Written by Melanie Eberhardt
I recently crossed a major threshold and find myself on the north side of 50. I admit to feeling my age. When I wake in the morning, my ankles don’t bend so I hobble to the bathroom. If I sit on the floor, I have to lean on something to stand upright. Each year it’s a little harder to carry those 50 lb. bags of horse feed from my car to the barn without dropping them. I won’t bore you with my other age related complaints. Just know that I am getting older and I feel it. My horses are also getting older. They don’t complain as I do, but I see changes.
After graduating college, I got my first job. I bought a new car and I bought my very first horse. The following year I bought a second horse. The third year, I bred my first horse and ta-da, then there were three! It’s hard to believe that was nearly 30 years ago. My horses are 28, 26 and 23 years old. Human equivalent translates to 83, 77 and 69. I may be old at 51, but my horses are REALLY old!
Caring for aging horses means making adjustments. Each old horse now requires completely different attention. Feed used to be easy – the same grain in even amounts for each horse. Now I buy three different feeds embellished with various supplements all doled out as three unique concoctions.
Physically, each horse suffers age issues. The combined list reads as follows; equine resistant laminitis, DSLD/ESPA, Cushings disease (I’ve got 2 of these!) and lots of lumps and clumps of melanoma from tails to inside one’s mouth. Don’t get me started on hoof and dental care – it doesn’t end. I temper their ailments as best as I can with diligent vet and farrier visits, some medicine, pasture time, really good hay, exercise and TLC.
But I don’t mean to lament the condition of my old guys, that’s not the purpose of this article. I love my horses, they are old, they are happy and they are active to the best of their abilities. The real point I want to discuss is how we can keep our old horse’s engaged and interested in life. These wonderful equines used to be our reliable riding partners, the horse we dragged all over the state for schooling shows and training and trail rides. These were our reliable teammates who helped us achieve blue ribbons, jump higher fences and carried us safely across deep creeks. They spent years carrying us from here to there not because they wanted to, but because we asked them to – and they oblige our wishes.
With age, they reach a point when they can’t perform as well. They’re stiff and don’t move as confidently, they’re muscle sore, hock sore, hoof sore so out of kindness, we retire them. How lovely – retirement! A life of leisure, time to do as one pleases, graze, laze and daze. Our relationship with our retired horses changes immediately. We previously doted on our pals but now we’re busy with a new horse and there are only so many hours in the day. Our old guys are turned out a pasture way back behind the barn. Their water tub topped off each morning, obligatory grain dumped into the fence feeder twice a day, a flake or two of hay tossed in for good measure – and they are just fine. But is this really such a wonderful period for horses?
Many horses will find joy in this lifestyle, others will not. Remember, they used to be our pampered partners. A home, fresh water and food are great, but we often forget another key element to a happy content horse – attention.
I know many retired horses that are very well cared for but emotionally abandoned. They are seldom groomed, they are only rarely lead from their retirement pastures, usually only for the vet or farrier. Their active lives become humdrum. They rely on us to make their humdrum retirement a hot-diggity-dog whoopdeedoo world. Zookeepers employ environmental enrichment to engage captive animals and research proves the benefits. I use the same technique. I make a concerted effort, every day to introduce changes, challenges and treats for my retired horses.
A very simple way to zip up a retired horse’s day is a spa day. Give your horse a grooming like he’s going to a championship show – a warm bath with plenty of suds, a rinse with diluted vetrolin, braids and lots and lots of brushing. The physical contact and one-on-one time will be pleasing for both of you.
When I take my dog for a walk, I take an old horse too. My mailbox is quite a distance from my home, so a casual stroll with little breaks to graze along the way makes for a fun outing.
Introducing simple pasture obstacles like cones and ground poles can keep our old guys on their toes. I have one friend who bought a tough little pony whose sole purpose in life is to provide her old horses with entertainment. He gets excited about something and runs around the old guys squealing and bucking until they’re finally enticed to participate with snorts and brief bouts of gallops.
Another friend with retired horses often travels for work. She hired a young teen to come over twice a week and babysit her horses. For 2 hours, the babysitter (whose parents won’t allow her to have a horse) dutifully brushes, walks, baths, lunges each horse. She makes a little money on the side doing something she loves, being around horses and learning how to care for them. This is one of my favorite arrangements for old horses – it’s a win, win, win for everyone.
A little effort on our part makes a big difference in our retired horse’s day. I encourage all of you to embrace a retired horse. Even if it isn’t your horse, there is likely one at your barn who would appreciate a little extra attention. These cherished old equines did everything asked of them in their younger days. We owe it to them to show our appreciation during their waning days. It’s just the right thing to do.
Originally published in 2013 for HorseJunkiesUnited.com and in print by “Collected Remarks”.