Retirement for most horses is a fairly informal process. No papers are filed or legal statuses changed; rather, an equine retiree simply does less of what he used to do or perhaps stops entirely. And, ideally, the end of a horse’s working career is determined less by his age than by his physical capacity and other less tangible factors.
“I hear people say all the time, ‘My horse is 18. It’s time to retire him,'” says David Trachtenberg, DVM, owner of Trachtenberg Veterinary Associates in Penfield, New York. “But the age in and of itself is meaningless; what matters is his health status. If he’s in good shape and is handling his workload with ease, there’s no reason to retire him. And, frankly, it can be detrimental, physically and mentally, for a horse to suddenly go from being active to not doing much at all.”
The best way to “retire” a horse is to gradually decrease his activity level, based on his changing physical abilities. But it’s not always easy to decide when to make those adjustments and to what extent. Of course, you never want to ask a horse to do work that his aging body can no longer handle, but—let’s face it—most of us have horses so we can enjoy riding them, and we’d like to do that as long as possible.
Balancing these objectives requires a clear-eyed assessment of your riding goals and your older horse’s ability to carry you to them. It also means judging whether an off day is a minor bump in the road or part of a larger decline in your horse’s health, and continually making adjustments in his management and lifestyle that can help him stay healthy and happy.
This process is full of uncertainty and is sometimes fraught with emotion. But it’s something that every older horse deserves.
When to say when
An acute injury usually leaves little room for doubt when it comes to planning a horse’s future workload. A horse with a torn tendon obviously can no longer do his job—at least until he heals—no matter his age. On the other hand, when an older horse’s decline is subtle, progressing without significant injury or loss of vigor, it can be difficult to see.
“If you see an animal every day it can be hard to recognize the gradual changes,” says Ruth Sobeck, DVM, of Palos Verdes, California. “That’s when your veterinarian can be extremely helpful. I may see an older horse only two or three times a year, so I’m going to notice that he’s stiffer or losing muscle mass. I’ll point that out to the owner and ask what the horse is doing work-wise and how he seems to be handling it. These discussions can be an eye opener for an owner who hasn’t seen, or hasn’t wanted to admit, that the horse is slowing down.”
Sometimes, however, signs that a horse can no longer handle his workload are apparent. “You’ll notice they tire a bit faster and take longer to recover,” says James Bleak, DVM, of Central Arizona Equine in Camp Verde, Arizona. “They may trip more or be sore the day after a big ride. These can all be signs of him slowing down.”
Too much work can also make an older horse behave differently. “Watch him carefully and see if he is still enjoying himself,” says Trachtenberg. “Are his ears forward? Is he moving out willingly? Does he seem happy about the work? Even if you don’t notice anything obviously physically wrong, a horse who starts to show behavior changes and acts like a ‘brat’ may be telling you he needs his workload cut back.”
That said, any horse will have good and bad days, so you won’t want to read too much into a single episode. Instead, look for patterns. “It can be helpful to keep a calendar or diary to record just how your horse feels each day,” says Sobeck. “At the end of the month go back and take a look to see where you are.”
Solvable or inexorable?
Your veterinarian can help you distinguish age-related issues from problems that can be solved or at least made less severe. Simply ascribing your horse’s physical infirmities to “old age” can allow illness or injury to go undiagnosed. “Ninety percent of the time, arthritis is what I’m confronting in an older horse who is slowing down,” says Trachtenberg.”But chronic, low-grade laminitis can look very, very similar. Chances are it’s just arthritis, but if you make that assumption without a veterinarian’s input, you could overlook something significant.”
Sobeck says that in addition to arthritis, repeated soft-tissue stress can put a horse on a retirement track. “Many times an older horse injures the same ligament or tendon again and again. You rehabilitate them, but when you reach a certain level of work, they just come up lame again.”
Listening to your horse is paramount in making decisions for his future, but keep in mind that some horses won’t let you know when they hurt. “From my own personal experience I can tell you that some horses will lie, particularly Arabians,” says Sobeck. “They’ll tell you ‘I’m great, I’m fine, I can run on these tendons,’ when really they can’t. If the x-rays and ultrasounds are telling you one story, but the horse is giving you another, you have to overrule the horse for his own good.”
Nonmusculoskeletal conditions, such as heaves and Cushing’s disease, aren’t likely to drive a horse into retirement by themselves, unless severe, because medications can usually control them. “Untreated conditions can certainly lead to complications that can make it difficult for a horse to perform his job,” says Trachtenberg, “but most of these medical conditions can be managed so effectively that they aren’t a factor.”
Once you determine that your horse can no longer manage his current workload, you’ll be faced with even more decisions. The challenge will be to reduce his activity level enough to relieve the stress on his body but not so much that his relative inactivity precipitates new problems or exacerbates existing ones. There are no rules—or even rules of thumb—for determining how much a horse of a particular age and with particular conditions can do. That is done on a case-by-case and even day-by-day basis.
Consider the arthritic horse, says Trachtenberg: “You want to keep these guys moving and active—mild to moderate work is actually beneficial for the joints. But knowing how much to work a horse who is stiff is a judgment call. You’ve just got to take it day by day and make decisions based on what you see in the moment. If he is initially stiff and improves in the warm-up to his ‘base line’ but is not outright lame, go ahead and ride. If he’s feeling particularly good, maybe have a short canter. But if he’s acting more sore than usual, more lame than usual, it’s time to head back to the barn, maybe give him a bute, and see where you’re at tomorrow.”
Trachtenberg adds that riding an older horse sparingly won’t preserve his soundness. “I think the adage that ‘Horses only have so many miles in them’ applies more to the extreme sports, horses showing at the higher levels, or horses on demanding show schedules. You aren’t going to take five years off a mild or even moderately arthritic horse’s life just because you continued to trail ride him. Go ahead and enjoy him.”
An incremental approach to retirement, in which you follow the horse’s lead to slowly reduce his workload, is logical. “If your horse isn’t handling the rocky, mountainous trails well anymore, stick to the hills,” says Bleak. “And then when the hills are too much, ride the flat trails. Eventually, if he’s got the personality, he may just be led around with kids on his back, but that’s an important job, too.” The same years that took a physical toll on your horse may have made him a calm, experienced schoolmaster, perfect for younger or inexperienced riders.
Scaling back your horse’s work means a change in your own riding as well, which may raise another set of questions and challenges. “One particularly tough scenario I see a lot is when people buy a mature horse to learn on,” says Bleak. “These experienced horses teach them the ins and outs of an event, but then when the people are ready to advance to higher levels, the horses can no longer physically compete at that level. The owners love those horses but have to get a younger one if they want to continue in the sport.”
One way to handle this, says Bleak, is for riders to purchase a second horse when their older one begins to show early signs of aging. “The people school and train on the younger horse and save the older one for the main events, when it counts. By the time the older horse has to stop roping or running barrels, the younger one is ready to step up.”
But not everyone can afford this solution. “That’s a harsh reality,” says Trachtenberg. “You can’t always just go get another horse, so you’ve got to decide if you’re willing to adjust your riding habits and goals. Oftentimes I’m very surprised: I’ll have an owner who’s been doing high-level hunter/jumper competition for 10 years, and I’ll tentatively ask them if they are OK with just a trail horse. And they’ll say ‘yes.’ But sometimes the answer is ‘no.’ There’s nothing wrong with that; it just means we will have to have a frank discussion about whether or not it’s possible to keep this horse at that level of competition, for how long and at what expense.
“Horses have a unique dual role in our lives, beyond companion animals,” Trachtenberg continues. “In one role, they are a pet and we get a great amount out of the animal/human interaction. But in their other role, they have a utility in our lives. Most of us have horses because we want to ride them. When they get older and those roles don’t work together, owners are faced with a tough dilemma: Do I keep this animal I love and give up on my riding goals? Or do I pursue my passion without this particular horse? That is something I’m often counseling owners of older horses on.”
Even if your older horse is working less, or not at all, the task of caring for him won’t necessarily become easier. His needs will be different, but still important.
“The biggest mistake I see people make is just throwing a retired horse out in a field and assuming he’ll be fine,” says Bleak. “He still needs regular dental and hoof care, good nutrition, vaccinations and deworming. He can’t be expected to fend for himself.” Keep all regular farrier and veterinary appointments for your retired horse, and expect to even increase their frequency as he ages. What goes on at the appointments will change, but he still needs that level of professional attention.
Simply looking at an older horse daily will go a long way toward keeping him healthy. “You should visit him and groom him every day,” says Sobeck. “The grooming isn’t so much for looks, but it makes you take a closer look at his weight, skin and overall health. If you’re just casually throwing hay and water at him each day and not taking the time to run your hands over his body, you could miss something.”
Consistency is important, too. If your horse received an oral joint supplement while he was working, continue to give it in retirement, says Trachtenberg: “A few times I’ve gone to an emergency call for a horse unable to get up. After an investigation, I find out the horse was on a certain joint supplement for years, and the owner either stopped giving it or had just run out and figured it would be no big deal if the horse didn’t get it for a few days. But then the horse ends up not being able to get up. The only thing that changed was the supplement, so I have to figure that was making a difference.”
Sobeck discontinued joint injections when her horse retired but kept using an intramuscular PSGAG0 injection. “It’s a judgment call,” she says. “But I think it makes them feel better, and even if they aren’t competing, they deserve to be comfortable.”
As you tend to your horse’s physical needs, don’t overlook his mental health. Sometimes our notion of what lifestyle will make an older horse happy misses the mark. “I retired my show horse when he was 22 after a series of injuries,” says Sobeck. “It turned out he wasn’t particularly happy being out in a field all the time. He didn’t do poorly physically, but he lost his spark and seemed very disinterested in life.” Sobeck moved him back into the barn and he perked up almost immediately: “He was just a very social guy who liked the activity of the barn.”
Companionship is important to older horses, even if they don’t seem to appreciate it. “Older horses can seem really grumpy and almost antisocial,” says Bleak. “They’ll pin their ears and kick at youngsters, but they still need the company of another horse and will get upset if you take that away.” For instance, an older horse may not feel comfortable lying down unless a herdmate is nearby, and then he becomes sleep deprived. “Unless the grumpiness escalates to fighting and one of the horses is going to get hurt,” says Bleak, “try to give an older horse a companion.”
Finally, don’t discount how much a horse might miss his old routine: “There is a 33-year-old mare at a large stable that I take care of,” says Trachtenberg. “We had progressively retired her from the lesson program due to neck arthritis. She had gone from jumping to walk-trot lessons and then no riding at all. About four weeks after full retirement, she managed to get out of her stall, walked straight to the riding ring and stood next to the instructor as the lesson was going on. That’s a horse who obviously missed the interaction that came with her job.” Even if an older horse can no longer be ridden, if you can find a way to include him in his previous activities—hand-walking him during a lesson, for instance, or shipping him to a show simply as a traveling companion for a younger horse—he’ll be happier.