Monday, October 20, 2014

Getting Older or Getting Better?

Senior Horses: Aged to Perfection

One day a barn hand came by to help with chores and instead of cash, he wanted a ride on a horse.  It was a second childhood thing, not a bucket list thing, so I happily gave him the reins on my 29-year-old Quarter Horse, Leo.  Dodging the flaming arrows of Leo's angry gaze--no one has ridden him but me in about eight years because he's My Guy--I sent the pair off for a jolly half-hour play date.  At the end, Ricardo, flushed with joy and excitement and not a little love, asked how much I thought Leo would be worth.  What would someone pay for a 29-year-old horse with all the energy and enthusiasm of a much younger animal, family- (and Ricardo-) safe, and smooth as silk at all gaits?
Ricardo and Leo,
Perfect Together

My answer:  Nothing.

Ricardo was surprised, and he he asked me why I thought the horse wasn't worth anything.  I told him that wasn't the case.  Leo is worth more than money to me, and he has already made a great beginner lesson horse for actual students and for my baby grandson who piloted him around solo at the tender age of 22 months.  He's worth keeping until he dies.  That's how much he's worth.

But in cash money, I explained, I'd probably find it hard to find a home for him.  Why?  Because he's 29.

That's about Grandpa plus Grandma in human years.  That's ten years of joint supplements for his arthritis.  That's the recently added cost of having him tq'd for the dentist so that his remaining four molars can be floated to perfection as eating is key.  That's three times the feed of any other horse in the barn--twice the complete feed and a healthy scoop of hay stretcher to make up for those flat-lining teeth.  That's extra care about temperature, blanketing more than most when the thermometer shows single digits and those nasty negative numbers.  That's shoes on his front feet all summer because he's got tender soles.  That's the little twinge of worry every morning that he might not be okay.  That's giving him access to the barn all day with fans in the summer and heat in the winter and a buddy who challenges him just enough but not too much.  That's at least twice a week under saddle come hell or cold weather to keep his muscles and joints working.
Leo at 23, Dillon at 2 months
A fine first horse experience

And that's not knowing how many years he has left.

Most buyers want a horse they can count on to recoup their investment, not just in purchase costs, but in the rest of the expenses of horse keeping.  If the horse is boarded out, there has to be a very understanding and experienced manager keeping watch over a senior of that age.  And there's the very real chance that six months down the line he could easily become a pasture puff, to be supported into his dotage and beyond.

For some of us--me, for instance--it's worth it.  All of my horses are seniors now, ranging in age from 29 down to 16.  I've owned this boy for 14 years, and he's seen me through some very trying times. That smoothness and open-hearted attitude was what I needed after each surgery and major disaster.  Of all the horses in the herd, he's the one I trusted not to be stupid under saddle when I had one eye bandaged or staples down my midline or whatever.  So for me, he's irreplaceable, and if I could find another exactly like him, even at his age, I'd happily take him (or her--some of my best horses have been mares) home with me.

Leo, 29, hangin' after a round of barrels
poles, dressage, and hacking out.
Old doesn't have to mean finished.
The trick is, I can afford it.  I own the farm.  I know how to deal with old horses.  And I am okay with the endpoint, preferring not to keep horses alive for my sake instead of theirs.

So my advice is that you should seriously consider the older horses available to you.  They're usually nice.  Very nice.  Bad horses don't often survive to be pensioners. The survivors have nothing left to prove.  They've seen it and done it all, or if they haven't, they're willing to give it a shot.  They get along with pretty much everyone with the usual exceptions.  They seem to understand that you get what they're about, and they like that.

But while you're considering the highly-trained, well-mannered, kindly old guy, make sure you can afford to keep him beyond the limited time when he might be in shape for whatever you intend to do with him.  The unfairness of taking an old horse and neglecting him when his usefulness wanes is unconscionable.  Take him with the intention of paying back what he's earned, even if he didn't earn it all with you.  Get that you'll learn a lot about vet care, first aid, and diagnosing on the fly.  You'll make a huge investment in things to keep him comfy and in the best possible health, and much of that will be in the wind.  But in return you'll get a peaceful soul to share your low moments and a happy heart to share the highs.  He may not be the jumping, running, snorting, electric pony of your childhood dreams.  Instead he'll be the soulmate.  The old friend happy to see you whenever you show up, ready to cadge a cookie or two and give kisses and hugs in return, and willing to give your latest plan a shot...or to walk away with a smirk if your plan is excessively stupid.  Old horses do that.  It keeps us humble.

If you can find a young old horse--say 15 to 20 years old--and the price is right and he (sort of) passes a vet check, snap him up!  You can easily have another 15 years of fun ahead and you're buying a buddy who will keep you moving in your dotage.  I can't recommend highly enough an old horse for an old rider.  Or a very young rider.  Leave the babies to the teenagers, and find the peace you really want in your horse life aboard a smooth older gentleman or gentlewoman.  You'll wonder why you didn't do it sooner.

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