Retirement isn’t always the answer for everyone. Just like people, many horses enjoy having a job and staying busy well into their golden years. Just because your horse is reaching a certain age doesn’t mean that he can’t enjoy doing the same things younger horses are asked to do. Sometimes there are a few setbacks—things change with age—but as long as your horse is happy and healthy, there’s no reason to quit spending time in the saddle with him. He might even thrive from his continued sense of purpose.
[READ: When Is Your Horse Too Old for a Certain Activity?]
Here we’ll introduce you to six horses that are well into their golden years and share their stories of success in the show pen, becoming the perfect teachers, and the journey of returning from an injury.
Barn name: Artie.
Owner: Nancy Alto-Renfro of Finely, California.
The name Artful Investment is well recognized in the American Quarter Horse Association show community. After winning multiple world championships, becoming one of the highest point-earning stallions in AQHA history, and producing world-champion offspring, “Artie” now adds “favorite lesson horse” to his long list of accomplishments.
When Artie first returned to California to retire, he was given a pasture most horses would dream of. But Artie’s not like most horses and would run up and down the fence until he was completely drenched in sweat, letting his keepers know he didn’t care for pasture life. So much that they gelded him to see if it would help. Alto-Renfro quickly realized Artie enjoyed having a job.
So in the spring of 2015, Artie’s owner suggested Lindsay LaPlante give Artie a trial period as a lesson horse at Silver Spur Riding School in Del Mar, California. It turned out to be the perfect retirement for Artie.
“I’ve never seen such a happy lesson horse,” La Plante gushes. “He’s genuinely the happiest horse I’ve ever been around. And he loves being around the kids. The only time he gets mad is when it rains and he knows can’t get ridden.”
His work schedule is very light and involves a lot of walking and jogging. But Artie’s also a go-to horse for trail riding, grooming practice, and even swimming in the ocean. “The horse I usually take to the beach happened to be lame that day, so we decided to bring Artie, not knowing if he’d ever been around water. Sure enough, he enjoyed it. His favorite part was sticking his face in the water and blowing bubbles. He might’ve had more fun than the kids, which is hard to beat,” La Plante shares.
Artie’s now a favorite at the lesson barn, and gets the opportunity to teach kids how to trust horses and learn how to ride. And while most of the kids don’t know Artie is an equine celebrity, some have gone to YouTube to watch his world-show runs and see just how talented he really is. He’s helped tons of kids learn more about horses, and has done everything from helping them learn how to steer at a walk to performing a flying lead change. He even partakes in the local fun shows, where he’s been beat by a Shetland pony in the hunter under saddle, a class he holds multiple world titles in. But according to some of the many kids who love on him every day, Artie’s biggest achievement is learning how to bow on command.
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Barn name: Big Brown.
Owner: Lisa Hamilton of Billings, Montana.
When Hamilton went to pick up a horse for a friend, she didn’t know she’d be coming home with a horse for herself. But the minute she pulled into the driveway and saw Creepy Junior quietly standing outside, she knew he’d be the perfect barrel-racing horse for her, even if he was approaching 20 years old at the time.
“Big Brown” remains healthy at age 28, but owning a senior horse comes with its own set of challenges. Sometimes he struggles with keeping weight on—something many senior horses deal with. Through lots of trial and error, Hamilton has found that sweet feed and rice bran work best for him. He also gets a mix of alfalfa and grass hay, along with an assortment of supplements. Frequent exercise further builds Big Brown’s appetite.
As he gets older, it takes more time to get him ready for the next barrel-racing season. Hamilton and Big Brown start their season slowly by attending a few local jackpots to help him ease back into the competitive arena and increase his fitness. And when Big Brown isn’t at jackpots, his riding routine is constantly changing.
“He’s happiest when he’s out of the arena, so with the exception of a pole-bending exercise I like to practice with him once a week, he doesn’t spend much time in the arena,” Hamilton explains. “And if the weather’s nice, we’re trotting and loping out on the hilly trails, which also helps build his stamina.”
Getting Big Brown into the arena to run a barrel pattern turned out to be a bit of a struggle when Hamilton first started running him. But soon she was able to find a program that worked well for him. “After all these years of running barrels, he knows what he’s supposed to do when there’s a pattern set up,” Hamilton shares. “So I like to keep things fresh and new for him by doing different things outside the arena.” Five years later, going into the arena to run a pattern isn’t a problem anymore. In fact, he’s been most successful in the competition arena when he isn’t drilled at home. So much that Hamilton and Big Brown have won the all-around novice-select Western horse title at the AQHA Novice West Championships two years in a row.
As for Big Brown’s future, Hamilton says, “He’s a very honest horse to me. He’ll tell me when he’s ready to slow down.”
Barn name: Dually.
Owner: Julie Goodnight of Poncha Springs, Colorado.
Goodnight considers Dualin Command to be her go-to clinic and demonstration horse because of his versatility and temperament. He also participates in reined cow horse and versatility events. He’s always paying attention and quickly understands what his job entails. But as he’s aged, he’s had a few setbacks. After a year and a half of no riding due to complete body soreness, “Dually” is finally improving and is back to being ridden.
As Goodnight rode Dually, she noticed his performance start to diminish. She wasn’t sure what was going on, but she knew she had to help him.
“His whole body was sore, so it was hard to figure out where he actually hurt,” Goodnight shares. “You could just tell he didn’t feel good.”
Arthritis is common in older horses, and because Dually has so much arthritis, it was hard to pinpoint if he just hurt from that or if there was an underlying injury. It’s been a long diagnostic process with several ups and downs, but recently Dually has made a huge comeback thanks to the help of Goodnight’s performance and lameness specialist.
“We did X-rays and couldn’t find any devastating news, which was good to hear,” Goodnight says. “There was no laminitis or coffin-bone troubles. My lameness vet was confident we could get him back to 100-percent. We found interleukin receptor antagonist protein (IRAP) injections extremely helpful.” (To learn more about IRAP injections read “Oh My Aching Joints” on HorseandRider.com.)
During his recovery, Dually continued to have regular exercise. “I found it was beneficial for him to keep a good level of fitness,” she shares. “Letting an older horse get completely soft and then trying to bring him back is hard. When a horse loses his topline, it’s even harder to get it back.” So Dually continued to have regular turnout and was free longed or ponied for short periods of time throughout the week.
Now that Dually’s on the road to recovery and feeling better, Goodnight is back to riding him a few times a week. It’s a slow process, and she still has a long way to go to get him back to where he was. “I haven’t worked a cow with him in a long time,” Goodnight explains. “My hope is now that he’s feeling good again I’ll be able to get him fit enough to start working cattle.”
[READ: Let Your Senior Performance Horse Shine]
Credits For Heaven
Barn name: Hatch.
Owners: Todd and Lisa Neiberger of Argyle, Texas.
Credits For Heaven is no stranger to the show arena—especially in the all-around events—and after years of showing he continues to prove that he can still compete with the young ones. On top of an already extensive list of horse-showing accomplishments—including an AQHA youth world champion title in trail—in the last two years he’s also won the amateur trail at the All American Quarter Horse Congress and was the National Snaffle Bit Association Select Trail World Champion. It’s clear the horse still has a lot left in him as he approaches age 20.
At home, “Hatch” has a fairly easy exercise routine that includes pasture turnout a few days a week and time on the walker almost every morning. Being a veteran to the show arena means he doesn’t need much rigorous schooling, so he typically only gets ridden four times a week. “Hatch lives on our property, so during the week my daughters and I keep him legged up by doing some light riding,” Lisa shares. “The only time we’ll increase his riding is if we’re getting ready for a large horse show. Before those shows our trainer, Robin Frid, will ride him for a quick tune-up.”
In the past, Hatch has been a family horse. Lisa and her daughters, Alyssa and Payton, have all taken turns piloting him in all-around events. But because of his age, Hatch’s showing routine has changed to accommodate his new life phase. He doesn’t travel nearly as much, and he’s no longer showing in the open division. “Robin has done quite well with Hatch in the past. But the open trail and Western riding classes are so competitive that we’ve decided to have Alyssa solely focus on the amateur events now that he’s older,” Lisa explains.
His love for showing and working are some of the many reasons Hatch continues competing well into his senior years. “You can tell he’s happy when he’s at a horse show,” Lisa gushes. “A quick longe-line session and run through of the pattern is all he needs to get ready, and when he does go into the show pen he immediately perks up and he always wants to be good. If we load up the trailer to go to a show and he’s not going, he sticks his head out of his stall and starts to whinny. You can tell he’s sad when he doesn’t get to go.”
Meradas Hot Tip
Barn name: T-Bone.
Owner: Al Dunning of Scottsdale, Arizona.
Meradas Hot Tip started out as a show horse where he successfully competed in several events including heeling, cutting, reining, and the working cow horse. After his show career ended, he made his way to Al Dunning’s Almosta Ranch where he holds a new role that involves helping Dunning with his lessons and clinics.
Thanks to T-Bone’s gentle personality, he’s become one of Dunning’s best clinic horses. T-Bone’s the perfect confidence booster for a novice rider because he’s always quiet and easy-going.
“I’ve made so many people happy by letting them ride T-Bone,” Dunning explains with a smile. “I have riders of all skill levels ride him; you never have to worry about him being bad.” He’s also known to put in as much or as little effort that you ask of him. He’s more than happy to carry around a novice rider, but he’s more than willing to challenge an experienced rider and can work a cow just as well as any other horse that’s currently on Dunning’s property. “I tell anyone who rides him and is chasing a cow down the fence to pay attention to the cow, because T-Bone stops and turns so hard, you’ll fall off if you’re not watching,” he laughs.
The key to keeping T-Bone happy with his job as he gets older is continuing to do a variety of things with him. There are days where he’s taken on trail rides, and other days he helps gather cattle. He also spends a lot of time in the arena either helping with clinics or getting ridden by one of Dunning’s customers. When he’s not being ridden, T-Bone splits his time between a regular stall and the pasture. He loves his pasture time, but he’s always the first one to the gate when someone comes with a halter and lead rope.
T-Bone is a horse that loves having a job, and according to Al, that’s what keeps him so healthy. “At one point, I let T-Bone sit for a little while,” Dunning recalls. “His attitude immediately changed. He didn’t have a good look in his eye, and I was extremely worried about him. As soon as we got him legged up and riding again, he blossomed and he had his old personality back. He’s a special horse, and when you have a horse like him, you have to keep him happy and comfortable for as long as you can.”
[READ: Senior Horse Care]
Bald N Shiney
Barn name: Hank.
Owner: Nelle Murphy of Weatherford, Texas.
After slowing down for a few years, multiple world champion Bald N Shiney is back in the show arena with 9-year-old Baily Shopbell riding. Throughout his career, “Hank” has proven that he has what it takes, so when Baily needed a horse to show, owner Nelle Murphy knew Hank would be the perfect partner.
The pair immediately clicked and qualified for the 2016 AQHA Youth World together. But as they were riding in Oklahoma City, they noticed something wasn’t right and that Hank wasn’t moving like he normally does.
“You could tell he was just a little off, never completely lame,” Murphy recalls. “We immediately took him to the vet where they found a small tear in his tendon. The vets said we could probably show him at the Youth World, but we didn’t want to take the chance of him injuring his tendon more and possibly never being able to show again. He’s been too good of a horse to us to do that to him.”
Without ever having a serious injury during his riding career, Hank was now on stall rest. The vets recommended six weeks off to help the small tear heal, but because Hank is older they weren’t sure how long it would take to let the tendon fully heal. During Hank’s recovery, Baily hand-walked him for 30 minutes every day. Once he was OK’d to start riding again, she was in charge of walking and jogging him to get him back in shape. As he built his stamina back up, she started to add in small amounts of loping to their riding routine.
Now that Baily knows how to ride Hank, they don’t work the cow all of the time, but focus more on doing straight lines and working on her circles. And while Hank is back to his regular routine—which involves Baily riding every chance she gets—his exercise sessions are fairly light and focus more on keeping him fit and in shape rather than hard drills. The two are working hard to get ready for the upcoming show season and were set to return to the show pen at the NRCHA World Show in February.