When Horses Reach Retirement Age
Eventually every horse gets to the point where it is time to retire, but when and how depends on the individual. A horse’s health and soundness dictate retirement more so than age. Most horses do better when retirement happens gradually, through a slow decrease in activity level based on the horse’s physical abilities and mental attitude.
When is the right time?
Assessing your horse’s physical and mental status isn’t always easy. Horses tend to decline over a period of time; they have bad days and good days. Look for trends in health and behavior, as they will tell you more about your horse’s status then one bad day. Your veterinarian, farrier and trusted trainer are valuable partners in this process. Since they don’t see your horse every day, they will be more likely to notice changes in attitude, gait, weight, and energy levels. The decision may be easy if a horse becomes acutely ill or lame; otherwise, utilize the diagnostic tools available to you to assess the severity of problems as they arise. Consider test results and professional feedback when making decisions, but most of all listen to your horse. Retirement is a period of continual adjustment for both of you.
Signs that it is time to slow down.
Your horse starts aging the day he or she is born. All through life she adapts to the changes in her body and keeps working for you. But at some point the process begins to take a toll physically and mentally, and that is when it is time to make some changes. If you don’t listen to your horse and begin to reduce her workload, it can accelerate the aging process and contribute to serious illness or injury. When accessing your older partner, be on the lookout for signs:
- Attitude changes (depressed, sour, anxious)
- Dry coat or a change in shedding patterns
- Digestive changes: dry or wet manure, recurring mild colic episodes, change in appetite
- Increased number of “off days”
- Less stamina during work or more soreness after exercise sessions
- Loss of athletic ability and flexibility
- Mild, intermittent lameness or shortening of stride
- Poor behavior when ridden: bucking, rearing, kicking out, head tossing, resistant
- Stiffness and soreness that remains even after being warmed up
- Stumbling on smooth footing
- Swayback or other conformation changes
- Swaying or moving as you mount (a sign of weakness or balance problems)
- Shortness of breath, chronic cough or noisy breathing
- Vision impairments: seems more spooky, does not adjust well to changes in light intensity
- Unwillingness to do certain activities he used to be comfortable with
- Weight loss or loss of muscle mass
Adjusting to retirement
A complete shutdown of activity is bad for a horse. Many an older horse is miserable going from an active lifestyle to standing by the pasture gate all day. Inactivity can exacerbate some problems, such as arthritis or metabolic disease. Older horses left turned out in a pasture to fend for themselves rarely do well.
Depending on your horse’s status, his retirement may consist of nothing more than a shorter show schedule or less-strenuous trail rides. Perhaps you change his job. Many older horses have “been around” and make wonderful mounts for beginner riders. Dropping down a few competitive levels may be just what the veterinarian ordered. The key is to monitor your retiree carefully; don’t underestimate how much a horse may miss his old life and old friends.
Check on your horse daily
Is he happy and willing? Is he able to physically handle his current workload? It is helpful to keep a daily journal and look for patterns of change instead of overreacting to a bad day. As aging continues you can make adjustments as needed. When riding is no longer an option there are other ways you can interact with your horse: hand walking on trails, hand grazing, being ponied off another horse while you go for a walk around the fields, long grooming sessions or a bath. Just hanging out together. An old friend can always be enjoyed.
Lots of TLC
It is imperative to interact with your horse every day, even if you aren’t riding him or her as often. A daily grooming session is the perfect time to check your horse over and evaluate his condition and attitude. Make feed and forage changes slowly. Don’t abruptly take an older horse off supplements they have been getting for long period of time. When problems arise, get your retiree checked out immediately; don’t just attribute the issue to “old age” and leave it to get worse. Continue to provide routine veterinary, farrier and dental care. Most of all, cherish the time you have to spend together.