs of a horse, grooming, stable chores, an introduction to riding and much more! This is a great time for parents and kids to come and have fun with horses.
The Horse Hands program is designed to develop safe and caring relationships between children from 7-14 years old and horses. Each course consists of one two hour class a week for four weeks. Participants must attend all four sessions to earn certificates. They learn horsemanship, horse care-giving and basic riding skills. Classes are capped at 12 participants to maximize individual attention.
Safety is a priority and kids must wear helmets while riding and always be accompanied by adults when caring for animals. Instructors teach skills ranging from identifying horse breeds and colors to saddling, bridling and riding.
In Horse Hands Level 1, children learn to prepare a horse for riding and actually ride for the first time.
Level 2 teaches hoof care, horse bathing and focuses on basic riding control. Level 3 further develops riding abilities and challenges kids’ skills with their first trail ride outside the arena. In the initial levels, kids work in pairs and may be assigned different horses weekly. After completing Levels 1-3, students enroll in Level 4 to learn how to maintain a horse in good health. They develop their riding skills further and are assigned their own horses for the duration of the program.
Horse enthusiasts over age 15 can enroll in Adult Horse Hands. This program introduces prospective horse owners to the full range of responsibilities of caring for and feeding a horse as well as brushing up on horsemanship skills.
In early 2011, 32 people were enrolled in the Horse Hands Riding Series, which requires students to know horsemanship basics and progresses into more advanced topics. The Beginner Level students learn riding skills and control without a saddle. Upon passing the Beginner Riding Test, students can move on to Horse Hands Novice Level 1, which fine-tunes skills and introduces cantering. Horse Hands Novice 2 is open to those who have demonstrated their proficiency in earlier levels and features a controlled canter and the ability to perform basic movements at that gait.
While many children have pet dogs, cats or other small creatures, few city kids get the chance to interact with equine. The Phoenix Zoo’s Horse Hands program takes them outside their usual urban environments, face to face with nature. These classes help kids and parents truly understand the responsibilities of horse ownership and maintenance. The goal of this and all Phoenix Zoo education programs is to instill caring attitudes and behaviors, which are important for anyone taking on the responsibility of pet ownership of any kind. The volunteers and staff associated with the Zoo’s equine
programs believe that the work we do improves the lives of both people and horses in our community every day.