Equine Retirement Planning.

First, I watched Brentina’s retirement ceremony. Then Secretariat’s last race and Valegro’s final Olympia freestyle. Who doesn’t need to watch Aldrich’s one-tempi victory lap one more time? This part is embarrassing. I searched for a ridiculously sappy scene from that old movie, The Electric Horseman, where Redford sets the stallion free. It’s a kind of retirement, too, and the camera slo-mos his gallop toward a herd of mustangs. He’s got a gallon of baby oil slathered on him (the stallion of course, who cares about Redford) and his muscles ripple and flex as his stride lengthens. Slow motion photography was made for this and they milk it, changing camera angles in a way that doesn’t make sense but shows more skin. You know in the real world, he’ll be muddy, scraped up, and half-lame in a day, if a varmint hole doesn’t kill him sooner, but the music swells…

And then I made myself stop. It’s just that retirement conversations come up a lot these last months and it’s never too soon to start planning.

The thing I like about retirement ceremonies is that the horses are sound and fit and bright, mugging for the crowd, who love them like their own. We celebrate them at the top of their game and wave from our chairs. Real life is more complicated.

How did retirement get such a bad name in our own barns? There’s someone who’ll comment that she’s riding her 35-year-old horse, and another who bites her lip because her horse retired at 19. Can we set our emotions aside for a moment and talk reality? I know it’s impossible.

Comparing horses never works. A lanky long-backed Thoroughbred ages differently than a compact round Arabian because of accident of birth. A performance horse might have more miles on him than a backyard grade horse, but he also might have gotten a higher standard of care. Add in the wild cards: injuries, being a kid horse, your location. And no one denies that horses live longer these days. Long enough to suffer chronic issues even longer.

Comparing people is even harder. Some aren’t the best riders. Some say they “only” trail ride but that means packing in for a week in mountain terrain, while other’s trail ride in their two-acre pasture. Some compete their horses, trying to improve their riding skills to progress farther in their discipline, while making their horses stronger and steadier. Some happily stay at entry levels of jumping or pleasure riding or dressage forever.

One thing riders have in common is that we like to think our horses love being ridden. I’m not going to be popular for saying this, but I doubt it. Not every rider, not forever. Some of us understand and work hard to ride better for the horse. Then some of our horses are stoic and it’s easier think it’s all good than listen to their quiet signals about things we don’t want to hear.

At some point, we need to stop valuing what they do for us and shift to being grateful for what they’ve done

I don’t know what’s right for your horse. I do know that considering his retirement is good planning. If you have a young horse, know that you have time. Go slow and build a solid foundation for your horse’s future. Train with compassion.

If you have a midlife horse, recognize that these are precious days. His prime is finite and the view from the top is beautiful. Work him with kindness, to keep him strong and supple. Be aware in the moment. Be gobsmacked.

And if you have an elder, listen to him closely. Remind him of his golden days and respect what it must feel like to be a flight animal whose body is losing strength as years pass. Then try to be as generous as he has been.

I want to share two elder stories because my clients inspire me.

There is a gooney-sweet chestnut gelding grazing in a pasture today. I met him and his rider a few years ago. He was as undone a horse as I’ve seen, not quite sound and not quite young. His owner was an accomplished rider but we spent months on a lunge line, letting him find the ground. Convincing him that nothing bad was going to happen until finally his poll relaxed, finally he exhaled. There was a glorious summer when he competed at intro dressage. His tests were not brilliant. Instead he was steady and relaxed, making round circles and gliding across the diagonals. I was in awe that he was capable of a free walk.

These last months have been up and down. No expense was spared, but his back has still dropped some. We worked to make him stronger, but gravity might be winning. With sadness and no fanfare, he went home. We miss him here but he’s been reunited with an old one-eyed mare and the grass is green. Writing about him is my version of a retirement celebration. I imagine thousands cheering him from the stands.

My other story is about a lesson I gave recently to a rider with fine gaited mare of a certain age. It’s taken some time to get started; she’s had the full run of vet help for her stiff body and an ulcer supplement is working. The lesson started at the walk, but the mare stopped from time to time. We didn’t rush her. The rider was generous with wither scratches while I talked about rhythm to relax her topline and leg cues to supple her barrel. Her walk became more fluid. We did a couple of exercises that released her shoulders a fraction and finally, an exercise to ask her stiff hind legs to step under a tiny bit. She tried a tiny bit. She was thoughtful, feeling her old body soften, you know, a tiny bit.

A spectator might not have noticed her effort and left in ten minutes. We noticed. In the end, the rider found a rhythm that helped the mare feel a little better in her body–a mounted massage of sorts. We never did more than a walk. The lesson ended early and the mare licked and chewed. Her eyes were soft, and I might have kissed her nose. Dressage is a gift for older horses if you do it right.

Thinking of retirement takes some getting used to; we’d be smart to start when they’re young. I think the thing we are mad at, the thing we want to control, is time. We are never satisfied in the moment because a good horse will always make us greedy for more. Living in that slo-mo shot of our horses getting old, in front of our own eyes, strangles our hearts even worse than a sappy scene in an old movie.

Sometimes we forget that horses belong to the stars and moon; they were never ours in the first place.

….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
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44 thoughts on “Equine Retirement Planning.

  1. Maggie Frazier

    I might add Rachel Alexandra’s “retirement” lap to all of the above. I dont watch horse races anymore – far too many tragedies there and the thought of “training” a 2 year old in order to race at 3 (or younger, in some cases). But watching that mare do her dance in front of the crowd. – you know she loved what she did AND was retired sound!
    You are right – as with ALL of our animals – life is relatively short compared to ours. Our responsibility is to care for them for all of it if we can – or if not – to make sure they are safe & cared for whether retired or not. Good one, Anna

  2. OMG. This hits SO close to home for me! I have an almost-24 yo QH. I’ve had him since he was literally an embryo. He was the first horse I “broke” to ride (when I was 15), we went to the AQHYA World Championships together in reining, my Mom showed him in open horse shows and I fox hunted on him. You can read all about it in my sappy blog post: http://bigskybootcity.com/unplanned-retirement/

    Anyhow, he’s now happily retired in my pasture. I love love love him and am so blessed he gave me 20 amazing years in the saddle. I look forward to him giving me at least 10 years as the best pasture boss ever!

  3. Thérèse Cartier

    What a timing! I own a poney which I half lease to a kid for hunter competitions. He his talented, so is the kid. He does not enter big classes 2,6″ max so he is not over worked, he can jump 3′. He his 12 years old and I am 66, retireing myself this summer on 24 June. A horse got lame at my barn and I was asked if I would lease my horse to another kid for the summer competitions period. What a dilemna. At first I was caught up with the tought of the poor kid’s predicament founding herself with no horse to ride, one week before opening season, than I thought, hell no. This horse is in his prime, healthy as can be, with all necessary care available to him anytime he needs it so no, he wont be overworked and risk having him age prematurely. He is my soulmate, the embodiment of my passion, and yes, I will do everything I can to keep him happy and in good health mentally and physically so we can be parteners for many years to come has we aged, keeping eachother mutually in shapte into old age: “respect what it must feel like to be a flight animal whose body is losing strength as the years pass. Then try to be as generous as he has been.” This sentence sums it all. Thanks again Anna for your words of wisdom.
    Thérèse

  4. I *so* needed this right now. Sending my 20-yo to retirement pasture next month. I know he’ll be happy as can be. I’m still grieving though, for me. Going thru very conflicting emotions. Your post really touched me today.

    1. Our side of it isn’t the happy side in the beginning…but it will come. Thanks for giving him this gift, it’s hard to do the right thing sometimes. Take care, I wish you’d had more time. Just like you do.

  5. Tears. Been through this before and with two rapidly approaching late teens, I’ll be going through it again soon. “respect what it must feel like to be a flight animal whose body is losing strength as the years pass….” This is what does it for me. I’m not a flight animal, but I’ve been an athlete all my life. At 40, multiple spinal surgeries knocked some of the wind out of my sails, but I was young and over time I regrouped and rehabbed. Now 60, I know my body is on the down side of the summit. Fortunately I can pick my poison carefully, but my horses? Not a chance. This was a great nudge to encourage folks to make smart choices for our partners. There’s no shame in setting the dial on low. In fact, just knowing you did the right thing is often it’s own reward.

    1. I couldn’t agree more, says this gray mare with screws in her foot. It’s our only solace that we can do the right thing. Thanks, Cheryl. And I don’t worry for your horses.

  6. JKS

    “Dressage is a gift for older horses, if you do it right.” It sure is, Anna. My 24 year old gelding is in better shape now than when I got him at 22. We all know that retirement is on the horizon for him, but we’re working him within his ability for as long as he’s willing to give it to us. We know he will tell us when it’s time. As for beyond…we’re training him for things he can do once he’s not riding sound. Tricks, light driving, etc. After that, he can mentor young horses who need to learn manners. At all steps of the way, listening for him to tell us what he’s able to do.

    1. Ground work can’t be over-rated, but just being a horse is good for a horse, too. I do love to see what dressage does for a horse like yours, great job. Thanks for your comment.

      1. JKS

        Ever seen a horse look offended? He doesn’t like not being selected to do a job. Meets you at the gate every time, gives me this look if I decide to ride a school horse that day- “what? There’s a lesson and I’m not involved?” But if I take him out for even 5 minutes, ask him to do a little ground work for me, and then put him back? Wanders off to pasture, happy as a clam. The day he doesn’t meet me at the gate and volunteer is the day he retires.

  7. Laurie

    Having always taken on other people’s throw away horses, I mostly have started training with only mature horses. Retirement has been a way of life. The great part with these horses has been finding out what a horse likes to do and creating a setting for him or her to do it. The bad part is, there is usually a very short window in which to enjoy the new found pursuits. The horses have always made it very clear to me when their desire to participate out weighs their ability to do so. I have had the privilege of knowing horses with amazing work ethics, and it’s hard to retire these guys because they seem to want to keep going in spite of physical limitations. My challenge after retiring them is finding time, and ways to keep them strong and engaged, but not over taxed. The bottom line is, all things involving horses are complicated, but very much worth the effort.

    1. It’s their bad luck that their body retires before their hearts. For what it’s worth, that part where a horse and rider find their true place is too short, regardless of their age. Thanks for your comment, Laurie. May you go to horse heaven.

  8. Thanks so much for your wisdom.
    I had to retire the mare I taught from a yearling at 7. My gelding got promoted to kid horse….hacking the grandkids around the pasture at 11. Both are happy, feel pretty good and living the good life.
    Now I ride a pretty green 10 year old.
    Yes I collect broken ponies and love them dearly.

    1. Thank you for understanding that the easy part is riding them, as challenging as that can be. Bless your happy herd, Diana, and thanks for commenting.

  9. Maril McConnell

    Having a lesson and boarding barn, lower level (or fun level as i call it) eventing, i have had so many special horses in the last 40 years. Some came young and green, some already in elder years, some in prime age, damaged by bad care, riding, handling (deemed outlaws by others). All, everyone of them, became loved school horses with so much to teach their riders, and me of course. The idea of discarding horses after a lifetime of service horrifies me. Once here, they never leave, whether it was Shamrock who came at 24, or Steadfast who came to me at 2 and ended her days with me at 32. I have 12 horses buried here, in the paddocks where they spent their retirement years. The first was my QH mare i raised from a 2 week old orphan, cancer at 15, the others from 30 to 38. Everyone a heartbreak to set free, but i know it was right. Difficult financially and physically as i aged myself, but hell, i’m into horses, poverty is a way of life. Once again Anna Blake has nailed the subject. How sad and joyous that i have just discovered her, the author of THE BEST BOOK i have ever read about horses,, and i have read a LOT of them. I have been raving at everyone at my farm about RELAXED AND FORWARD. Get it, read it, heed it! Reread it over and over. I stumbled upon it, 12% into it i ordered the other two, and now that my SS check is in, going to order them in paper. Hard to quote from a Kindle during a dressage lesson, hope the author doesn’t mind! Thank you Anna for writing the book that was in my heart, that i wasn’t capable of writing, or even articulating so perfectly. At 71 am still hanging in, trying to stay on the right side of the dirt for the horses and rescue dogs. Now i can hand my students your book, and say “it’s all in here, everything you need to know, with wit and humor and in touch with reality.” I loved it when Lendon would say “in a perfect world, …” in her book. Thanks for the perfect book.

    1. Oh Maril. You are my hero on twenty levels, and that was before you mentioned the books! Thank you so much for all you’ve done for horses and for living the dream, which isn’t always that romantic. And thank you for your very kind words. I have a feeling we might be related. By “extended family!” I’m wishing you and your herd a warm sweet summer.

  10. Deb

    I have a 20 year old pony that has been leased for 4h for 10 years. He’s good at all things 4H including a little jumping. He’s always been pushed pretty hard by the kids.. so two years ago when the rider entered hunter hack against a lot of good horses and riders I was concerned and did not let her over practice. The day of the event, they were both as perfect as they could be and walked off with the top trophy. I couldn’t have been prouder.. but I then announced what a way to go out. He is now retired from jumping forever but remains the energetic happy trail pony that never needs to be bathed or clipped again. I think he’s happy about that too😁

  11. … horses don’t like to be ridden…

    I do agree for the most part however horses do like to have a purpose and a job as long as the relationship is right and the rider is a good true leader.

    Having purpose (though what that purpose is may change) as they age is important and I agree with the comment above that they will tell us if we listen when it’s time.

    1. I’m curious about semantics with all these comments about purpose. Do mustangs have a purpose without us? I think horses like having us around and we have negotiated a food for work deal… They tolerate us well if we are good leaders, I agree. Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

      1. I do believe that mustangs do have purpose without us. They have a role in the herd. They also have a role in their domestic herds but we as humans change how that works- the lead mare doesn’t have to ensure the herd finds food and water as we humans take on providing that and their areas shrink drastically to a few acres or even in some cases a confined stall…

        I can say that the relationship as a good leader is of utmost importance to me with my mare- and in that leadership I do my best to respect and treat her like a horse to the best I know how – not a furry person. I try to be direct, firm and fair and I listen to her input and though I make the decision in the end she knows she is valued in the team and that I don’t ignore her.

        If we can (and I work on this every day and can always be better) provide that leadership, comfort and make them feel good we provide more than the ‘herd’ and they want to be with us and though being ridden is a job – I have seen them want to work. More than tolerate-

        My mare is an endurance mount and it’s not an easy job- but I see her thriving and even enjoying it and as one of the above comments referred to- when she’s completed a 50 mile ride and is on R&R for a couple weeks she waits at the gate and seems annoyed to not be chosen and left with the herd when I come.

        I’ve also seen the opposite where horses definitely put up with the humans and basically shut down and allow the human to do what needs to be done until they can be left alone again.

        I believe the biggest factor is the relationship and if that comes first the rest is amazing for both the horse and human…

        That’s my take!

        I love reading your blogs! Always food for thought and super insightful!

  12. Julia H.

    I adopted an early-20’s Standardbred to coach me back into horses after a few decades off. His racing life gave him impeccable ground manners, a love for junk food (apples, meh. Fritos, yeah!) and zero interest in turning right. I also like Fritos, am good on the ground and give zero #$@ about correct riding these days. I like to think that I’ve put together a great retirement life for him. I got him a mini in his mid-teens who got kicked out of every barn for bossing, kicking, crawling over dutch doors, smashing fences. He told me about his separation anxiety, so I got him a 23 year old been there, done that mini friend. Turned out together 24-7, they’re the perfect bachelor gang — big guy gets to be the boss for the first time ever, sassy guy gets them worked up daily so they keep moving, and mellow mini whispers “calm down, let’s get obese on this hay like normal horses” and instituted daily 3-way, co-grooming sessions.

    All this building, fencing & shoveling manure so I can trail-walk around my property on an old horse. I sometimes wonder what I’m doing — why not start with that palomino TWH, or that spotted saddle horse — so pretty, so young, they seemed sweet. But, it seems that I needed to pay back all the good hearted horses who raised me, some of whom came to bad ends, I’m sure. I’ll get an actual riding horse eventually, but, these years of re-horsing my life with old timers has been an absolute joy. And really, who needs to turn right when three left turns will get us there anyway? Thanks, Anna, for putting out books & posts that support my own secret agenda to live with horses in peace.

    1. I love this comment, Julia. It’s thoughtful and points to one of the things that I think is most important in horse keeping. As much as I love to ride, I am twice as clear that living with them is what matters the most to me. It’s selfish, but isn’t that the definition of being human? Behaviorists tell us that horses are social animals and can’t live well without others of their species. You have described so well what I love… that it takes all kinds to make a herd, and they enjoy those interactions. Well done, Julia. What you’ve got going here is a little more special than riding. Thanks for sharing it with us.

  13. Lynell Abbott

    The last time I “rode” my wonderful Cappy, it was to meet up with a friend across the way. My friend and I just sat on our mounts and talked while our horses grazed. It went on for so long, Cappy was the one who initiated it was time to move on! So back home we went, never to return. The years later were spent just moseying around our house. I was with him so it didn’t matter there were trails to be ridden and we weren’t there.
    The comments on this post are so inspiring! To find someone of your caliber, Anna, who speaks for the horse is awesome. Thanks so much!

      1. Um….? Did my compliment unintentionally turn out wrong? Two nations divided by a common language as the saying goes!!! Sorry that my tab occasionally cuts me off in mid sentence too 🙂

      2. I don’t think so… I think your barn is like mine. Okay, your ancient stone barn is beautiful while my particle board is… well, particle board, but it’s the ones inside that we care about in the same way. (Oh, words…)

  14. Sarah Jacobsen

    So true. I find myself, for the first time in more than 20 years not babying along and oldster. I no longer need to soak gruel for one who has no teeth, no adequan shots, no joint injections. No reliable oldster to teach the children. I grieve for the loss of my old friends and for the loss of those who only spent a short time in my pasture. Loved and appreciated for themselves. I have only youngsters now, shining bright stars in my world (though they are not the kind to set the world afire but only to bring joy and equine communion to our family). I miss the lessons the old ones taught from my 30 year friend and love of my equine life to those who spent only a few months or a brief year of retirement and love here. The boys (10, 3 and 2) have no idea the void they must fill. I hope the lessons taught by our oldsters (37, 35, 26 and several unknown) will guide me in the joyous union of human and equine to the betterment of ourselves and our babies. May we all find the wisdom our oldsters have to give and use it to guide and help our youngsters.

    Mama to two mustangs and a reject quarter horse with upward fixating patellas who was destined to be put down and is now a treasured and gentle friend. And always kudos to App Man ( aka evil app, awesome app and my best friend) my friend and guide to the fusion of equine and human souls and companion for 30 of his 37 years.

  15. Pingback: When Is It Time To Wind Down? – The Sports Model Jackass

  16. Lovely post, Anna.

    It seems we’ve always been fortunate with older horses. Over the years so many ended up with us after being throw-aways somewhere else. The 35+ year old whose owner stopped paying board lived a few more years before he died quietly in his sleep next to his best friend.

    The amazing ancient warmblood who had done Grand Prix quite successfully in his younger years loved to stand in the crossties during summer camp while flocks of little girls braided flowers into his forelock and groomed him till he shone. (He was also a bit of a comic, and did a lovely trot half pass with an up-downer one day. We’d been working on straightening her body, she tended to carry her shoulders crooked, so Mr. B took things into his own hooves. She had a very perplexed look on her face, and you could see him quietly chuckling as he floated across the diagonal.)

    We have been so blessed with their presence, and we have a huge responsibility to make sure their return to the stars and the moon is filled with the same love, grace, and generosity they shared during their time with us.

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