Snag that dream job: I wanna... train horses

I got a chance to talk to Pamela White, a horse massage therapist, trail guide, therapeutic riding instructor and dancer. Talk about an awesome career! Here’s what she had to say about her work and how YOU can get involved.

Girls’ Life: Tell me about your jobs.

Pamela White: I am an equine massage sports therapist. I work for the U. S. park police as a volunteer. The park police has classes where they train officers to become part of a mounted unit. Most of the trainees have never ridden horses before, so it’s more stress on the horse. They pull really hard on the reins, so I’ll work, for example, on the horse’s neck. Other times, I’ll give the horses a massage to just let them have a fun day. I also guide the public trails in Rock Creek Park.

I am also trained as a therapeutic riding instructor. I work with children and adults who have physical disabilities or sensory processing issues. They’re “able-bodied,” meaning they can walk on their own, but they’re not quite coordinated or grounded. When you’re on a horse, you are not really experiencing the gravity of the earth. It’s the horse that is conducting that gravity for you. The natural rhythm of the horse—it’s kind of like being on a boat—can realign your vestibular system (inner ear) so that it impacts your balance. It is as if the body knows what it should be doing but, because of the disease, hasn’t been able to achieve it. Riding seems to trigger memory to tap back into what nature should have been. I’ve seen children who couldn’t walk normally and were awkward in their balance, but after therapeutic riding, could walk well. This is also extremely helpful for confidence.

GL: You’re also a dancer. How do you relate dance to your work with horses?

PW: I used to get up early in the morning and go to the barn to feed the horses. While they were eating, I would turn on music and dance. I never realized that one horse, Stonewall, was watching me the whole time. One day, I was visiting the barn, and it was a very cold day in January. There was another volunteer who was grazing Stonewall. I was just visiting, so I wasn’t dressed properly for the weather, but I wanted to chat with her while she was grazing. I figured I would do a little dance warm up to get my body moving rather than just standing there. I started to do what Isadora Duncan called a “trot run” and suddenly I heard this clip-clop, clip-clop, clip-clop behind me. I turned around and Stonewall was following me! The next time I came to the barn, the first thing I did was go to the paddock to see him and all I did was just roll my head to the right and then the left. And then he did too. He kept following my movements exactly. I had established a relationship with him. He was my dance partner.

GL: What is your ultimate goal?

PW: My goal is for the able-bodied folk who don’t want to actually ride the horses to use dance to learn to move and experience the horse-human relationship. Riding obviously has clinical benefits. At the same time, there is a lot to be gained from just interacting with the horse on the ground. Generally speaking, I would take one person and one horse into a space at a time.

[Ultimately, I want] to get a little fixer-upper farm, not so many acres that I can’t handle it, probably three horses and a dance studio attached. You could learn dance inside and go out to apply it with the horse. I could do workshops and retreats. I could have a cottage on the property so people could have a place to stay.

GL: How did you get involved in such unique careers?

PW: I did not grow up with horses. I took a job in D.C. government for child welfare and hadn’t been in this job but a week when a secretary came up to me and said, “D.C One fund is a D.C. employee program where we all give money to a charity. Now is the time for the campaign, so you have to give money.” I was like, “I haven’t even gotten my first paycheck and they’re already asking me for money!?” They had a catalog, so I flipped through it and saw something I had never seen before called the Northern Virginia Therapeutic Riding Program. I gave them a little money, which ended up being about as much as a bail of hay costs. I decided that wasn’t generous enough, so I started volunteering.

At that time, there was only one instructor who was struggling with managing all her classes. I thought, “If only I knew how to do this, I could help.” I started training to get accredited and noticed that there were plenty of volunteers to help with the children, but I started to feel like the horses weren’t that happy. They weren’t being stimulated. They just got one child after another and went around in a circle. It made me think the horses may not even like that we ride them, so I decided make it all about the horses. I can’t tell you how much I love it. I would wake up at 5:30 to go to the barn before I had to go to work with hay sticking out of my hair, but it was worth it because I love it so much

GL: What is the most challenging part about your job?

PW: I don’t have my own horses, so I’m constantly working with horses where I don’t have control. Some riders are not the nicest to the horses. It sometimes feels like I put all this energy into helping the horse and then it can just be undone. Also, some riders don’t do a good job of cleaning or taking care of their horses. Some places too, don’t have places where the horses can just play. It can be frustrating to try to help horses with all these restrictions.

The second thing is the average person does not recognize the importance of engaging their horse and giving them inspiration. Horses want stimulation and want to be challenged just like humans. There’s a challenge with trying to get people to see the horse as more than an object. People get attached to and love their horses, but they don’t always have a level of respect for them.

GL: What is the best part about your job?

PW: Definitely a horse expressing happiness with you. The best part is understanding the horse communicating his or her happiness. Don’t you love it when you’re trying to explain something to somebody and they just get it? That’s what it can be like. It would be a lie to say riding isn’t fun. But, when you get to ride and feel like you and your horse are one, it’s the most amazing feeling. You really do feel like you can fly. It’s just so freeing, for both you and the horse.

GL: Do you have any advice for girls interested in pursuing similar careers?

PW: First, learn as much about the horse as you can—know the horse’s body, see how similar it is to ours, learn about what they eat, what their diseases are, what different types of horses there are. Then, start volunteering. Just help out in the barn and be around horses without riding them, get to understand their personalities, before you start riding. What tends to happen is that people want to ride and objectify the horse. For me, that’s not the way to do it. You have to learn about grooming the horse, taking care of the horse, interacting on the ground before you ever get on one.

Nowadays, so many schools require community service. Volunteering is a wonderful way to get credits, even if you’re just helping in the office. Riding can be very expensive, so volunteering is a good way to enter because if you put in extra time in the beginning, your riding may not be as expensive later on. Find out about and visit barns in your area. Many cities have a mounted police unit. You can call and visit to see what it’s like.

If you’re interested in working with horses from a therapeutic standpoint, learn about what kinds of disabilities kids have. Different kids have different problems and personalities. Would a relationship with a horse be helpful in a certain case? If so, why? Understand how the natural rhythm of horseback riding can help physical disabilities.

Check out this video to learn more about the horses at Rock Creek Park (psst…you can see Pamela at 2:50!):


by Kristen Yeung | 2/1/2016