My colleague and friend Grant Miller has written a thought-provoking Veterinary Viewpoint column about equine retirement in this month’s Horse Journal, so this week I’m going to add my own thoughts to his consideration.
I guess I’ve been lucky, but only once have I had to make a decision to fully retire a horse, and it was because the horse had developed severe neurological issues, so it wasn’t much of a decision. His name was Jake, and he lived almost 10 more years before he was found dead in the field one morning at the retirement farm where he’d lived all that time. Otherwise, I’ve either sold my horses long before such a decision was needed or they died before I had to make the time came.
But I’ve known numerous people, both professionals and amateurs, who’ve been faced with the equine-retirement decision, and the two schoolmasters we lost last month (Schultz and Sam) were teaching because their bodies were no longer able to do what they’d once done.
And, if I look a few years down the road, I can see the retirement decision looming for two more of our own horses. One is our first homebred, Shawn, who’s about to turn 16 and has spent the last four years teaching eventing to teenage novice riders. And the other is my fabulous partner Alba, who’ll soon be 12 and is now competing at the intermediate level. Common sense tells me that the clock is ticking on our upper-level partnership, but I hope that after that’s over she’ll be our son, Wesley’s, first event horse before she’s limited to walking around a pasture.
As Grant notes, no two horses are the same, and their distinct physical issues and temperament have to each be taken into account, as you try to figure out when it’s time for the rocking chair in the field. You hate to stop working them too soon and leave yourself with a feeling of uncertainty or disappointment. But the sight and stigma of riding a half-lame or pathetic horse isn’t one a conscientious horseman wants to be a part of. And then you have to weigh what’s best for the horse, because he or she is really the important one, not you.
When they’re lame or truly old, it’s usually not a decision at all. With Jake, who was then 10, the only question was where to retire him, as we had only a small farm then. His deteriorating condition had left him unsafe for me to ride and a danger to himself under saddle.
But it’s much, much harder when they’ve slowly just become too old and creaky to do what they used to do. Schultz and Sam are examples of older horses with physical problems who can make a transition to less demanding jobs, and my previous intermediate-level partner, Merlin, did the same for about year before an aggressive bout of lymphangitis ended his life too soon.
Grant observes correctly that horses’ priorities are not the same as ours, despite the anthropomorphization that some horse owners inflict upon them. As Grant says, their priorities are “to eat, roll, sleep, run a bit, repeat.”
But I do believe that many horses do want to and like to have a job, especially horses who’ve had an active and accomplished life. Good horses always have a work-horse temperament, and they’d rather do something than just stand around. They look for the next jump, piaffe on their own, or look down the trail. I’ve known horses who get anxious when other horses go out to ride while they stay in barn or paddock. And I’ve known competitive horses who get upset or angry watching other horses load in the trailer before it pulls away, without them.
Yes, eating and feeling safe is really what’s important to horses, even to these horses. But horses who were once good at something almost always really do like to work, to be part of barn life, and that temperament only complicates our retirement decision. Alba is a workaholic and loves the attention she gets while doing her job, and I’m confident that when full retirement comes she’s going to be standing at the gate looking to come in for a long time.