by Laura Crum
The topic of this post is one that has been on my mind for a couple of months or more. I pondered it in odd moments throughout my vacation, without coming to any conclusion. Now that I’m home I still don’t have a clue what is best to do, or not do. So I thought I’d put it out there and see what insights folks could offer.
As most of you know, I own a horse named Gunner. I bought Gunner as a three year old with thirty days on him, trained him to be a cowhorse, showed him at the Snaffle Bit Futurity, and then went on to show him as a cutting horse until he was eight, and campaign him as a team roping horse from nine through thirteen. I did every bit of training on Gunner myself, and you can imagine what a willing, talented horse this son of Mr Gunsmoke was and is, when you consider that I taught Gunner these three events while I was just learning them myself. Despite this I have several buckles and headstalls that Gunner and I won together. He truly was/is a great horse.
When I created my mystery series featuring equine veterinarian Gail McCarthy, I gave her Gunner for a mount, faithfully describing my much loved bay gelding in the stories. So those of you who have read my books know Gunner pretty well.
I retired Gunner from competition when he was fourteen, due to various arthritic complaints, and used him for light riding for a few years before I retired him to the pasture. For many years he spent the grass season in my sixty acre pasture in the Sierra foothills and spent the dry season here in my largest corral, with his companion, Danny. This worked well until Gunner was in his late twenties, when it began to be hard to keep weight on him.
So, a couple of years ago I put my too-thin old horse in a five acre field ten minutes from my house and put Danny in with the small herd of retired/crippled/rescued horses that live in the twenty acre field next door. The owner of this setup is a friend and I have been keeping horses there for many years. I put Gunner into the same field where my previous old horse, Burt, had lived into his late thirties.
Now that he was by himself Gunner could eat just the diet he needed (including lots of equine senior delight) and he quickly started to bloom again. Today he is fat and glossy and bucks and plays (a bit creakily, but with gusto) when I show up to feed him. He grazes his pasture well and his teeth are fine. He looks very good for a horse that turned thirty this year.
The problem? When its not feeding time and my little boy and I drive out to visit with our favorite old horse, it seems to both of us that Gunner looks sad. Sad, lonely, bored? I don’t know. He doesn’t seem much interested in us or being with us, which isn’t like him. He can see the other horses and visit with them over the fence and he doesn’t seem to be pining for them. Often he is out in the middle of his field, all alone. Sometimes grazing, sometimes not. I can’t tell if I am projecting my feelings onto him or not when I say he looks morose.
I have thought and thought about this. I can’t really put another horse in with him. He needs to be fed a specific diet or he won’t thrive. I could bring him home and put him in a corral (if I had a corral to spare), and he might get a little more attention, but he wouldn’t be able to wander about grazing as he does now. And realistically, I don’t have much more time to give him than I give him already.
When I add it up, I am giving this horse the best life I can think of for an old horse. He is getting a diet that keeps him slick and in good flesh. He is servicably sound (for an old horse) and trots stiffly but with no bob. He isn’t hurting. He can visit with companions. He can graze whenever he wants and has lots of room to move around. If he were my only horse I could give him more attention, but he isn’t. I have my son’s and my riding horses, Henry and Sunny, and my just retired from team roping horse, Plumber, who take a great deal of my time and attention. I wish I could spend an hour a day fussing with Gunner, but the truth is that I haven’t got that time.
Does this mean I have too many horses? Maybe. After a lifetime with horses I have a few retirees. But if I want to keep them and also still ride, then I need to have more horses than one. So, I’m juggling all these balls, trying to do right by all of them. And it still bugs me that Gunner seems sad.
I don’t know if its just the way old age is feeling to him or what? My horse, Burt, who lived to his late thirties, remained bright-eyed and perky, living in the same field under the same conditions. Gunner, however, is quite perky at feeding time, but seems to have lost his bright-eyed, curious demeanor otherwise. He doesn’t have any obvious problems—just watch him lope in, bucking in a geriatric way, at feeding time, and its clear enough that his health is good. He is slick, shiny, not a rib shows. I can’t figure out why I’m getting this feeling from him.
I have no idea what the solution to this problem, if it is a problem, might be. Maybe I need to let go of the idea that the horse needs to look the way I think he ought to look. Maybe its just my ego that wants him to seem interested in me. But I thought it was worth putting the story out there and asking for your thoughts. Many of you have been through this with older horses and probably have some good ideas and insights. I’d welcome hearing them.