I was struggling to choose a topic for my first blog post, wanting it to be wonderful and all encompassing. Probably a beginner blogger move, but then as I looked at my lovely heart horse, I realized, why not write about Dazzle? So here goes nothing, with thoughts written out and dedicated to my wonderful white mare, and all those like her!
Over the years, I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to watch horses grow and mature, and I have always found it interesting to watch how their lives change as they do so. We treat unbroke three year olds differently than we treat green five year olds, and we have a different sort of ambitious excitement for our five year old prospects than we do for our twelve year old “you are what you are” types. Across the spectrum though, we as horsemen are diligent in considering these horses as individuals with potential for greatness, paying close attention to their soundness, emotional states, and physical comfort and health. It’s expected, and it’s common practice.
Recently, I’ve noticed we often categorize our senior horses into the “retired” pool and consider them best left to a relatively detached lifestyle. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and sometimes it’s perfectly justified by the horse as he responds to his retirement situation. However, from first hand experience I have found that if a horse is not fit to retired, their wellness can degrade as a result of their new management.
My personal horse, a paint mare who I’ve had since she was 14, turns 20 this spring. She has been a salt of the earth, 4-H, baby dressage, and hunter ring diva her entire life, and as an offering to her, I left her with my parents at their farm to retire from work with another mare. She had grassy pasture, a buddy, and a low key daily routine of to the barn, from the barn, and eat.
Dazzle spent 4 months living her new lifestyle before I had to intervene. She became frustrated with the other mare, who forced Dazzle to be the herd leader when she would rather be taken care of. Bored with her surroundings, she would walk aimlessly around the pasture, looking for things to stare at, and watching the horses in the arena over the fence. Dazzle lost quite a bit of topline, and became quite stiff throughout. The kicker was that as soon as I gave her some attention and did some ground work with her, her whole expression and body softened. She was emotionally appeased. So I loaded up the trailer and took Dazzle back to school with me! She settled in well and we started the process of de-retiring the diva.
It’s taken a few months and some dedication, but Dazzle is now as happy as ever, and moving better than she has in years. I think it’s so important that we look at senior horses as individuals who don’t understand why their life of service can one day disappear as they are deemed ‘fit to retire’. Some benefit from it, but some don’t. I have listed some points that I feel need to be considered when we think about retiring a horse.
Horses like Dazzle, who want to be looked after by a herd leader, can have a hard time if they have to live without one. I find his type of personality to correlate with horses who desire a job or a purpose. Before we write off dullness in attitude to ageing factors, it’s important that we know each horse well enough to understand his dependency on a leader. Particularly so for a horse looking at retirement in a small herd, where his only outlet for mental stability and perceived safety relies on another horse’s capacity to take the leadership role.
In some cases, it’s necessary to retire a horse from a working lifestyle for reasons related to physical health. Horses that have a naturally loose and correct way of going typically do well without structured exercise. However, I often see horses retired from work that could benefit with some bio-mechanically focused activity. In Dazzle’s case, her conformation and natural self carriage are less than desirable for supporting soundness. However, she has been trained in hand and under saddle to move with more bio-mechanical correctness, which gives her the capacity for looseness throughout, improved gaits, enhanced muscle tone, and muscular joint support. When she is not schooling the movement, her physical capability and comfort deteriorate. Horses like this and those with injury related limitations often benefit from a physical therapy type exercise routine.
With our prospects and show horses, it’s no thing to invest in sports medicine therapies, quality nutrition programs, dental maintenance, etc. However, for our retirees, are we dedicated to the same level of care? Senior horses have a particular demand for physical maintenance and nutritional balance, as their bodies are not as resilient as the younger horses. Once again, before we write physical deterioration off to ‘aging’, we need to keep up with these horses’ maintenance demands.
At the end of the day, when we talk about retiring a horse from his known lifestyle, we have to find the balance that benefits him the most and is feasible for his management to undertake. If the horse seems to stay healthier with some light exercise, then try and get him out to hack a few days a week, stretching his topline and getting some cardio on a trail. If the horse doesn’t need the workout, but needs mental stimulation, he may could be a great canidate to for horsemanship games on the ground. When we give these horses some sort of job, no matter what it is, we notice the horse as an individual. This consideration gives us the insight to build a wellness program around his personality, life stage, and needs.