Last October and as my now 17-year-old Thoroughbred had just received the okay to start trotting under tack after recovering from an injury, I wrote a post in this blog about osteoarthritis in aging horses. I was thrilled to see that the post opened the door for some great discussions between readers in the comments section, but one comment stood out and stuck with me.
One reader asked, "Why would you want to compete with a horse that, in human terms, is over 65 years old?"
I thought about this very valid question for a long time, discussed it with my father and some other horsey friends, and pondered some more. And the answer I eventually settled on is multifactorial, but to put it simply, it's because I can.
When Dorado injured his right front leg on July 4 of last year while preparing for his next competition, I had no idea what his future would hold. He was 16 at the time and, in diagnosing the injury, our veterinarian uncovered an injury from his past that we had no idea was there. Of course, the initial goal was to rehabilitate the injury and get Dorado comfortable and sound as quickly as possible.
But I began to question whether a), he would be sound enough to compete anymore, and b), if he was sound enough, was it worth bringing a horse approaching his late teens back into full work to compete. On one hand, of course I wanted to keep competing him. He's not an easy horse to ride, but Dorado is so much fun to take around a cross-country or show jumping course. All in all, he's just a fun horse. But on the other hand, he'd given and taught me so much in the relatively short time I'd owned him and I fully believed he didn't owe me a thing. He still doesn't. In the end, all I could do was see how treatment went and let the horse tell me what he wanted to do.
Fast forward to March of this year: Dorado had his most follow-up examination for the injury. He'd been in full work all winter and had even started jumping again. Our veterinarian confirmed that he was as sound as he'd ever seen him and, much to my delight and relief, he gave us the all clear to resume competing this year.
Why was I relieved? Because over the preceding eight months, Dorado had made it crystal clear to me that he was not—and still is not—ready to sit around and do nothing. He seemed to enjoy his "vacation" (which at first consisted of stall rest with short hand walks twice daily, and eventually confined turnout for a few hours per day) for about two weeks. Then he started getting bored. From making funny faces or gestures whenever a person was looking at him (see the video at left for just one example...and I'm sorry about the commentary!) and rekindling a fascination with holding sweatshirt and coat hoods in his mouth to deliberately tipping his water buckets out and finding new ways to play with (and ultimately waste) his hay, Dorado did everything he could to show me he was bored off his rocker. He's always been a playful horse, but he took "playful" to a new height when he was recovering.
Once we got the okay to start walking under tack, Dorado's excessive "bored behavior" slowly diminished. And eventually, as his veterinarian-prescribed workload increased in duration and intensity, he returned to his normal playful, but not obnoxious, self.
Currently, Dorado is in better shape mentally and physically than I've seen him in a long time. I tell everyone who asks that he clearly doesn't know he's getting "up there" in age, and I'm not going to be the one to tell him. He'll tell me when he doesn't want to run and jump anymore, but until then, we'll keep doing what he loves to do.
So that's why I ride, train, and compete an aging horse. He's not ready to be old and retired, so I'll keep him going because I can.
Why do you keep your senior horses in work? I'd love to hear your experiences and stories…please share them below!