Reflections on Gratitude, Part IV: Blessed are the Older Horses

As daylight grows shorter and we enter the holiday season, it is natural for our thoughts to turn inward. This year, I find myself filled with gratitude to be the caretaker for three special horses over the age of 20 who, though semi-retired, continue to enhance the quality of my life every day.

Lee, currently 22 years old, out for a hack on a crisp late fall morning.

The truth is, I think about older horses a lot, especially those who have ‘served’ their humans, whether as lesson horse, show horse, therapeutic horse or pleasure mount, and are then discarded by their caretakers upon reaching a certain age. I recognize that not all horse owners have the financial or emotional capacity to care for an aging animal, but I also am prescient enough to realize that safe homes for older horses are far fewer in number than the quantity of older animals in need. I personally know people who seem to believe that every older horse will be peacefully retired in a large grassy field somewhere, but most of us who are deeply connected to the equine world understand that not only is this hope unreasonable, it is naïve. I have come to believe that the best chance for an older horse to find a safe haven is to stay sound and be useful in some capacity. But that means as an industry, we need to get over “equestrian agism” and we also need to start planning for the later years of the horses in our care far earlier in their careers.

Carmel, who was probably 18 or 19 years old here, evented at novice level until he was 20 and then spent 7 years teaching various Pony Clubbers until officially “retiring” at 27. I rode him on leisurely walks several times a week until just before his death at 34 years old.

While the cliché “age is just a number” is as relevant to horses as it is to anyone else, in my experience horse folks get a little funny about aged horses, as though chronology alone is enough to determine an individual horse’s suitability for particular activities. It applies at both ends of the age spectrum; just as not all young horses are ready for the demands of performance at set ages (as is asked in racing, futurities, developing or young horse classes, materiale, etc.), not all older horses are ready to completely retire. Yet all too often, equestrians will discount an older equine simply because of their age—despite the fact that these animals are often the ones that are trained enough, experienced enough and mellowed out enough to be EXACTLY the type of teacher the average rider needs.

Carmel happily taught many young riders the fundamentals of good horsemanship. Here, with his friend Molly.

Not too long ago, I overheard someone say (in regards to a lesson horse in his early 20’s), “he’s ancient”, the speaker’s tone and affect making it abundantly clear that she felt a horse of his seniority should no longer be in work at all, never mind be used in a lesson program. Now, I have known this particular horse for at least a decade, and his current workload is a significant ‘step down’ from what he did in his glory days; additionally, he still shows up at the ring with enthusiasm and pep, occasionally runs off with a student, and is as sound as he has been his entire life. He is maintained with no medications, no special shoeing, no exceptional requirements, all of which indicate (to me) that the horse seems to be comfortable and content in his current role. I wanted to ask the speaker what alternative reality would be better for this horse, who currently receives top quality care and love and adoration from his riders in exchange for his daily participation in a non-physically demanding lesson or two. Frankly, there are older humans who do not have it so good.

As bodies age, of course there is a change in what they can physically handle. Age-related disorders may require routine monitoring from a medical expert, life-long medication and/or dietary changes to regulate. Some beings encounter bad luck in their lives, and a previous history of illness, injury, poor nutrition or dental care or inappropriate/inconsistent/inadequate exercise can all accumulate to make the onset of decline begin earlier. But with proactive care, routine maintenance and attention to detail, none of these factors are necessarily career ending; each being must be evaluated as an individual, and their care adjusted accordingly. Note that nothing I have stated here is unique to horses—it applies to humans or dogs or any other species you would like to examine.

Marquesa is frequently called upon to be a role model for younger horses. Above, she is ponying a young Izzy. Below, with Nori.

I now believe that when it comes to horse ownership, there is a ‘point of no return’; if you maintain ownership of a horse beyond the time where they will have meaningful value to others, then you must also accept that you now have a moral obligation to see that animal through to their end of life. If you know that you will be financially or emotionally unfit to do so, then it is imperative that you find that animal an owner who can and will make that commitment, well before the time comes that the animal is unsound, unusable or unfit for work. I will say it bluntly; few quality homes exist for aged animals that cannot fill some kind of “use” unless those homes already were bonded to the animal before they became “unusable”.

Marquesa, 25 years old in 2021, won the North America Online Championships Adult Amateur Introductory Level Championship this year with summer intern Tiger Lily. She scored in the upper 60’s, having never done much correct dressage work at all until after her “retirement” at age 20. Notice that she hacks in a hackamore now, as well!

The best final home for a well-cared for, aging animal is likely the one they are already in. Posting your older equine “free to good home” or “suitable for companion only” is akin to dropping your aged dog off at the shelter. Most of the time, there is no good ending to these stories.

But wait, you say. I only have a limited budget…how am I supposed to move forward with my own equestrian pursuits while maintaining this expensive, long-lived pet?

Well, here are a few options:

  1. When it becomes clear you are outgrowing your horse (size wise, skill wise, or otherwise) sell them sooner rather than later. Don’t wait until the job gets too hard, they get hurt or they get sour from being asked to go past their limit.
  2. Rough board your horse(s). Depending on the region, there are likely a range of rough or co-op board options that can allow owners to significantly reduce the cost of horse ownership in exchange for providing goods and/or labor.
  3. Lease your horse to a less-experienced rider. While not without risk, a carefully vetted and supervised free-lease can be a win/win on both counts. Your horse becomes a schoolmaster for someone else while relieving you of the financial burden of maintaining the horse for a period of months or years. Further, a lease will leave you with oversight over decisions related to the horse’s long-term care. If your horse is quite experienced, charging a modest monthly lease fee (while the lessee pays for his upkeep) can give you money to put in the bank to help support him in the future. Sometimes, a lessee comes to love your horse as much as (or more than) you do, and they are willing to take on permanent responsibility for the animal’s care.
  4. Consider leasing your “move up” horse instead of buying (see suggestion #3, though this time you are the less-experienced rider). Overall, leasing a horse will cost less than an outright purchase, and if circumstances change, a leased horse can always be returned to his owner.
  5. Consider setting new goals. One of the best things about horses (and equestrian sports in general) is that there are many different ways to challenge you and your mount. In my career, I have tried new disciplines because they seemed well-suited to the horse I was riding at the time. Instead of moving up in your current discipline, consider trying something new with the horse you have. Perhaps your former show hunter would like to do low-level dressage; maybe your ring-soured lesson horse would enjoy hunter paces. Trying new things only deepens the bond between horse and rider.
When Lee needed to “step down” from her final competitive career in long distance rides, I began doing 100 mile “virtual” challenges with her instead. So far, she has completed the 2020 Valkyrie 100 Mile, the 2021 Virtual Tevis and the 2021 Warhorse 100 Mile. She has added assorted additional miles to our cumulative 1900 Mile Pony Express Challenge as well.

There are plenty of other ways that people have made it work, and if you are motivated, it is almost always possible to find a solution. It won’t necessarily be easy, and it may even require some hustle and sacrifice. But I think it is beyond time that we in the equine industry normalize planning for our older horse’s later years and honor those who fully commit to the on-going care of these animals—even if that means a comfortable (older) horse is kept in light work.

Snowy may be 28 years old this year but he still enjoyed a recent trip to Hampton Beach, even spooking at the foamy surf as it “chased” him along the shore.

Speaking for myself, watching my semi-retired horses teach other riders–allowing these riders the chance to jump their first cross country fences, to safely ride in the open, to experience what connection feels like– is almost as satisfying as it was to teach my horses these skills in the first place. It may sound trite, but seeing someone else truly enjoy your horse’s company and gain confidence and skills thanks to their wisdom is a reward beyond measure. And when I am having a tough time, or the weather is a little dicey, my “go-to” ride is not my talented youngster; it is the venerable veteran, who I can rely on to have my back when conditions are not the best. My older horses owe me nothing—yet they continue to give.

Every morning that I am greeted by these special creatures is a gift. Whether it is watching Snowy roll in his favorite spot on the grass field, watching Marquesa boss young Izzy around or waiting for Lee to finish her grain, even the simplest and most every day of occurrences bring a smile. How lucky am I to be their steward, and how enriched has my life been for having them in it?

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