Your wonderful competition horse just isn't what he used to be. Whether he's showing his age or a little unsoundness has cropped up, maybe he's stopping at 3-foot jumps he used to sail over. Maybe, just when you thought you were ready for Second Level, his hocks are getting too iffy for collected work. Or maybe he's just jumped around one cross-country course too many.
You've helped him along with a well-planned show schedule, regular shoeing, chiropractic, joint supplements and the judicious use of such nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) as bute. But in most cases there comes a day when even you have to admit that those efforts aren't enough.
You wish your pockets were deep enough to let you keep him as a pet, but realistically they probably aren't. As for selling him--you worry that you won't get what he's worth, and you may also worry about losing a say in what happens during his "golden years." A not-so-caring owner might risk injury and burnout by trying to push him beyond his limits. And you have nightmares that he'll get passed from hand to hand and possibly wind up abused, neglected, in pain or sold at auction.
Maybe There's Another Option
You may have another alternative that benefits both you and your horse: donating him to a nonprofit riding program, such as a therapeutic-riding center for individuals with disabilities, Pony Club or a school or college with an equestrian curriculum.
If your guy is like most older or serviceably sound horses that go to such programs, he'll enjoy:
- the lighter, toned-down, lower-demand work. In fact, the consistency of a well-run riding program may well keep him going and happily useful far longer than almost any other career choice.
- the affection and energy transfer he gets from daily touching and handling as people from little kids to doting adults groom, fuss over and love him.
- the healthy interaction with other horses. (Most programs turn their "schoolies" out in social herds at least part of the time.)
And you'll have:
- the satisfaction of knowing he's become a school master who's comfortably extending his life by teaching a new generation of students.
- the reassurance that you won't lose track of him and he won't spend his last days in pain and suffering (something we'll say more about later).
- possible eligibility for a tax credit that may actually make more financial sense than selling him for a pittance. (Many "for-profit" riding programs welcome donated horses, too, although they won't qualify you for a tax deduction. For more about tax considerations, see "Get Your Donation's Worth" below.)
Sound good so far? If so, ask yourself some important questions.
Am I Ready to Let Go?
You are if you can shrug your shoulders and say "Oh, well" at the prospect of some well-meaning student's combing half the hair out of your horse's beautiful tail. You are if you can accept that even a normally good-minded and easygoing horse who's been privately owned may act a bit resistant and uncooperative in the new activity and lifestyle that his career change involves.
You are if you understand the inevitability of at least a few bumps and bite marks after your horse's first week in pasture, and the possibility that he may temporarily lose a bit of weight--not because he's being worked too hard or fed too little, but because he's too busy socializing or just trying to find his place in the pecking order. And you're really ready if you can be a "hands-off" donor who neither hovers, meddles, nor nitpicks, but can stand back, watch and be proud and happy to see him being useful and well cared-for.
You probably aren't ready to let go, by the way, if you insist on dictating restrictions that in no way improve his health or well-being (like NO COMBING HIS TAIL), or making demands that a program with many horses and students may not be able to enforce (like insisting that he wear a particular halter).
Is My Horse Suitable?
Not every horse is suited to life in the therapeutic or educational world, of course. Attitude and manners are critical: Such a horse must be gentle on the ground--no biting, charging or kicking. He must be tractable under saddle--no rearing, bucking or bolting. If he jumps, he shouldn't stop at doable heights. He must be reasonably easy to shoe and medicate. He needs to accept new experiences calmly. He needs to be able to tolerate group lessons, neither getting fired up by the activity nor becoming defensive about his "space".