By Terri Rocovich
Blogs in past weeks by Laura and Alison; and the worry that Francesca went through to get Qrac settled into a new home; got me thinking about retired horses and how important it is that we remain responsible guardians throughout their lives. On one of her past blogs Laura commented about her heard of equine retirees, that we, at the very least, owe horses a happy and peaceful retirement. I could not agree more!
I have never been one to sell or pass horses along when they need to slow down or retire completely because of age or injury. This is not to say that others should not, sometimes finding a semi-retired horse for a beginning rider is the best thing that benefits both parties as well as the horse. Several of my students have horses that were formerly high level competitors and these horses, now in their teens and twenties, are now gleefully teaching their riders jumping and dressage at a lower level. However, I also tell my clients who are lucky enough to get one of these wise and accomplished horses that, when the time comes for full retirement, they are responsible for that horse’s care for the remainder of their days. It IS the least we can do.
As for me, I have sold only 1 horse in my lifetime. This is partially because I get far too attached to my horses to let them go and partially because as a trainer, my semi-retired horses have an invaluable use as schoolmasters. On the occasion when horses due to injury can no longer work at any level, I let them live out their days in pasture but with the same level of health care as any of my competition horses. Horses not in work still need regular farrier care, deworming, vaccines etc., and somehow people forget this when horses are no longer in full work.
As hard as it is in some ways to watch out animal’s bodies’ age (I feel the same way when I look in the mirror), it is fun to watch their personalities change, or not, as the years pass. My personal herd of retired or semi-retired horses include Pete, my 23 year old thoroughbred, Tahoe, my 30 something lesson pony, Charlie, my 32 year old retired event horse and Hank, my 12 year old Paint, sidelined because of progressive Sidebone. Pete and Tahoe still have careers as schoolmasters while Charlie and Hank are not ridden at all.
I have had Pete since he was 9 and his personality has not mellowed much as he has reached his golden years. Even though he is definitely creaky, especially on cold mornings, he still thinks and acts like he is in his prime. The running joke in the barn is that he thinks that 23 means 2 plus 3 equals five and that is how he should act. He is still known to spook at invisible demons and leave the ground at inopportune times, especially if someone dares to hang on the bit while riding him. He is good hearted about his acrobatics and rarely does anyone come off of him, but he does get rider’s attention as if to say “I may be older, but I still have it.” In spite of his age, he still has a huge extended trot, albeit not as through as it used to be. His flying changes are a bit stiff but he now often throws a buck in the middle for some added flair.
Tahoe on the other hand relishes in his role as the elder statesman and is renowned for his sweet temperament and his talent for building any rider’s confidence. At 30+ years old I don’t allow much jumping for Tahoe, other than very small ones, but his value lies in easy trot and canter that even the smallest of kid can feel comfortable on. This is not to say that Tahoe has always been perfect. He could be quite the bad boy when he was younger and sent my niece flying on more than a few occasions that would then result in “Aunt Terri” tune-ups on appropriate behavior. Today though Tahoe takes his job as a babysitter very seriously and will walk the minute he feels a kid off balance and wait for them to right themselves. He loves being in the center of attention with the kids and will stand patiently for hours being groomed, giving kisses and begging for treats.
Charlie is a mare that I bought as a 3 three year nearly 30 years ago back in my barrel racing days. She is an appendix quarter horse and was bred for speed which I thought made her perfect as my next barrel racing prospect. She was fast and could spin and turn on a dime, the only problem was that her dislike for running barrels was only matched by her dislike of cowboys, ropes and rodeos in general. Needless to say I started looking for another career for her which is what led me to the sport of Eventing. Charlie was a cute mover and could score very well in dressage when she chose to be calm. She also loved the running part of cross country and was a very scopey jumper when she chose to be. Detect a theme here? It is amazing that I love her as much as I do considering how often I flew through the air like a missile off of her. Charlie could easily pop over a 4 foot oxer one moment and then dump me on a small cross rail the next. It all depended on the day or the minute. Can we say moody mare!!
She did have a somewhat successful career as an Event horse but it was definitely hit and miss but regardless, when a suspensory injury ended her jumping career, I kept her eventually sending her to live in pasture at my sister’s gorgeous farm in the Santa Barbara area. Charlie is now 32 and has cataracts in both eyes that significantly impair her vision but she lives in a pasture with a spectacular view of the Pacific Ocean. Geez, I want her retirement.
Hank is the adorable Paint on which I am pictured on the side bar of this blog. He was rescued from Mexican Charros and even though his past abuse still keeps him from trusting anyone completely, he was a great lower level Event horse and rose to 2nd level dressage until Sidebone, probably stemming from past abuse, calcified to the point that I just could not keep him sound, even for flat work.
Hank was miserable just hanging around my barn and would sadly watch me ride the other horses not understanding why not him. I finally made the decision to let him live at one of my client’s facility and be a barn mate to her horse. Hank is happy and healthy and is a great buddy to Faleno, Sandra’s horse. Hank and Faleno play and hang out together and Hank has recently taken to jumping out of Sandra’s arena when turned out (a 4’ fence) so he can go graze in her avocado orchard. Not great for his Sidebone, but try telling him that.
The other retiree at my place is Krissy, Michele Scott’s mare. Krissy suffers from a mild neurologic “wobbler” syndrome which prevents her from being worked. She can be ridden as long as she stays quiet and does not over flex her neck but that is not always an easy feat. She still thinks she is a sweet young thing and when not trying to be the “cougar” to every young male horse on my property, she is bucking as playing in the turn-out like a 2 year old.
Sadly not every horse enjoys the happy retirement that they deserve and even some of the most accomplished and famous of equine athletes have been cruelly discarded once they are no longer of “use” in other words, making money, for the human that controls their destiny. One such case was Ferdinand, an incredible thoroughbred race horse that even after winning the Belmont and being exported to Japan as a breeding stallion, ended up at the killers when he was no longer of value to the syndicate that owned him. It all comes down to the ethics and scruples of these horse’s human guardians.
This brings me to another equine celebrity who IS living the kind of pampered retirement that they deserve. Anyone who even remotely follows Dressage knows the name Brentina. Brentina was one of the greatest dressage horses of all time and she and her rider, Debbie McDonald, accomplished what no other U.S. horse/rider dressage partnership had done before. Their accomplishments are too many to list, but Debbie and Brentina were one of the first to really put the U.S. on the global dressage map. And I am happy to say that Brentina receives the same level of conscientious care today as she did in her competitive years. How do I know this?? Well I am proud to say that, at least for this Winter, Brentina is a resident at my sister’s farm in Santa Barbara, a fact which gives my sister gloating rights over me, probably for life.
This past Christmas, I got teased when, upon arrival at my sister’s place on Christmas eve, I stopped by her barn to meet Brentina before going up to the house. My sister Christi, chided, what you go to see Brentina before me, to which I answered – well it’s BRENTINA!!!!
To add to my star struck delight, I even got the opportunity to bring her in from pasture and groom her. What an amazing horse she is, even several years retired, she is still gorgeous and loved all the attention I showered on her. She loves her face to me rubbed, especially her eyes, and is VERY serious about her food. Debbie McDonald chose my sister’s farm for Brentina to spend this winter because of the grass pastures, a 16’ stall with attached paddock, their ability and willingness to soak her hay and feed several small feedings per day, plus the farm’s proximity to Brentina’s regular vet. I think I can safely say that in retirement Brentina receives a higher level of care that many people do let alone horses. In a world where competition horses are often discarded and/or even put down when no longer of competitive value, Debbie McDonald’s devotion to Brentina’s care and happiness is both refreshing and gratifying. It is as it should be.
I only wish that every horse in their “declining years” could live this kind of life. Like Laura said – we owe them at least that much. Do you have a retiree? I would love to hear about them.