Monday, December 02, 2013

Aging Horses and Undereducated Owners

   Just a!


Knowing When to Retire an Arthritic Horse | Video |

The pair of links above are required viewing/reading for horse owners everywhere.  Honestly, I wish the interwebs and the googles had existed back when I got my first horse.  I knew nothing!  I didn't know what I didn't know.  I didn't know where to find out what I needed to know.  I listened to the wrong people because I didn't know there could be wrong people to listen to.

Here's how that went.

My daughter was taking lessons ("lesson" was not yet a verb in 1985) at a really big local barn.  We wound up there because we were new to the area and it was pretty much across the street.  Definitely within walking distance on a good day, and there were a few good days when biking and walking were an option.  We had little money and no real options for getting any.  But as a first-grade graduation gift, the kid wanted lessons, so we bit the bullet.

She knew about horses because I was a rider and was taking my life in my hands a couple of times a week "tuning up" a flighty Arabian for some strangers nearby. They ran an ad, and I answered it.  Done and done.  The kid had watched me hit the ground repeatedly (at three, she had no choice but to accompany me on these deadly forays), and still she wanted to ride.  That, I would guess, reflects the child's inability to predict the future.

So lessons well underway, there finally came a day when I'd had enough of seeing my baby tossed around on strange horses with damage on their minds, and I called my dear dad and said, "I want you to know that because you wouldn't buy me a pony when I was a kid, your daughter is risking life and limb on a bizarro horse that wants to kill her."

He sent me horse shopping, and $850 later I was the proud owner of my very own horse that wanted to kill me..and the kid...and anyone else who did more than look at her in passing.  I didn't find out till long after I'd bought her (and the too-small saddle and the misfit bridle) and traded her in on a less-violent model that she was a senior horse, partially blind (this is where vet checks come in handy), and generally had no desire to be ridden.  She might have been arthritic, but it was hard to check her movement between bucks.

It's hard to tell by looking at them which of these horses is retired.
You have to poke at them a little and see who glares at you.

So it goes.

My low point came the day I fell apart because my  horse was lying in her stall apparently deceased, and I stood shrieking and crying in the barn aisle until the manager came to see what the ruckus was about.  She looked at me, looked at the horse, and proclaimed, "Your horse is sleeping.  She's sleeping because she's exhausted.  She's exhausted because you've been riding the piss out of her!"  With that she stalked out of the barn, and I, humbled, had to stop pretending I knew anything at all about horses.

Riding horses does not equate with knowing about them.  Taking care of horses is a lot more than cookies and rainbows.  Making good decisions about horses in your care is the hardest thing of all because:

1.  They're really big and often hard to handle so it's easy to mistake grouchiness for health issues and vice versa.
2.  We bond tightly with them for some reason as yet unexplained despite generations of exploration.
3.  They cost a lot of money and bad decisions can add a lot to that cost.
4.  We're basically wimps.

As horses age, they start to feel the aches and pains that we all feel as we pass under that cloud.  Wear and tear on joints and muscles can become evident even early on in horses as we ask of them things that their bodies are not actually designed for.  So eventually many owners are faced with the option of retiring a horse that's become creaky, adding supplements to reduce the creakiness and eke out a few more years in relative comfort, or, as one trainer who was banned from my property preferred, ride them till they break down then ship them off or euthanize them.

The choice is a personal one.  It's easy to sit here where your horse isn't and posture about what you should or shouldn't do.  One thing I've learned after 52 years with horses is that owners are as varied as the horses they own.  Different regions of the country espouse different husbandry concepts.  Horses with jobs to do (think ranching, hauling wagons, dragging plows) are going to break down faster and be less likely to stick around as money-sinks.  That's just the way it is.  I'm not going to judge anyone for the choices made, but knowing the options and how to figure the best work-around is crucial no matter what your stance.

Read the article.  Watch the video.  Know that I've got a 27-year-old gelding who's seen and done it all, has massive arthritis in his hocks, and works perfectly sound on a regimen of continual moderate exercise and Recovery Extra Strength.  It's a matter of inches...dropping lateral work so we can do lazy trails, for instance.  So read and think and make the best decision you can for yourself and your horse.


Carolyn B said...

Age is relative. As you say, some horses are worn out at very young ages, and some never seem to age. There was a very old horse at the barn where I worked when I first started my association with horses. He was over 30 when I arrived, and still working, a top-notch lesson horse. On turn-out, he would frolic around like a youngster, and occasionally throw in some Haute Ecole moves for fun. He would also fall asleep under saddle if the rider had him stand around too long. He was sweet and willing, and an excellent teacher. If he knew the rider was a beginner, he would figure out what the rider was trying to ask and do it, but if he realized that his student was more advanced, he would act as if he had no clue what was being asked of him unless the rider really nailed the command properly.
I was there for 8 years, and Showtime worked the entire time. They tried to retire him several times over those years, but quickly put him back to work when his behavior and attitude clearly told us he wanted to work. He also wanted trail rides, though only trainers were permitted to take him off the property for safety reasons -- he absolutely loved to run and would take advantage of anyone who underestimated his soundness. When I left, he was still working, though limited to lightweight riders and beginners, and he was a superstar when used for grooming practice. He lived another few years, dying peacefully in his sleep after a day of work, with his lesson schedule, abbreviated though it was, fully booked.
What a sweet old man he was.

Joanne Friedman, Freelance Writer, ASEA Certified Equine Appraiser, Owner Gallant Hope Farm said...

You are so right, Carolyn! It's important to know your horse. Some go on happily giving their all while others get cranky and irritable, and it's all about their innate personality traits.