When Is It Right To Retire A Horse?

If the world were perfect, we would ride our beloved horses forever. But alas, Adam and Eve ate that apple.
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If the world were perfect, we would ride our beloved horses forever. But alas, Adam and Eve ate that apple.
Photo of Grant Miller DVM

Photo of Grant Miller DVM

Veterinarians consider the horse’s age, overall physical condition, past and current lameness/medical issues, and the level of work. We merge these facts with our own opinion and make a recommendation to our client, the horse owner. The horse owner weighs our input—along with contributions from friends, trainers, blogs, chat rooms, and magazine articles—and makes the decision. But it’s not easy. What may be retirement criteria for one horse may be less of an issue for another horse.

When To Retire. The two most common causes of retirement are old age/diminishing physical capabilities and ongoing unresolvable lamenesses. In these situations, the writing is on the wall: The horse’s body isn’t capable of the work anymore and must retire.

But what about a horse with intermittent lameness that nobody can get a handle on or a horse with behavioral issues? Or, a case where the horse is actually OK but, for personal or financial reasons, the owner is faced with the decision to retire him. There is no perfect formula to make the decision.
Regardless of the scenario, the one thing that remains the same is that the decision must be made ultimately, and solely, by the owner.

On one hand, if you stop too soon, it feels like wasted time that you and your horse could have spent riding together. Moreover, once a body stops athletic routine, it’s more difficult to get started up again. For this reason, retiring the horse almost feels like one step closer to the grave.

Some believe that as long as you can do something, you should, despite aches and pains, to avoid the symbolic connotation of stopping. On the other hand, nothing can make a horse owner feel guiltier than over-riding a horse that is in too much discomfort to work.

How To Retire. Horse owners are famous for beating themselves up over things that go wrong with our horses, and nobody likes the thought of being racked with guilt over riding a horse that should be turned out to pasture. And, there we are, back at the beginning! What time is the right time to stop riding a horse?

Try looking at things solely from the horse’s perspective. Is your horse the kind of horse that insists on being ridden? Does his will to work triumph over aches and pains? If your horse possesses this mentality, then perhaps continuing on for a while longer is OK. Be careful, though, as horses often have the desire but lack the physical capability. When retirement is looming, you may need to reduce the horse’s workload frequency and intensity.

Still, few horses appear to have an overwhelming desire to stay under saddle. Let’s be honest. Believing that the horse is just waiting for us to hop on his back and ride is like trusting that our kids are thinking about us all the time when they are away at college. 

Most of us consider, as best we can, what the horse’s point of view would be. Although it sounds grossly rudimentary, in the grand scheme of things horses really just like to eat, roll, sleep, run a little bit and repeat. These activities are really cornerstones for a horse’s daily voluntary routine. To that end, it’s unlikely that being ridden ranks very high on the priority list for most horses. 

Once you’ve considered your horse’s needs (in that being ridden isn’t one of them), the next decision is the best way to retire him. For lots of horses, life in a stall with daily riding is the norm. Once he’s no longer being ridden, stabling changes are in order to accommodate the horse’s new lifestyle, since he can’t just stand around all day in a stall and never get out.

Some people find backyard boarding situations or pasture-pal arrangements, while others find a retirement farm with herds in large pastures. Knowing your horse’s behavioral characteristics will help determine the most suitable retirement arrangement for him.

Bottom Line. Overall, the choice to retire a horse usually won’t be made overnight. It’s a big decision, and it’s important to look at it from the horse’s perspective. Try to determine what his daily needs are in relation to environment and activity. Once you’ve found answers to all those questions, you will reach a decision that will result in what is best for the horse.

 Grant Miller, DVM, Contributing Veterinary Editor