bringing your horse back from retirement

A horse may be “retired” from regular activity for any number of reasons.

Perhaps the kids have outgrown or lost interest in him. Maybe she was used as a broodmare or companion horse. Our own lives change as well, sometimes leaving us with little time to ride.

When the time comes to bring a horse out of retirement, however, we don’t always know how best to go about it. After all, horses are living, breathing, dynamic individuals that grow, age and change just like we do. Rather than assume everything will be the same as it was before, I highly recommend taking the time to make sure a horse coming back from retirement is properly conditioned to resume activity, both physically and mentally.

Things to consider

Think of it this way. If you had an old classic car that had been under a tarp in the barn for years, what would you need to do to get it ready for a daytrip, a week-long road trip, or maybe a cross-country trip along Route 66? If you want your family to have a safe and enjoyable experience, you’d make sure everything was in good working order before heading out. If you’d driven the car regularly and it was stored for only a few months, it wouldn’t take nearly as long to prepare it than if your grandfather was the last one to drive it back in 1997.

When we think of our horses in a similar way, we can get an idea of how to start bringing them back from retirement. Was the horse used extensively for years, demonstrating only confident, reliable behavior in many different situations? Or was he ridden only 30 to 60 days by a trainer who started him under saddle before putting him back out to pasture for a year or more?

Another important consideration is an honest evaluation of your own current level of ability, skills and fitness. I emphasize “honest” because we can make a dangerous assumption that our ability, skills and physiology remain the same over long periods of time. If we ride horses regularly, our skills and fitness will be much better than if we take a ten-year break to raise a family or care for elderly parents.

Additionally, please never succumb to pressure or guilt from those who feel a need to tell you to get out and ride your horse. Horses can live to 30 or 40 years, and when kept in an area they can move around in (i.e. not stalled) with a buddy or two – even a goat, chicken or cat for a friend – they’re perfectly happy staying retired. You, too, are entitled to feel equally happy just hanging out with your equine friend.

Basics first

Before you begin to bring your horse out of retirement, it’s important to evaluate his current health and condition. It’s not a bad idea to have his teeth checked, his feet shaped up, and to observe each gait for soundness. Keep in mind that physical conditioning should be a gradual process. Taking a horse too far too fast can put him at risk of injury.

As you begin to work with your horse, build an understanding from the ground first. Every communication used while riding can, and should, be re-introduced from the ground. The feel of the lead line is the feel from the reins. Pressure from our hands on the horse simulates the pressure from our legs or reins. We can think of ground skills training as “riding from the ground”, and can use this approach to develop trust, respect and understanding before even putting a leg over the horse’s back.

For riders that have been out of the saddle for some time, I’d also recommend beginning a regular exercise routine to develop your strength and balance. Even 40 minutes of brisk walking, three times a week, is enough to regain the level of fitness required to be more confident and effective with horses. You can even take your horse with you, practicing your ground skills during your walk, if you feel safe enough to do so.

Re-introducing the saddle

As your horse makes gains in his physical condition and his ground skills become light and responsive, introduce the saddle as you would for a colt that’s never been saddled. Remember that a cinch can feel confining when unfamiliar, and the age of a horse has nothing to do with how he is going to respond to the saddle coming back into his life. Do as many preparations as possible to simulate this type of pressure around the cinch area, just as you would before saddling a young colt for the first time.

If at this point you no longer feel confident, it may be wise to hire an equine professional to put the first rides on the horse. Professionals regularly ride horses that move in unpredictable directions. Most people are used to one direction – forward – and usually not at every speed. Horses lacking confidence can go sideways, backward, up and down when they’re confused or uncertain of what is being asked of them. It’s better to be safe than sorry, so consider this option if you feel it would help you reach your goals with your horse.

If everything’s going well on the ground and your horse is wearing the saddle with complete confidence and relaxation, try tipping his nose toward you and step halfway up in the saddle – without getting on. See how the horse responds to your weight. Whether he gets bothered or not, get off, relax and go again. Repeat this until your horse becomes familiar with the weight of a rider again.

Some people don’t even realize they’re nervous and just climb up and on; then they find out the horse isn’t as confident as he appeared to be. If the horse seems bored with this (a good thing), only then put your leg over, and just relax with him for a minute.

Tip his nose to both sides to ensure a relaxed suppleness, then practice disengaging the hindquarters. Common sense would dictate that this beginning work be confined to smaller areas at first, moving to larger areas as confidence and trust is re-established.

Safety note

As with any approach to shaping horse behavior, safety is the highest priority when bringing a horse out of retirement! I cannot emphasize this enough: If you do not feel confident at any time when attempting the techniques described here, please hire a professional who understands this approach and will take the time to help you and your horse to a stage where you feel confident enough to take over.

By taking all these factors into consideration, you can develop an effective strategy for bringing a horse out of retirement with a much greater chance of success.  Stay safe, have fun, and take all the time your horse needs to adjust to his changing activity levels.

Further learning

The ideas and insights offered in this article provide a good place to start, but if you have an interest in further developing these skills with your horse, I recommend receiving qualified instruction from an individual trained in these techniques. Alternatively, consider the DVDs, Riding From the Ground and Riding From Above, available through my website.

Karen Scholl is a horse behaviorist and educator, who presents her approach Horsemanship for Women throughout the United States and at horse expos in the US, Canada and Brazil. Though she has recently retired from conducting hands-on clinics to dedicate herself to expanding her library of resources, extensive information is available on her website, or by calling 888-238-3447.