You might have heard a similar story:
A seemingly kind, capable person offers to take over the care of a friend's no-longer-serviceable horse; after a few months or a year, the old horse is found to be in deplorable condition, leaving the owner shocked, saddened, guilty and minus one seemingly kind friend. These situations are not uncommon in the experience of devoted, but landless horse owners who wish to see their older horses through to the ends of their natural lives. Serving as worst-case examples, these stories showcase the practical and emotional realities that can attend the decision to stick with an equine partner until death do you part.
Without property and/or the ability to look after the pensioner yourself, you have to rely on others to provide care that keeps the old horse physically comfortable and healthy and emotionally content. One hard fact of old-horse ownership is that other horsepeople are unlikely to appreciate the old-timer quite as much as you do; they don't have the fondness arising from a long history together; and they probably won't obsess to the degree you might like about the horse's well-being. Individuals' horse-care standards vary considerably even within the acceptable range, meaning that equally devoted caretakers can provide widely different levels of service all under the same "good" category.
Additionally, "warehoused" old horses who have been shuffling around unused, unnoticed and unvisited for months and years easily can become almost invisible to paid caretakers, just as forgotten elderly people in nursing homes are more subject to neglect and even abuse. If you maintain a horse in retirement and fall into what Texas horsewoman Karen Hicks describes as the "out of sight, out of mind" syndrome, you become a contributor to possible neglect in your failure to check regularly on the animal's well-being. The decision to keep an older horse in retirement makes him your responsibility every day for the rest of his life, no matter who happens to be doing the physical labor of caring for him.
Then, for all the sentimental attachment you have to the aging animal, you also have to weigh the cost of supporting an unusable horse for an unknown number of years. Horses easily live into their 30s (and early 40s is not improbable). Thus, when you retire a horse even as late as age 25, you could be looking at 10 more years of board bills ahead of you. At $100 a month, that's $12,000 spent for just the most basic care costs; at somewhat deluxe rates of $300 monthly, you'll expend $36,000, and that's before the veterinary, farrier and supplemental expenses of a decade are added in.
Yet, even with the financial and emotional realities of geriatric horse care square in front of you, you are convinced that you want to honor your obligation to the old guy who has meant so much to you in your working partnership. No other option seems quite right. You could give him away to someone else, either for light riding or as a companion horse, but you really don't want to let anyone else decide how the possibly difficult last years of his life will be lived. You might donate him to some worthy cause, such as a therapeutic-riding program or university research herd, but you recognize his shortcomings or unsuitability for these programs, or you have some reservations about the care he would receive in an institutional setting. You could have him euthanized, but he's a long way from needing to die. Maybe later when the spark is fading and the physical problems grow overwhelming, but not just yet.
Once resolved to take lifelong responsibility for an aging horse, you're faced with finding a retirement situation that, above all, preserves the horse's well-being, while also offering you a measure of convenience and comfort. Finding a satisfactory boarding facility for a hardy, in-work horse can be challenge enough; locating a safe haven for a retiree who needs attentive care can be downright frustrating. Stables devoted solely to retirement care may not be available in your area, while existing commercial boarding operations aren't usually attuned to a senior horse's needs. You may find yourself following leads to farm/ranch owners with extra pasture space or a stall to spare or to distant retirement farms advertised in horse publications.
You're really taking a chance if you make arrangements for an older horse's care without personally visiting the facility, no matter how distant it might be. While there, talk to and observe the owners/managers, the barn help and clients. Walk the barn aisles, stalls, paddocks and farthest pastures. Examine the hay and grain being fed and the bedding being used. Breathe the air of a typical stall. Check the watering and feeding equipment for safety and reliability. Examine the fencing and stall construction for quality of materials and state of repair. In other words, put yourself in your old horse's shoes for the tour, and get a good sense of the quality of life he'll experience if you place him there. Then ask for references of current and past clients, and interview them about their experiences with the facility.
Consider the following questions as you sort through your choices to help identify the setup in which your old horse is most likely to thrive:
1. Does the level of care match this horse's preferred lifestyle? After all these years, you have a pretty clear notion of this horse's idea of paradise. He may be the rugged outdoorsman, who frets or grows sluggish in confinement. Or she could be a comfort seeker accustomed to the ease of full-service stabling. Perhaps he's a herd-loving kind of guy, always in the thick of things. Or maybe she's always been a bit of a loner. Identify the circumstances in which your horse appears most at home, and try to find a place for him that matches his ideal. Considering that the move to a different facility may in itself be rather stressful, your older horse's well-being can be doubly threatened if he has to learn a whole new way of living as well.
When Texan Jackie Nozemack decided to retire her hunter-jumper Nicholas because of a chronic suspensory problem, she had no option at the time other than to seek a giveaway home for him. The trainer directed Nozemack to the recipients, remarking that at last Nicholas could be a "real horse" with full-time turnout. Unfortunately, the only real life the 17-year-old Thoroughbred had known was that of a show barn. After the gelding spent just three weeks in a rather rugged ranch situation fending for himself in mud and mess against four or five other horses for round-bale rations, Nozemack went to reclaim him. Nicholas had lost 300 pounds, was covered with cuts and bruises, and had picked up a load of parasites that took a year to eliminate. You may be fortunate enough to have a laid-back old-timer who's content almost anywhere, but if your old horse has his preferences, take them seriously.
2. Would you be content if your horse were in the same condition as the other horses at the place? The bottom line of elder care is in the basics: good nutrition, adequate shelter, congenial social arrangements and preventive and attentive health care. Anything else is nice but not essential; anything less is neglect. When you're checking out a facility's ability to deliver on basic care, the current equine residents offer the most honest appraisal of the management. The horses needn't be show ring sleek, but if most of them have obvious skin diseases, are bony and irritable, and live amid muck and mess, you're looking at a failing grade. Just be aware that if the horses are predominantly past age 20, you will see age-related physical changes that can be confused with signs of ill health or underfeeding.
Hicks, who has been researching equine retirement facilities in preparation for opening her own near Houston, identifies one red flag that would cause her to question the quality of care given at a farm: overcrowding. "If the tendency is for them to take in more animals than their acreage can handle just to bring in more money, I'd be suspicious," she says. "The general condition of the facility is important; it doesn't matter if it's old, but it has to be clean, with no manure sitting around."
3. How will you be involved in the decisions regarding your horse's care? Your level of comfort with your horse's care may arise as much from your sense of involvement and awareness as from the actual tending done. Total involvement in your horse's retirement would have you renting a pasture and/or stall, then doing all the labor and health monitoring yourself. As a totally hands-off owner at the opposite extreme, you'll still need to specify your expectations for care beyond the agreed-upon basics, then to monitor the horse regularly to see that he is receiving the specified care and doing well with it. Aim for communication compatibility with the facility manager. If you are an easygoing owner, you may be driven nuts by a caretaker who's a compulsive reporter. If you want documentation and explanation and pair up with a manager who's a doer, not a talker or writer, you'll be in a chronic state of nagging doubt.
Expect more than a handshake and verbal assurance of good care when you get to the point of turning over your horse to a facility. A carefully constructed boarding contract, assigning responsibility for decisions under a variety of circumstances, delineates your role and theirs in seeing that the horse gets the care he needs, both routinely and in emergencies. Monthly visits to check on the horse's status and discuss changes that may be necessary in light of his altered condition are ideal.
If your life is too complicated or the distance too great to visit that often, ask the facility manager if you could receive a regular monthly report, including photographs. Hicks suggests that a video made of each retiree in his usual surroundings as part of a monthly report would be the best way to convey a horse's condition to absentee owners. However you keep tabs on your horse, your sustained interest itself is a powerful incentive for the caretakers to give the old boy good care.
4. Is expertise available to ensure the horse a good quality of life? A good veterinarian, knowledgeable of and sympathetic to the needs of geriatric horses, is a great asset in any retirement situation. Ask, in particular, about the dental care given to the horses. Skilled, regular hoof care is important as well, especially if your horse has chronic problems with founder, navicular disease or other debilitating conditions. Are capable workers available for regular grooming, for applying blankets, wraps or other accoutrements when needed, for clipping, for medicating and performing therapies and for handling the horse during veterinary and farriery work?
Regular, low-level exercise is a great boon to the elderly of all species, so ask what sort of supplemental exercise is available if the turnout situation doesn't encourage much movement. Is an able rider available to hack the horse a couple of times weekly? If riding is out of the question, is longeing, long-lining or ponying from another horse a possibility? Your aging horses doesn't need to be smothered in special care, but he will decline more rapidly and suffer more serious problems if nature takes its course without intervention in matters that affect his digestion and mobility.
The special bond that forms between horse and rider over years of a working partnership practically compels owners to see that their retirees spend their last years in comfortable circumstances. That commitment can bring you frustration, disappointment and outright stress when you can't put the horse out to pasture on your own property. Nozemack was so distressed by her giveaway experience with Nicholas that she bought a 165-acre property between Houston and San Antonio and started her own retirement facility expressly for ex-show horses. Your retiree may not need a show-barn existence to be happy, but before you place him anywhere, satisfy yourself completely that his basic needs will be unfailingly supplied and that he'll be neither out of sight nor out of mind.
This article first appeared in the November 2000 issue of EQUUS magazine.