Valentino, who was named Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH)
International Horse of the Year in 2011 for his accomplishments as a therapy horse, began life in need of a helping hand himself. His owners abandoned him as a yearling, leaving him alone in a pasture with no access to basic necessities. Neighbors did their best to keep him fed and watered, tossing him hay whenever possible. Eventually, they called Horse Haven
of Tennessee, an equine rescue in Knoxville, Tennessee.
By the time Horse Haven took in Valentino in 2004, he had been neglected for over a year. Horse Haven set him on the path to recovery and, seeing that he had a kind personality despite the hardships he'd faced, set out to find him a good home. They took him to the Tennessee State Fair where he participated in training sessions with well-known horseman Craig Cameron. Terri Knauer, who worked with a PATH International center, heard about the sweet gaited horse cross through Horse Haven's website and wondered if he could make a good addition to her program.
Knauer observed Valentino during his training with Cameron and the young horse impressed her immediately. His willingness to learn and work with Cameron, his soft, caring eye and his suitable size suggested that he had great potential as a therapy horse. After Cameron's last session with Valentino, which focused on trailering, the trainer loaded him onto the center's trailer and they took him home.
Valentino took some time to settle in and adjust to his new lifestyle, but after nine months of patient training for Equine Assisted Activities and Therapies
(EAAT), he entered the program and quickly became a favorite. In 2007, he moved with Knauer to Therapeutic Animal Partners
(TAP), a new PATH International center. As the first full-sized horse at TAP, he helped get the emerging center off the ground, allowing them to begin to accommodate riders.
Valentino learned to take part in many kinds of EAA lessons, including riding with assistance, riding unassisted, interactive vaulting, volunteer training and ground carriage driving training, as well as groundwork, such as leading, bathing, or learning horse parts.
Books, DVDs, and online videos have featured Valentino and spread his influence even beyond the dozens of riders he's helped at TAP
. He was featured in the book and DVD My Horse, My Partner, by Lisa Wysocky. Valentino has also participated in state EAA trainings and in clinics with Craig Cameron, Dave Bradham, Sam Powell, and Lisa Wysocky.
Knauer, now the Executive Director of TAP, describes Valentino as the backbone of their program. "Every center needs a horse that is their 'utility' horse or their 'pinch-hitter' and this horse is ours," Knauer said. "He is a rock that each of our instructors knows will deliver a quality and safe lesson experience, and he is always appropriate in his engaging interactions with participants."
According to Knauer, his playful but peaceful manner helps him connect with his riders. "He loves toys and games and sometimes breaks a tense moment by picking up a toy in his mouth to 'help' a frustrated rider," she said. "His quiet demeanor is excellent for the first-time timid rider, and also for those learning to ride off-lead. He is a great confidence builder!"
With the special intuition of a gifted therapy horse, Valentino seems to sense when a rider needs special attention. A young newcomer to TAP, who uses a walker due to her cerebral palsy, was making the transition from another therapeutic riding center and greatly missed the horse she rode there. When Valentino saw the girl, he gently blew on her neck and dropped his head to her level. The horse and girl held each other's gaze for a long moment. Valentino's caring gesture forged the beginnings of a bond with the young girl, giving her the hope that she could find love, trust, confidence, and companionship with another horse.
To those who read about him, watch him in videos or clinics, or are lucky enough to ride him, Valentino provides the perfect example of how to overcome challenges and not only survive, but flourish. His early starvation and neglect behind him, he has learned to specialize in connecting with others who need support. This remarkable horse, who once needed to be rescued himself, now rescues others by giving them the hope and courage they need to face their daily challenges.