by Laura Crum
The photo above shows my 31 year old horse, Gunner, (and me) fourteen years ago. Gunner was 17 and had been retired from competition for a few years at the time the photo was taken, but I still used him for light riding. As you can see, he was happy to pick up the lope in my riding ring, for the local newspaper’s photographer. I’ve used this as the author photo on a couple of my books, and yes, before anybody else says it, I looked a lot better 14 years ago, pre-baby and minus twenty pounds.
Gunner and I have had a very long partnership. I bought him as a three-year old- with ninety days of riding, and did the rest of his training myself. We competed at the Snaffle Bit Futurity and placed in the ladies division and the non-pro, and then I went on to show Gunner as a cutting horse until he was eight, winning a few buckles and year end awards. When Gunner was nine I taught him to be a team roping head horse and competed on him at team roping until he was fourteen, when I retired him from competition due to various arthritic complaints. I used him for light riding until he was about twenty, when I turned him out to pasture. He’s stayed comfortably sound for eleven good years in the pasture, and I was happy to see him running around on the green grass with his equine buddies. In the last few years he lived in a separate field, next to another old horse, so that both of them could be fed a supplemental ration of equine senior feed that worked for each individual.
I brought Gunner home from the pasture on Thanksgiving Day. We had euthanised his longtime companion, ET, previously (see my earlier post “Sad”), and I didn’t want Gunner standing alone in the winter storms, even with his blanket on. Besides, I missed him. I kept him turned out in this pasture five miles from my place for all these many years because I thought it was best for him. In the last few years, either Wally or I drove out there every day to supplement Gunner and ET with the equine senior feed they needed to thrive. Eventually ET was not thriving, even on free choice equine senior and lush pasture, so we made the choice to euthanise him. And this made me come to the decision that it was time to bring Gunner home.
There were a lot of factors involved here. For one thing there is no shelter, other than trees, in the pasture where we’ve been keeping these horses. In our climate this works fine for healthy horses in good flesh, and the two horses we still have turned out there (Danny and Gray Dog), who are in their teens, look just fine. But horses in their twenties and thirties usually need a little more help, and last winter I was out there all the time blanketing Gunner and ET for winter storms and taking their blankets off when it was sunny. It will be a lot easier for me to take good care of Gunner here where he has a shed to stand in when it rains, and I can monitor his condition closely and feed him exactly what he needs.
Another factor is company. I had to keep Gunner and ET in separate small fields in order that each got enough equine senior feed to thrive, but they were right alongside each other and could see each other at all times. The other horses, in the bigger pasture, are frequently out of sight of the small fields. I felt that my poor old horse would feel lonely and left behind by the herd if I kept him alone like that. Here at home he has horses all around him, his corral is big enough to run around (and he does) and I have already noticed that his demeanor seems happier.
And then, I missed having him with me. Letting ET and Rebby go was hard, and really woke me up and brought home to me that if I wanted to spend time with my special old friend, I needed to do it now. And I honestly think that Gunner has already shown that he appreciates the attention and interaction with his human friends, as well as his equine friends. He seems very engaged and interested in everything going on around him, and there is plenty to keep him interested.
Besides the fact that I feed three times a day, we are often down in the barnyard just to hang out with the horses, even if we aren’t catching the riding horses to do something with them. And I often turn the horses out to graze on my property. And, to be honest, my son and I spend time just rubbing on the horses and feeding them cookies. I know, I know, I never used to feed treats as a practice, and I still don’t believe in this as a training aid, nor would I do this with young horses who need to learn what right behavior is, but my kid so wanted to give his loved horses cookies that I caved. (My karma ran over my dogma, you could say.) I simply taught the (all older, well-broke) horses to take the treats politely and now we have a little cookie feeding routine. Gunner loves it.
I don’t have a current photo of Gunner in the computer (as a matter of fact I haven’t been able to download or upload—I never know which it is—any recent photos because my computer is so spazzy I’m afraid that something as traumatic as photos might give it a knock-out punch, so the most recent photos that I can post are from this summer), and it is impossible to get a very flattering shot any more. Gunner is sway backed and peaked rumped, and his face looks old. But there are no ribs or hipbones to be seen or felt, and he has a decent amount of fat on the crest of his neck and over his whole body. He’s in pretty good flesh and his always very fuzzy winter coat is thick and shiny. He’s sound and his appetite is good. I’ve been happy to see that he moves around very freely in his big corral and throws in a buck when he feels like it. Gunner is doing OK. And he’s getting lots of love around here.
Below you see my son snuggling with Sunny in our barnyard—and Gunner is getting his fair share of such attention, too. I think he’s happy that he’s home.
If any of you have some tips or advice about how you keep your very senior equine citizens happy, healthy and engaged with life, I would love to hear them.