In this podcast episode (click here to listen), I share with you the many facets and perspectives to consider when retiring a horse.
Sammy, a retired dressage horse, provided me with the first unusual perspective. His person had no choice but to retire Sammy due to a painful spinal disease called Kissing spine. When two or more vertebrae develop bony projections that cause nerve interference and with that pain. Sammy and his person see each other every day, playing at liberty, learning tricks but they no longer ride.
In one of our phone conversations, Sammy expressed that watching the other horses' being worked' while he 'only' played' was hard for him.
So his person asked if Sammy was interested in retiring at a farm designed for horses like him? She gave me the name and I pulled up the place's website to share with Sammy what I saw. Run-in sheds, large pastures, daily check-in by a person to make sure he was happy and healthy. Weekly visits by his person.
Then, I described a photo of a group of horses in a field who appeared relaxed. I told Sammy that just by looking at their bodies, I could see they were former athletes, just like him.
That piqued Sammy's interest. He was surprisingly excited to hang out in a pasture with other athletes. He explained, "We can all hang out together knowing that we have a similar history. We'll share the understanding that we know hard work and success."
I envisioned Sammy and the other retired horses hanging out like dudes at the local coffee shop, shooting the shit about their time as a quarterback, hitter, or triathlete. Brilliant.
Now, Rio, a retired polo horse I communicated with, had a different perspective and different concerns.
Shortly after Rio was retired, his mood became sullen. Eventually, his person asked me to check in with him to see what was going on.
Turns out, Rio was not sure what had happened. He didn't understand why he was overlooked for training sessions and games. His trainer kept walking right past his stall and nobody brought him in from the paddock. He was wondering why?
Turns out, nobody had told Rio that he was retired. Once we cleared up the confusion, Rio brightened up. However, his wish was not to retire but to stay conditioned and fit. He asked his person to continue to ride him, even if just for pleasure. Rio was not done exercising his body.
That leads me to think about the many reasons why humans decide to retire a horse.
The horse is too old to do the work s/he was purchased for.
The horse has an injury and can't be ridden.
The horse has lameness issues.
The owner has a new horse and no time for the now-retiree.
Horses, especially those who have been amazing athletes in the show ring or on the track, are sometimes not happy to retire or downgrade their workload. A career change can be daunting for superstar horses. Imagine Tom Brady being demoted to playing with the out-of-shape coffee shop dudes. For a superstar horse, becoming a school horse, teaching people who don't know or understand their magnificence can be a letdown.
Yet, horses like Buddy, one of the therapeutic riding horses I was responsible for as the director of a riding center, have shared a different perspective with me. As a former school horse, Buddy’s work as a therapy horse felt like retirement. He was mainly asked to walk around. Had to trot only occasionally. He was often on a lead-line, he didn’t have to think all that much. The new job felt like a vacation compared to his day as a school horse.
Such a different perspective, isn’t it?
Horses often share with me that just because the horse has a limp or gimp does not mean the horse does not want to be ridden anymore. My late mare Kaylaa was one of those horses. I had bought her when she was 19 years old, and she had had a slight imbalance due to a knobby knee on the right. Despite the knee, Kaylaa loved nothing more than me showing up with a saddle. It meant we were heading out on the trails. And we did that until she couldn't move due to laminitis/hoof disease.
After long months of recuperating, Kaylaa had changed her mind about riding. When I approached her with her tack, she turned her head away from me. It was clear she was ready for retirement.
Many horses have taught me that mental health is essential. Just because a horse might have a slight gimp doesn't mean it can't move. Certainly, most humans I know., myself included, have some kind of limitation in moving their bodies. And we don't get turned out to pasture, the horses argue.
And then there is a group of horses, who, no matter how high the shavings are loaded in their stall, or what nutritious food is on the menu … if they can't perform anymore, they don't see a place for themselves in the world anymore.
Sometimes, when a horse has traveled the world as a superstar, as a magnificent racehorse, a noble jumper, a competitive trail horse and ends up in a regular schooling barn or in a backyard, the horse feels no longer satisfied. His life can appear dull and even empty.
In those cases, the horse is often best in the hands of one person who knows and appreciates their history and can maintain an exercise regime for mind and body.
If those superstars end up with an injury that keeps them from doing the magnificent work, they sometimes rather leave their bodies than be looked at as the poor horse whose injury ended his career.
I remember talking to a horse who had an injury that required major surgery and lengthy rehab. The horse explained to his person and me that he'd prefer to leave his body than be stuck in an imperfect one.
If there was no guarantee he could do what he could do yesterday, he would not want to go through the ordeal of surgery and rehab.
His point was that he would be looked at as the poor horse recovering rather than the magnificent being he still was in their eyes. He wanted to go out on a high.
Horses are more similar to us than expected. Some people dream of retiring on a sunny balcony drinking a fruity cocktail. For others, doing nothing sounds like a nightmare. The same is valid for horses, some are ready to leave the old job behind, and others are not yet ready to go out to pasture.
You now understand, when we talk with our animals about retirement, they have many opinions.
Here is a bit of a guide to what you want to consider as you are considering your horse’s retirement.
First, consider your horse's persona and history. If your horse is an introvert and doesn’t like people all that much so not donate him to a riding program where he will be handled by a million hands each week.
See the world through your horse's eyes.
Have a chat with your horse.
Explain, “You know, you have been such an amazing athlete, friend, riding companion, fill in your words, and I feel it is time to give you more time off.
Then watch your horse’s response. Is he looking at you with confusion? He needs more information. Provide some why’s and how’s. Why are you feeling that? What are your reasons and how would it all unfold, what is the plan?
If your horse blows out through the nose you might have intuited it correctly, your horse might be indeed relieved to do less work.
Again, explain the options.
You could go out to pasture with other retired horses. See what your horse‘s response is.
You could be at a summer camp for leadline classes.
You could teach beginners.
In short, run your ideas by your horse.
While you do so, tune in to your gut. Trust your body. It will always lead you and your horse down the right retirement path.
And, if you are still in doubt, you can always book a session with me and we can explore the situation together with your horse.
Thank you so much for hanging out with me. I love sharing the wisdom of the horse with you and can’t wait for next time. Ciao, Ciao.
And, if you want to have a chat with your horse ... book a phone session here.