There is no shortage of opinions in the horse world: If you asked five equestrians about their preferred method of, say, stall cleaning or wound management, chances are you'll get six different answers. But something I'd like to think most owners and riders agree on is that when you've struggled with an equine lameness, the ultimate goal once soundness returns is keeping that horse sound and doing what he or she loves to do for as long as possible, without risking further injury. That's my goal with Dorado, at least, and it wasn't more than a few days ago that I had something of a revelation on this topic.

Just because Dorado could compete at a higher level doesn't mean he should. After several lameness scares, keeping him healthy and sound is more important than moving up the levels.

Photo: Kristen Janicki

A few years ago and before I got a "real" job, I was a working student for a wonderful Scottish woman who'd ventured around the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event track a handful of times. And while Dorado and I traveled up and down the East Coast with her and her horses, we both learned a lifetime's worth of lessons. In less than a year, she basically re-taught me how to ride, and helped turn my green-as-grass Thoroughbred into a confident eventer that never took a lame step. We'd schooled through Training Level and felt ready as ever to tackle anything that came our way.

Fast-forward to today, and Dorado and I are in a slightly different position. In the past few years we've struggled with some lameness issues, likely related to 18 years' worth of wear and tear and a five-year long racing career, which my veterinarian and I are both convinced are complicated by Dorado's incredible desire to work.

"He doesn't care if something hurts … he won't show you so he can go work," our vet says. "He just goes out, compensates for it, and then suddenly things start to really hurt. That's when we see it."

Fortunately we've learned exactly what Dorado needs each time one of his injuries flares up, and we've learned a lot about what he needs to keep those injuries from flaring up in the first place (Be right back—going to find some wood to knock on…).

So now that my sound, confident horse is back and working beautifully (knock, knock, knock), I've been furiously plotting my fall competition schedule. My biggest conundrum? Which level do we enter?

My first reaction was, admittedly, to plot competitions slowly leading up to a climb up the levels, assuming each preceding competition went smoothly. Dorado's still got a lot of jump in him and still loves it more than anything in the world, so why not? Heck, if things went well, we might even be able to sneak a Training Level combined test in by the end of the year!

And then, I'm not sure when, where, or why, but something hit me. Why am I pushing this? Why would I push my 18-year-old horse to jump bigger jumps at a faster pace on a regular basis? Why would I not start at a level we could both do with our eyes closed, and just go have fun?

I've said it more times than I can count to my veterinarian: "If at any time you don't think this horse should keep going, tell me and we'll stop. He doesn't owe me a thing." But I finally heard it. He doesn't owe me a darn thing!

So for right now, just because Dorado and I could compete at a higher level, we're going to stay put at our lower level. And if, in a few months, things are going so well that an adventure at a slightly higher level seems like it's the right thing for both of us, we'll give it a shot! But right now, I just want to go have fun with my aging horse and enjoy every minute I have with him, rather than pushing both of us to do something that might not be in his best interest. I'd rather he be a sound, lower-level horse than a broken horse that was pushed to his limits any day. Keeping him healthy and sound is more important than moving up the levels.

Have you had a "just because he can doesn't mean he should" moment? Share your experiences below!