This is a great time to destroy your smiley bubble. No season of the year is more likely to bring old horses and young riders together than the Holidays, when the gifting frenzy often overwhelms common sense. Is there anything more precious than a child's bright-eyed wonder when Mom and Dad parade a ribbon-bedecked pony into the yard? Nope.
Okay, maybe a ribbon-bedecked puppy parade, but that's about all.
So with the risk of ruining your holiday surprise strong upon me, I'm here for the second week in a row to rain on your parade. Truly, Reality bites.
It happens to the best of them. Eventually our happy equine partners slow down. This has lead to an unpleasant game of Hot Potato in horse circles. Great young horses are passed around from owner to owner, each new human hoping that the horse will remain sound and healthy through its tenure in that relationship until, inevitably, somebody winds up being the Home of Last Resort. That's what happens when we engage in a sport that involves other living beings and layer it with emotional yuck.
There's always an undercurrent of tension at low-level show barns and lesson barns as owners listen to the ticking of the clock and watch for signs of lameness, illness, and worn-outedness in their horses. It's not so evident at the upper levels as the owners of top-flight horses are generally well-heeled and capable of ensuring a long and healthy retirement for their investment horses. They've earned money enough along the way to make that possible without much pain and suffering.
|Cuteness Quotient: Intolerable|
But what about the rest of the horse world? There may be a few hundred top horses who are safe from the ravages of being the hot potato in the hands of someone unable to afford the luxury of an unrideable partner. For the others, it's a crap shoot. Since older, less able horses are generally less expensive and in low demand, they are the ones most likely to wind up in the hands of the non-horsey parents of a brandy-new child rider. And there they sit, sometimes cared about but not cared for, and sometimes living out their days in peace in a cow pasture or amid a herd of some other livestock.
That last group will be fine. They may never see the inside of a show arena again, but they'll commune with the goats or sheep or cattle or wildlife until they breathe their last. As long as the caretaker knows enough to feed them appropriately and can afford the basics of vetting and healthcare, there's nothing sad about a horse standing in a field of grass and non-horse companions.
It's the other group that should concern us.
The linked article offers some great suggestions for retirement plans for folks who can afford to do something as kind as keeping an equine in the conditions to which it has (happily) become accustomed. Retirement farms where minimal board (or an up-front donation) will allow the horse to be cared for without being a significant drain on family finances are hard to come by, but they do exist. You might want to start looking now as some have waiting lists.
|Smart Mommy opted to lease|
the pony instead of buying
Some lesson barns are happy to have "packers" who are long in the tooth as well as in the patience department. Not all old horses fit that bill. My old Quarter Horse, coming 30, is wonderful, but as his years have passed, he's become pushy. If I'm not quick enough saddling up, he'll just walk off to the riding ring without me. If I don't get the pad on straight, I can be head-butted...hard. There's no politeness left at that age, to which I can completely relate. So don't count on your oldster finding a happy place with giggling children aboard.
Handicapped riding facilities, programs that use horses in rehabilitation of emotionally distraught humans...they, too, love the older horses with nothing to prove. That's as long as they truly have nothing to prove and lots of patience.
What's an owner to do when the horse isn't acceptable for passing on and money for such flourishes as horse ownership has disappeared? Craigslist, Facebook, and myriad horsey websites are littered with ads as owners cast about feverishly searching for a way out of the bind without letting it appear that that's what they're doing.
This is where the chaff gets beat off the grain of human responsibility. Before you buy that old horse, ask yourself if you'll have the brave heart it would take to have that horse put humanely to rest. A lame, sick, sad animal isn't having a good day no matter how many cookies you feed it. A horse in a terrible living situation is a sad horse even if it's reasonably sound and healthy. So think long and hard about your own emotional state and whether you'd be the type to close one eye and pass your old horse off to an unfit home. Would you be able to risk inadvertently (or purposely) sending your horse to auction and eventually to slaughter? Or would you be able to make that call to the vet and say good-bye with a clear conscience?
With care, we can ensure to all, a good day and a good night.