You and your horse go back a long way. perhaps he took you over your first fence (or surprise!-over your first creek). Maybe you spent years perfecting his lateral work, while he was helping you perfect your own quiet hands. He can read you like a book, and you know exactly how he's going to react to your cues and requests.
But things are changing. He's less eager to come in from the pasture, less cooperative when you tack him up. He seems stiff and uncertain when you first get on him, and he stumbles on the trail or moves out less energetically in the ring. When you do the math, you know that he's getting up there in years. But attitudes about equine aging have changed. Maybe for your horse, 30 is the new 20. Or maybe not.
The decision to retire a horse from riding is seldom black and white. You need to look at things from all sorts of angles, assessing his health, your riding needs, and your ability to care for him as he ages. You might be able to keep riding him if you reduce his activity or make changes to his environment and care. But if he's truly getting fragile, and being ridden is stressing him out or making him uncomfortable, retirement might be the best option.
Here are some things to keep in mind when you and your horse approach the point where a decision needs to be made.
Reading the Signs
Sometimes, the decision to retire a horse from riding is clear and unequivocal. If he has sustained a debilitating injury or suffers from chronic health issues (age-related or not), he may not be able to carry a rider, and attempting to ride him may be unsafe for both of you.
More often, though, things aren't so clear cut, and you-along with your veterinarian-will need to take a close look at possible signs that retirement would be in his best interest.
Exercise Combats the Aging Process
One key to keeping your horse fit and sound into his senior years is regular exercise. Turnout is better than standing in a stall, but it doesn't take the place of formal exercise. Exercise doesn't have to be hard work, and it doesn't have to be a daily routine. But your aging horse should get at least 30 minutes of nonstop movement at least three days a week.
You can take him with you on your own walks, pony him on a slow trail ride, or take a leisurely ride around the pasture or arena. You might even give pony rides on him at children's parties, if he's quiet enough. The important thing is to be consistent. Laying off even for short periods of time will make it harder for him to get back into shape.
Regular exercise benefits your older horse in many ways:
• It greatly reduces the loss of muscle mass and strength that comes with age.
• It prevents joint, tendon, and ligament stiffness, and keeps hormones (such as insulin and growth hormone) at more youthful levels.
• It promotes overall joint health, supplying essential nutrients to joint cartilage and carrying out cellular wastes.
• It engages his attention and benefits his mental well-being.
One indication that it might be time for retirement (or semi-retirement) is a change in his attitude. If his former willingness and enthusiasm for work have turned into disinterest, resistance, or even aggressive avoidance, something is definitely wrong.
You may also spot other signs of decline, including stumbling, poor coordination, unsteadiness when you mount, or lameness that gets worse as the ride progresses.
But be careful in your assessment. What might seem like frailties of age could really be related to his environment and the care he's receiving. Surely, none of us would knowingly mistreat our horses. But maybe you've never been entrusted with the care of an older horse. As horses get older, their needs change. Is your horse truly failing due to age or would adjustments to his upkeep and lifestyle create significant improvements?
If your horse's diet isn't keeping up with his geriatric requirements, his hoof care isn't keeping him sound and comfortable, his dental care has been neglected, his saddle no longer fits, or he isn't getting adequate warm-ups and cool-downs, regular exercise, and enough personal attention, he could exhibit a range of symptoms that look like age-related infirmities-conditions that could possibly be reversed.
Natural hoof care provider Stephanie Ohlemacher has worked with numerous horses in their 20s who were given up for dead or "just fumbling around in their stall." She has seen an amazing turnaround in many of these horses after modifications were made to their care, including diet, lifestyle, and feet condition.
"When a lot of these things are changed and the horse is on his way to better health, light riding can be very good for him", Stephanie says. "It's never too late to change his life for the better."
So while you don't want to ignore the possibility that your horse has reached the end of his safe and comfortable riding days, don't be too quick to throw in the towel.
What Is Retirement, Exactly?
If you do decide to retire your horse from normal riding activity (or possibly from any riding activity), you have all sorts of options to consider. The route you take will be dictated by your horse's condition and how well you can provide for his needs.
Your horse may not be robust enough to perform the way he used to, but he may still have plenty of energy-and he almost certainly needs a job to do to keep from getting bored or depressed. If you don't want to slow down your pace to match his, consider finding him a new occupation.
Measure your choices against whether they'll give your horse the quality of life he deserves. Here are just a few possible scenarios along the spectrum, from partial retirement to total leisure.
Trail horse. When your horse is no longer athletic enough to handle his former activities, such as competing in local horse events, he might be perfect for trail riding. If carrying adult riders is too taxing for him, maybe the answer is to let kids ride him instead. Older horses are often more tolerant-and some are even protective-of young riders, and many a child has learned to ride on a sensible older mount.
Therapy horse. If your horse's barrel-racing days are over but he's still sound and strong, you might consider donating him for use at a therapeutic riding center. He should be well cared for, and he'll almost certainly receive a lot of love from instructors and riders both. You can learn about therapeutic riding programs and horse donations by visiting the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association website (www.narha.org).
Lesson horse. Older horses often make ideal lesson horses, particularly for beginners. Of course, you want to make sure that he will be taken care of and not overworked (or underworked, for that matter). But if you know of a well-run stable with trainers you trust, you might be able to work out a beneficial arrangement.
If riding is completely unfeasible, you can still provide your horse with a healthy and happy retirement. You know what he likes and what he needs-you just have to find a situation that provides those things.
Herd buddy. If your horse has been content hanging out in the pasture with your other horses, that may be the best place for him to retire. You can't just turn him out and forget about him, though. In fact, you'll need to step up your vigilance on such things as dental care, nutrition, and hydration. And you should give him light exercise on a regular basis, even if it's just hand-walking him for a half hour every other day.
Maybe you can't devote the necessary time and attention to your retired horse-but another horse owner might love to do it. One of the best situations for retirees is to become a companion to a horse who has no pasture mates. Someone with a solitary horse might be delighted to take in your horse to give their own horse some equine company.
Retirement facility. Some owners who can no longer take care of their elderly horses choose to board them at a retirement stable. As you'd expect, the suitability of these establishments will vary greatly, so it's essential to do your homework to determine which one might be right for your horse. You'll want to visit the facility, talk to its clients, observe the well-being and contentment of horses boarded there, and make sure that your horse's special needs will be met.
Listen to Your Horse
If you know your horse well, you know his ups and downs, what's normal for him, and when something isn't right. So if he stops waiting at the gate in anticipation of your arrival, walks away from you when you approach with a halter, becomes hesitant or timid in response to your cues, that sends up a flag.
Changes in behavior don't happen randomly-and you can tell a lot from what your horse is telling you. Certainly, you should take into consideration all the factors we've discussed here, from adjusting your caregiving to meet his needs to reducing physical demands when necessary. But you should also trust your instinct. When the time comes to climb down off his back for the last time, you'll probably know it.