“Smokey’s slowing down,” my client tells me. “I just don’t understand it; he’s only 25. Last year we rode mountain trails all summer long and he never missed a beat.”
“You’re really lucky!” I respond. “Smokey is the equivalent of an 80-year-old man. Imagine taking your grandpa on a long mountain hike! I’m sure you’ve been building up your 401(k) and have your own retirement plans in place. Have you thought about a plan for your horse as he grows older?”
Believe it or not, this is a common conversation. And while a rare 80-year-old man is still running marathons, most have slowed down—at least a little bit. The same is true for horses. While a rare 25-plus-year-old horse is still out there competing or doing hard mountain rides, most have turned it down a notch—either fulfilling a less demanding job or even being completely retired.
So how do you know when your horse is ready to slow down? And when the time comes, what are you going to do? In this article I’ll help you make a retirement plan for your horse. First, I’ll outline the most common reasons why your horse might need to slow down. Then, I’ll explain what steps you might consider before you make the move to full retirement. Finally, I’ll give you a step-by-step guide to help you plan his future.
There’s just no avoiding Father Time. No matter how healthy (and sound) we are, the aging process gets us all sooner or later. If we’re lucky, that time is later—and as humans we can maintain (or curtail) our activities according to how we feel. A horse, however, is dependent on his human to understand his needs. The three most important factors to consider when planning for your horse’s future include soundness, disease, and simply growing old.
Most riding horses experience some type of soundness problem at one or more times in their lives. If your horse has been diagnosed with a chronic lameness such as arthritis or degenerative navicular disease that you’ve been managing for years, there’s a good chance it’ll become more difficult to maintain his soundness over time. Eventually, it’ll become either impossible to keep him sound enough to do his job or require more intervention than seems fair or reasonable. If you begin to wonder whether you’ve reached this point, it’s time to have a conversation with your veterinarian about options for your horse’s future.
Acute injuries can also have an impact on your horse’s ability to do his job—especially if they’re severe. A fracture or severe soft-tissue injury with a poor long-term prognosis for recovery can be a devastating reason for early retirement.
Your horse may be a youngster in your eyes, but if he’s been diagnosed with a chronic condition such as Cushing’s disease, experiences a severe colic that requires surgery, or has any degree of organ failure, chances are he’ll age more rapidly. He’ll lose muscle tone and overall condition that can impact his performance. You’ll probably be able to keep him working, but he may not be as up to the job and could face retirement sooner than you’d hoped.
Even if your horse is perfectly sound and healthy, by the time he reaches the double-digits, he’ll start to feel his age. His connective tissues begin to weaken, it’s harder for him to chew and digest food, and it takes more effort to keep him fit. Your older horse’s performance may start to decline, or he might become crabby about his work.
It’s especially important that you pay attention to the subtle signs he sends your way, and begin to make adjustments to his work demands that will help to keep him happy and comfortable.
Retirement can mean many things depending on your horse’s condition and soundness. The following are options to consider for your horse’s future when he’s ready to retire from his current job.
Option 1: Retire to another job.
For some horse owners, the horse himself is more important than the sport. If you can’t own your retiree and a competitive mount due to time or money constraints, you can find another activity to enjoy together when your horse is ready to step down from his higher-impact job. For example, your reiner may no longer be up to sliding stops and spins, but he could be perfectly happy on light trail rides.
Pros: You and your horse can stay together—you might even find you love your new activities. You’ll retain control of his care.
Cons: You’ll no longer be able to participate in your “first choice” sport, unless you’re able to find (and afford) another horse to purchase, lease, or borrow. You’ll continue to be responsible for costs of caring for your horse, and you’ll face additional retirement decisions as your horse grows older.
Option 2: Lease or loan.
If your performance horse needs to step it down a notch but you still want to stay at the top of your game, chances are there’s someone out there who’d love to have an experienced horse to teach her the ropes. Offering your horse for lease to a young rider or beginning amateur can be a perfect solution.
Pros: Your horse will stay in shape with a scaled-back training regimen, and a lucky rider will benefit from his arena experience. With a care lease (the lessor pays all of his expenses), you’ll be out from under maintenance costs—at least for a while. With a paid lease (the lessor pays his expenses, plus a lease fee to you), you might even put some money in the bank (handy for his future care needs). You retain some control over your horse’s care.
Cons: The biggest is handing over some amount of control to the lessor. Additionally, you’ll face future retirement decisions as your horse gets older. You’ll likely be responsible for his support when he’s no longer able to continue working, even at a lower level.
Option 3: Rehome.
Whether you sell the horse or donate him to a charitable organization, finding a new home might be a viable option. Many former high-level performance horses find happy lives in their golden years with young riders, beginning amateurs, riding schools, camps, or therapeutic riding programs.
Pros: Your horse could have a happy second career to help keep him in condition, as well as someone to love and pay attention to him. You’ll no longer be responsible for his expenses, or for his future retirement plans.
Cons: You’ll lose control of your horse’s future, meaning you can’t protect him from falling into the wrong hands. If this is a concern, you could consider selling or donating with a written document that gives you first right of refusal before the horse is sold to someone else. This gives you the option of taking him back for his final retirement care. Beware, however, that these agreements can be difficult to enforce.
Option 4: Complete retirement in a barn.
Many horse owners are convinced that their pampered horses “won’t survive” without the same level of care they’ve been accustomed to as performance horses. Deeply bedded stalls, daily paddock turnout, and multiple blanket changes feel like necessary responsibilities. If you have a barn at home, your horse can completely retire while you maintain the same level of care he’s always had. Alternatively, you can continue to board at a full-service stable or look for an equine retirement facility that offers this type of care.
Pros: Your horse will continue to enjoy all of the amenities he had as a performance horse, without any of the work. You retain control of his future.
Cons: The expenses associated with this level of care can be staggering—especially for a horse that’s no longer working. And, believe it or not, your retired horse might actually be happier if he’s allowed to live a lower-maintenance lifestyle.
Option 5: Complete retirement to pasture.
Your horse might relish the chance to “be a horse” and live in a small herd in a pasture. You’ll need to offer some type of shelter, clean water, daily feeding, regular observation, and routine preventative health care.
Pros: Once you make the transition, your horse is likely to be happiest with this type of arrangement—living like a horse. Although you’ll still have to budget for pasture-board, feed when needed, regular feet trims, and routine veterinary care (vaccination, deworming, and an annual dental visit), the cost of maintaining a horse on pasture is much less than those associated with living in a stable. You’ll retain control of his future.
Cons: Unless you pay someone else to handle his care, you’ll still be responsible—both financially and emotionally. You may have to deal with challenges that come with pasture boarding such as injuries and skin conditions. Eventually, you’re likely to be faced with end-of-life decisions.