by Laura Crum
My last blog post about my son’s horse, Henry, generated some wonderful comments and stories about older horses. Some of them referenced “slightly gimpy” oldsters who were still having a good life teaching kids to ride, and these stories made me want to bring up this topic to discuss.
The topic is actually pretty relevant for me right now, because my horse, Sunny, is entering this category. Not that Sunny is so much an oldster. As a matter of fact, I don’t know how old Sunny is. He came from a California horse trader who bought him from a Mexican horse trader at a sale in El Paso. He was said to be six years old at the time. Those who know the horse business at all will automatically add at least two years to that age. I bought the horse two years later, so by this reckoning he would have been ten then. I had his teeth floated shortly after I bought him and asked the vet how old she thought he was. She said, “Fifteen.” I said, “Well, drat, I thought he was younger than that.” She looked again and said, “I don’t know. He’s got a funny mouth. The bottom teeth look younger than the top teeth.”
So, okey dokey, I don’t know how old Sunny is. That was three years ago. Which makes him somewhere between thirteen and eighteen now. And one thing I do know is that his previous owner had her vet X-ray him when he came up lame after a thirty mile ride (the problem turned out to be a bruised sole), and the X-rays showed “incipient ringbone”. So between that and the fact that he’s certainly at least a teenager, I’m pretty sure that the occasional “bad step” I’m seeing this spring is the result of an arthritic complaint—probably ringbone.
I didn’t vet Sunny when I bought him. I knew his history and I knew he was sound enough for the work I had for him. He has always trotted without a bob in a straight line. But I have always been aware that the horse was not 100% even, and that he needed plenty of warmup to move freely. (This is true of most older horses.) Even experienced horsemen couldn’t spot it watching him. But I knew it was there; I could feel it.
I’ve dealt with ringbone before (and navicular and various other arthritic complaints) in horses as they age, and I know the parameters. And the first parameter is that every horse is different. Every situation is different. There is no one “best path” that works for everyone (like most of life). Back when I was competing at team roping and my good horse, Gunner, came up slightly gimpy with a couple of arthritic complaints when he turned fourteen, I retired him to the pasture. But I’m not ready to do that with Sunny.
First off, Gunner was a sensitive horse who was a BIG baby about pain. I had buted this horse to use him for several years, due to the relatively minor problem of bone spavin in the hocks (and for those of you who will think I am a bad person for doing that, I would like to point out that Gunner is pasture sound today at thirty-one, so I don’t think I did him any harm— and I still own him and care for him). I was unwilling to up the bute dose when Gunner began to have navicular issues in one back foot. The other problem was that I wanted to compete at team roping, which was a strenuous event for a horse. I had no use for a “light riding” horse at the time. So I retired Gunner.
In Sunny’s case, he is a tough little trooper who is not in the least a big baby. All I use him for is very light riding in the ring and on the trail and he is still plenty sound enough for that. So, yes, in his case I am going to ride a slightly gimpy horse. And there are lots of other slightly gimpy older horses in the world who would make wonderful light riding horses for so many riders who are currently struggling with younger horses who have behavioral issues. These riders are not having fun. They are, quite frankly, scared. I read their blog posts (or talk to them) and it is easy to see that underneath the various things they say is a simple fact. They are not having much fun because they are anxious—afraid the horse will dump them, or at the very least, give them grief. Their interactions with their horses are very limited—because they are quite simply scared to just head out on a ride. And I don’t blame them. I often think that “so and so” would be having a lot more fun if they owned Sunny or Henry. But the Sunnys and Henrys of this world are mostly older horses who have been there and done that and most of them are likely to be a touch gimpy for this reason. Even if they’re just a little stiff before they’re warmed up.
Now I understand why people often choose a younger horse and try to be very sure there are no soundness problems, such as “incipient ringbone”. They hope that the horse will be with them as a sound riding horse for many more years than that older, slightly gimpy horse would be. And there is obviously some logic to this. But over and over again I have seen people overestimate what they are going to be comfortable coping with in a horse and essentially “overmount” themselves. Often they are people like me who once rode pretty well, and then took a break and came back to riding as an older person. Sometimes they’re just people who haven’t had a lot of experience. They buy a youngish horse that is said to be broke and gentle and at first it is fine. But then the young horse spooks or does some typical young horse thing that scares the rider. The rider is after this worried that the horse will do this again and nervous when they ride the horse. This anxiety creates responses from the rider that make the horse more anxious. And pretty quick the rider is not having any fun because she is scared and the horse is learning bad habits. This scenario usually does not end happily.
Why do people do this? A lot of times they are simply not aware that a young horses will almost inevitably have less than “solid” moments no matter how well broke they are. If you have ridden as many young horses as I have, you know this. If you haven’t, you might suppose that because the young horse was very well behaved when you tried him, he’ll always behave like that. Not so. Horses younger than eight almost inevitably have their less than perfectly behaved moments. Horses older than eight can certainly have these moments, too. But its pretty much a given with younger horses. It doesn’t mean the horse has a problem, necessarily. Its just part of the overall package that comes with a younger horse. (And yes, there are exceptions—though I personally have known very few.)
Another reason people buy a younger horse rather than the older, solid horse that would better fit their needs is ego. They don’t see themselves as needing a “bombproof” horse or a “babysitter”. They think they are a much better rider than that. Buying that old solid horse because he is more reliable feels demeaning to them.
Now I am the first to admit that for many years I, too, would have scorned to ride a babysitter. I trained young horses, I competed…etc. I didn’t need a solid, broke horse. I could train my own. But when I came back to riding after a several years break to have a child, I soon realized that my skills were not what they once were. And I realized something else. I didn’t want to work that hard. I didn’t want to take the chance I would come off and be hurt. I wanted to enjoy relaxing rides on a horse I trusted.
Oh, and lets not forget time. As the busy mother of a young child, I had/have very little time to work with a horse—and young horses need regular work. My riding time has to be fitted in around a full schedule, and sometimes I only manage to climb on once or twice a week. Younger horses usually do not thrive on such a pattern. I realized that at this point in my life I wanted and needed an older, solid horse, and was willing to accept slight gimpieness as a trade off. And this choice has worked well for me.
That doesn’t mean this is the right choice for everyone. If you feel relaxed and comfortable on your young horse despite his “young horse” moments, and you look forward to riding him, then you are doubtless in the right place. And I might be in your camp (if I had more time), except for the fact that for many years now my goal has been to have safe, non-eventful, fun trail rides with my son. I needed that solid horse to let me relax and keep my focus on my child, not be dealing with my horse. I did ride my boarder’s young horse occasionally for the last few years and realized I could still do a competent job of this. But I have to admit, I wasn’t drawn to it. Those who have similar emotions/situation to mine may want to give a good hard look at that solid older horse with a slight tendency to gimpieness.
So today I want to discuss how I decide what is an acceptable level of “gimpiness” for a light riding horse. And its actually pretty simple. The horse needs to trot in a straight line without a noticeable bob of the head. If he can do that, he’s sound enough for light riding. If he can’t do that once he is warmed up, then you need to address the lameness in some way in order to use him.
As for Sunny, if he is warmed up at the walk sufficiently, he trots without a head bob. However, if I pull him out of the pen and trot him “cold” (which I did last week to see where he was at) there is a slight bob. And that is new as of this spring. I have also seen the horse take the occasional “bad step” this spring, both in the corral and under saddle, so I am clear that his arthritic issue has progressed—as such issues almost inevitably do.
However, Sunny still runs and bucks and plays (a lot) at liberty, and once warmed up, trots freely up my long graveled driveway, without any bob at all. So I consider him sound enough for the work I have for him.
Now I could spend a lot of money getting Sunny “diagnosed” and then a bunch more money having whichever joint “infused”, and maybe it would help him. And, if he gets significantly worse, I may yet do that. But I’m not going to do it now, because I’ve been down that road before and frequently all that money spent does NOT help the problem.
What I plan to do is be observant, trim him regularly, make sure I notice any changes in behavior and soundness, and keep the horse within his comfort zone. In practice this means walking him a lot before I ask anything more of him, and I have always done that and will continue to do so. If I wanted to do something more strenuous with him (which I don’t) I would have to be more proactive about addressing this issue. But for those of you, like me, who enjoy not too strenuous trail rides, a slightly gimpy horse can usually do this and continue to enjoy it, if you are thoughtful.
Will Sunny get worse? Obviously I don’t know. I have known ringbone horses who got first worse and then better—the joint will sometimes fuse. There is no simple answer. But for those who are considering taking on a slightly gimpy older horse (due to arthritic issues), sometimes the horse gets worse and you can’t use him and sometimes he stays pretty stable and you get many years of happy riding. Sometimes you need to bute him or inject him and sometimes this can help a lot. Sometimes no matter what you do he gets worse. I’ve seen both. It’s a crapshoot. But so is all of life. Young horses who pass the vet check with flying colors can also come down with serious problems. If your intended use is light riding and you value being relaxed and do not want to struggle with training issues—these slightly gimpy older horses can be an extremely good deal—as they can often be had for not too much money.
Am I sorry that I bought Sunny? Not at all. I’ve had three marvelous years of happy trail rides with my son without one disaster or even one scary moment—thanks to Sunny and my son’s horse, Henry. No one, horse or human, has had so much as a scratch, and we have covered a lot of country in that time. I absolutely could not have done this without two rock solid horses—which are not all that easy to find. Coping with the fact that Sunny is getting slightly gimpy is a small price to pay for what I’ve been given. Have a look.
Sunny and me in the lupines.
Taking my son on a trail ride.
Riding with my little boy at the beach.
I guess this post is somewhat a repeat of my previous post. Look at all the joy that can be had in a rock solid older horse, even if that horse is a little bit gimpy. There are so many of these horses that both need and deserve a good home. I do understand that for some of you the sort of riding I am describing looks very tame and downright dull. I once felt the same way. Some of you want to do more exciting things and have a horse that is more of a training project; my little palomino plug would bore you. But if you’re looking for a horse for “light riding” and you just want to enjoy your horseback time and not work too hard, maybe see some pretty country, its worth thinking about. Anyone else have any gimpy horse stories to share?