New Focus for an Old Friend

Is your longtime equine buddy no longer capable of his original duties? If so, it’s time to get creative—as this reader did.

How useful is your horse after his main purpose in life is over? Perhaps you acquired him to be a trail horse, barrel racer, or Western pleasure mount. Now, however, due to circumstances beyond your or his control, he can no longer serve in that role.

Credit: Photo courtesy of Joanne Nickel The author found interesting new jobs for her aging Arabian gelding, Double Nickel.

Or perhaps it’s your circumstances that have changed. A blip in your life plan now requires your horse to become a “pasture ornament.” Or, worse, he must be given into the hands of someone who doesn’t care how much love and devotion he once offered “his” human.

A Better Way

Let’s consider other alternatives for your trusty friend. The ideas I’ll share are the jobs I dreamed up for my purebred Arabian, Double Nickel, after we finished a successful eight-year stint together in competitive trail riding. These ideas—or others you brainstorm as a result—may be just what you need for your own pensioner.

In the beginning, about the time we were looking for a new focus, the natural horsemanship craze was coming into full bloom. It all looked interesting, so we jumped right in. As we both learned and became proficient at those in-hand training techniques, it opened the door for other, even more interesting groundwork activities.

Nickel thrived on the focused attention this type of learning requires. Eventually, he could shove that giant green ball across the arena like Pelé. It was hilarious! Plus it was great fun for us both. Groundwork is terrific for those days when you want to play and interact with your horse, but you can’t or don’t feel like riding. The results can be amazing.

Gelding as Caregiver

Testing our groundwork skills eventually involved visiting the local nursing home. My own father lived in the home we visited, and he’s the one who got me involved with horses in the first place. We couldn’t go inside the home, of course, so we did in-hand and on-the-line work in front of a bank of windows. Inside, the residents lined up in their wheelchairs all along the windows to watch Nickel perform.

One of the maneuvers we’d perfected at home was the touch-it game. I’d point at any object, focusing my eyes on it, and Nickel would then touch it with his nose. So, after our performance at the windows, I’d point at one of the panes and Nickel would gently press his nose against it. Meanwhile, residents inside pressed their hands against the pane to “pet” him.

One day, one of the residents, who’d once owned draft horses, wanted to come out to meet Nickel in the flesh. I was apprehensive at first, as my gelding could sometimes be a little pushy with his nose. What if he innocently nosed the gentleman over in his wheelchair?

I needn’t have worried. I pointed at the man’s lap and asked Nickel to lower his head so the man could touch his forelock, ever so gently. My gelding seemed almost to be holding his breath, as if he sensed how fragile the elderly man was. I’ll never forget that magical moment. One of the nurses later told me the man talked about that visit from Nickel for days afterward.

Science Exhibit?

Fast-forward a year or two, to Nickel’s performance at the science fair of the middle school where I’m a counselor. His role was to stand patiently outside the school’s entrance to be noticed and patted by just about everyone attending that day.

At one point, he had kids and parents at all four corners, the children touching each of his legs while he stood like a statue, basking in the attention. Kids also had the option of grooming him, so by the time we left the school, three hours later, he was shining.

Plus, the whole time we were there, I didn’t have to use the manure fork I’d brought, even once. What a gentleman!

New Goals, New Gains

Another year passed and I found myself dealing with health issues that kept me from riding at all. After a two-month recovery, I was cleared to ride again but didn’t yet want to tackle my younger, more energetic horse. So whom did I press into service? That’s right, Nickel. He was 23 by then, but still appreciated “smelling the flowers” as we walked sedately around the farm, just happy to be enjoying the quiet moments together.

So take it from me. As your horse ages and your life changes, don’t give up on the connection you’ve had with him. Instead, explore new options together. Think “outside the stall.” Help your horse to discover new goals, and you’ll find new gains for yourself along the way.

Joanne Coy lives on a farm in Otsego, Michigan, with her husband, horses, dogs, and cats. She’s ridden in many disciplines, from competitive trail to her main interest, dressage. She’s currently a participant in the U.S. Dressage Federation’s “L” learning-judge program. “As long as I’m around horses,” she says, “I want to keep discovering more about them.”

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