When their competitive or work careers are over, some aged horses settle into retirement quite nicely. The last thing they'd like to do is return to a ring for another round. Others, on the other hand, take to retirement marginally better than a fish might take to life on dry land.
A perfect example of the latter situation is our now 26-year-old Appaloosa Taz. During his younger years, he competed successfully in everything from western pleasure at the national level to English equitation and bareback classes at the regional and local levels. He actively competed until he reached 19 years old, at which point several factors--including an equine protozoal myeloencephalitis scare and some balance problems--helped us reach the decision to retire him.
Taz wasn't quite ready to retire, so he's back in a regular light work program.
For the first few months, Taz loved his retirement. He still ruled the roost, but he didn't have to "earn his keep." After all, he'd earned every bit of his retirement through his many years of service.
But after a few months, he clearly grew tired of the less-than-thrilling lifestyle of walking from his stall to the pasture and back again. After a while longer, he started losing weight and became somewhat lethargic.
Knowing his personality like the back of our hands, we decided to take him out for some quiet rides every few weeks. We suspected he was simply bored and depressed about not doing anything since the veterinarian gave him a clean bill of health not long before. Amazingly, after every ride he perked up to his old self for about a week before returning to a state of boredom.
It wasn't long after we started working him infrequently that I moved away from home. My father, who is both taller and broader than I am, opted to discontinue riding the 15.2-hand gelding due to size and weight concerns, and because Taz had aged another few years. Unfortunately, this displeased Taz, who returned to his state of lethargy.
Dad decided to talk with our veterinarian about putting Taz back into a light exercise program, but voiced his concerns that he might be too big to ride him. The veterinarian carried out a thorough examination on Taz before suggesting a few quiet rides per week to keep the horse's brain working. He added that while Dad is on the upper end of the weight range Taz can carry comfortably, there shouldn't be any issues as long as Dad kept close tabs on the horse's exercise tolerance.
That vet visit happened about two years ago, and today Dad and Taz take several quiet rides--walking and jogging around our property--per week. Taz hasn't looked as good as he does now in years. In fact, on a recent trip home to visit, I got to ride him a few times and was thrilled with how he felt (see photo above). We know Taz won't be able to carry us around forever, but for now, we're all having fun, so we're going to run with it!
Before running out to the barn and hopping on your retired geriatric horse, however, there are a few considerations to make. I chatted with Stacey Oke, DVM, MSc, a regular author for The Horse and TheHorse.com about what to consider before "unretiring" an aged horse, and she had the following tips:
- Firstly, make sure the horse is sound before you hop on. Many older horses with equine metabolic syndrome or equine Cushing's disease, for example, develop secondary laminitis, which could preclude extra exercise.
- She also pointed out that when riding an older horse, it's important to ensure they're fit enough to carry out the desired work. If necessary, start with some hand walking or longeing before hopping on. Oke stressed that unfit, overweight horses are at risk of developing heat stroke, tying up, injury, and misery, so proceed with caution when dealing with "hefty" older horses.
- Remember, Oke said, that senior horses' eyesight and hearing might not function at 100% anymore. This could cause them to spook more easily, so be prepared.
- Horses' bodies' often change shape as they age, so she explained that the same saddle a horse wore in his teens might not fit when he reaches his 20s. Ensure all tack fits properly before proceeding.
- And finally, Oke cautioned that, just like younger horses, older horses can feel good and play up if they haven't worked in a while. Keep this in mind if you're planning to put a young or inexperienced rider on "Old Faithful."
If you're itching to bring a retired friend back to work, it's always advisable to have a vet check him or her over to ensure there are no underlying problems that could inadvertently be hurting, injuring, or damaging your senior partner in any way.
Do you have any experiences with bringing older horses out of retirement? Or how did you know it was time to hang up the bridle for good? Share your experiences below.