When you have a good horse of your own or in your barn, chances are you want to do right by him when his performing days are over. But how do you know when it’s time to retire him, and what should you do to set him up for “the good life” on his terms?
I’ve helped see to the retirement of a number of top performers, including my wife, Dana’s, 19-year-old world champion working cow horse, Brother White (“Preacher”). Based on my experiences, and using Dana’s gelding as an example, I’ll share advice you can take into account when it’s time for your horse to retire. I’ll base my comments on show horses, because those are the basis of my business. But you can apply most of the tips to any horse, regardless of his job.
When a horse is chronically and painfully unsound, there should be no question about whether to retire him. For sound horses, the answer to “when is it time?” depends quite a bit on whether an individual is a stallion, mare, or gelding.
To me, the best time to retire a stallion from competition, at least one with a breeding career to consider, is when he’s on top. This is because the public can be so ruthlessly negative once a good horse starts to get beat. And with social media, the negativity has potential to get around faster and farther than anyone can stop.
With embryo transplant and use of surrogate dams, it’s possible for top show mares to continue competing while also producing foals. Generally speaking, though, retirement time for a show mare coincides with the owner’s decision to breed her and make her a fulltime broodmare. If your mare won’t be bred, but will continue in a performing career, you can apply my comments about geldings to her.
With no breeding career ahead of them, geldings are the horses most likely to be exploited in terms of retirement postponed too long. I’m sure we’ve all seen the old troupers, far past their prime and at risk of injury, that still have to run and slide hard, lope through endless rail classes, turn barrels, or run after steers and take the jerks because their owners just won’t quit and start over with a younger horse.
Key Do’s and Don’ts
With Preacher as example, here’s my list of do’s and don’ts for getting retirement right.
DO treat your horse as an individual. There’s no one-size-fits-all plan for retiring a horse. It’s more a matter of knowing yours well enough to realize when it’s in his best interest to end his main career. Dana retired Preacher from cow horse events a couple of years ago, as he entered his late teens, because she knew he had too much heart to quit trying hard for her; she didn’t want him to get hurt. She still rode and showed him some until this year, but in less strenuous events.
DO consider your horse’s accustomed lifestyle. Horses are creatures of habit, which means they like familiarity and routine. If your retiring show horse has been stabled most of his life, as Preacher has, it would be a mistake to jerk his blankets and turn him out with pastured horses; he’s not used to anything like that, from being out in all weather to having to compete for feed.
DO provide a companion. Show horses like Preacher may not spend time turned out in a herd, but they’re still in proximity with other horses as they’re worked, shown, and stabled, and have social needs after they’re retired. As Preacher’s competitive life wound down, Dana got him a mini donkey as a pal. They share stall and pasture space, play together, and keep each other company.
DO continue with exercise. Older horses are just like older people, in that they have to “use it or lose it.” Dana continues to ride or longe Preacher regularly, which also keeps her well tuned-in to how he’s feeling.
DON’T retire your horse cold-turkey. If you quit doing everything and anything with him right off the bat, he’s not going to thank you for the gold watch—instead, he’s going to be stressed and disoriented. I’ve known of some great blue-collar show horses that got hauled home from the last show and simply chucked out to pasture, and that, to me, isn’t right.
DON’T keep your older horse going and going just because you can. The good ones give to us, and sooner or later, as good horsemen, we have to stop taking and reward them with a softer life.