Retirement isn’t just for older horses. Here’s how to tell when it’s time to stop working your equine, and how to make the transition as stress-free as possible.
Having to think about retiring your horse can be tough. When most people consider “retirement” from an equine standpoint, they generally think about horses at an age when the wear and tear of youthful years of use catch up to them. But this is not always the case. In fact, the need to consider retirement can happen at any time.
Not just for the aged
We all hope our horses will live to the ripe old age of 30 plus, as happy and healthy as possible. But the reality is, an inability to perform at a desired level can strike at any time, even from the moment your horse is born. As powerful and elegant as they are, horses can also be terribly fragile at times. It sometimes does not take much to incur a career-ending injury. It can happen in the pasture, in the trailer, while being ridden, anywhere, anytime. Horses are also regularly retired due to conditions such as wobbler syndrome, EPM, severe behavioral reactions and more.
Planning for the inevitable
It’s a good idea to start preparing your horse’s retirement plan from the moment you acquire him. This may sound silly, but should your horse receive a career-ending diagnosis down the road, it can prevent extra stress during an already stressful time.
When is it time?
The biggest question anyone asks when retiring a horse is: “When is it time?” Typically, you will get what may feel like a cryptic answer along the lines of: “You’ll know when it’s time.” This knowing can come from many things:
• Veterinary, farrier or other professional opinions.
• Undisputable diagnostics, reports and observations from barn staff, coaches, and trainers who are close to your horse and notice him struggling.
• Your own observations, questions and doubts.
• Most importantly – your horse. You know your horse better than anyone else does. You’ll see when he is struggling, despite wanting and trying his best to please you. You’ll notice when things aren’t quite right. Sometimes we may try to ignore or deny these signs, until the previously mentioned people step in and mention something, but we will always know.
Adjusting the workload
Does your horse need to be fully retired, or just semi-retired? Everyone, at one point or another, has heard stories about horses retired from work due to age, only to quickly fade away when they no longer had a job to do. Brought back into light work, these horses began to flourish again. Depending on why your horse is being retired, it may still be possible for him to have a job to do, if he seems the type to thrive on that sort of thing. Options for a horse that does not seem happy just being the resident professional treat taster can include:
• A reduced workload
• Lighter work (flatwork or trails instead of jumping)
• A change in occupation (therapy rather than eventing)
Should your horse reach a stage where he is no longer be able to perform in your chosen discipline, whether it be dressage, jumping, racing or trail riding – what will you do with him?
1. Will you keep him? Depending on your situation, this requires an investment over many years, whether you keep him at your home or find a good retirement facility. In either case, it can be a good idea to set aside for your horse’s retirement each month, just as you would your own.
2. Will you try to re-home him? It’s not uncommon for people to pass on horses who, due to injury or other physical limitations, cannot perform at the level they would like them to. These horses often go to people who can enjoy them with their limitations, and use them for trail riding, basic dressage, or as therapy or companion horses to youngsters or others in need. In this situation, it is naturally your responsibility to ensure your horse is going to an excellent home. No retired horse, after years of working for the people who love him, deserves to be passed from home to home, potentially ending up in a very poor situation. These horses have earned a secure retirement.
Finding a facility
Finding a good, trustworthy retirement facility for your equine friend can be tougher than it seems. We have all heard horror stories of people placing their retired horses in the seemingly capable hands of farms that “specialize” in elderly and retired equines, only to return a year later and discover their horses were simply thrown out in a field with little supervision, care or thought. When looking for a facility, do your research just as you would when looking at any other type of boarding situation. If you will be unable to visit your horse on a regular basis (sometimes a good retirement facility might be a long distance away) you must make sure you really like and trust the people who own, manage and run it. The facility should obviously suit your horse’s needs and be flexible enough to continue accommodating him as those needs change or his condition worsens over time. The farm staff should be knowledgeable about the needs of retired horses, including nutrition, turnout, coat care, dentistry, applicable health conditions/concerns and so on.
Enjoying your retiree
People often become a little lost for awhile when they can no longer ride (or drive) their horses. They are unsure what else they can do with their horses to keep them feeling important and relevant. There are plenty of ways to spend time with your retired friend, and while it may require an adjustment period, it can result in a new and greater bond between the two of you. Visit and discover other things your horse enjoys doing. The list of ideas and opportunities is endless and can include:
• In-hand work
• Handwalking on trails
• Bath time
• Handgrazing in the shade
• Hanging out by the ring watching other horses work
• Being ponied off another horse while you go for a walk around the fields
• Long grooming sessions
• Quiet chats
Your relationship with your horse does not have to end with retirement. It’s simply another leg of the wonderful journey you are taking with your equine friend.
Kelly Howling is a writer, equestrian, and former editor of Equine Wellness Magazine. She manages a large boarding facility and starts young horses for the hunter/jumper divisions. Kelly has completed courses in equine nutrition and acupressure, and has received certification in equine bioenergy work.