Wednesday, March 14, 2012

On Being There Until the End


by Laura Crum

Not so very long ago I read a blog post with a similar title to this, written by a blogger who runs a retirement farm for horses. She had some interesting and worthwhile things to say, along the lines that the horse doesn’t care if the owner is there at the end, and that choosing to place your horse in a good retirement home (and paying the bills for his care) is one of the best things you can give your horse. She also had some (to my eyes) rather scathing comments about people who didn’t want to send their old horses away and who thought it important to be there at “the end”.

Now I agree with some of what this blogger said and from what I can tell, she runs a great retirement farm. But she missed a few important points, in my view. I wrote a comment listing these points, and lo and behold, it was not posted. I don’t know if got filtered by accident, or she just wasn’t willing to post any comments that didn’t entirely second her own opinion. So today I’m going to enlarge on what I said in my “unposted” comment in reply to her blog—because I think it’s important.

First off, the notion that many of the horses at her farm don’t seem to recognize or be interested in their owners when said owners visit makes perfect sense to me. People, when you send your horse to a retirement farm, its exactly the same as selling your horse to a truly good home. From the horse’s point of view, that is. The horse doesn’t know you are still paying the bills, and that you still own him and care about him. From the horse’s point of a view, he has made the transition to a new home and new equine friends and new human owners. The people who run the farm and feed him and care for him are his owners now. He is interested in them (if he’s interested in people at all), not his used-to-be owner.

There’s nothing wrong with this. Sometimes sending a horse to a retirement farm is the best choice for both horse and owner. But its good to be clear about it. This is the reason many of these retired horses at the farm show no particular interest in or recognition of their owner— with whom they may once have had a great bond. If an owner doesn’t mind this transition and knows its what’s best for their horse because they are no longer able to give him a good life at home, more power to that owner.

But…people who don’t feel that they would ever want to send their old horse “away”, are not to be ridiculed. If a person has the ability to keep their retired horse at home (or in a nearby boarding facility) where the horse has plenty of room to move around, the company of other horses, and good feed and care, that is, in my eyes, the best possible choice. No matter how good the retirement farm, it simply doesn’t offer the incredible benefit of looking at your sweet old friend every day, seeing he is happy, and hearing him nicker when he sees you. And, in my view these things are priceless.

I have two retired horses on my property. One is Gunner, who has been featured throughout my mystery series starring equine vet Gail McCarthy. Gunner is 32 years old—I have owned him since he was three (see my February blog post “Feeling Good” for more about Gunner). For ten years Gunner was my main riding horse—we competed at many events, covered many miles. I cannot tell you how happy it makes me to see his blaze face and bright eyes every day.

Gunner lives in a big paddock where he can run and buck and play (and he does) and socialize over the fence with other horses. He has a shed and gets free choice hay (and equine senior feed night and morning). His weight is good, he is sound, and his attitude is happy. I kept him turned out in a neighbor’s pasture for awhile (with other horses) and I honestly think he seems more content here in my barnyard, with all the human and horse activity that goes on. My son and I pet him and give him cookies and though he doesn’t see or hear well any more, he really is thriving overall. So his life is good; and my life is better because he’s with me. I missed him when he didn’t live here and am happier now that he’s home. Gunner seems happier, too. Isn’t that what its all about?

My other retired horse is Plumber. Plumber is also a featured “character” in my mystery series, where his registered name is “Plumb Smart”. My real life Plumber is “Plumb Brown”. Plumber is 23 this year and I bought him as an unbroken three year old from my uncle, who raised him; I did all this colt’s training myself. I have known this horse since he was born—in fact I was the first one to see him. Plumber was my main mount for twelve years and we competed at team roping and completed many mountain pack trips. I gave my little boy rides on Plumber when my child was a toddler. Plumber has lived in his same large paddock on my property for twenty years. He is completely dialed into life here—knows exactly when I am going to turn him out to graze—has involved relationships with his equine companions of many years. He nickers every time he sees me, whether it’s feeding or grazing time or not. Does anyone really suppose that the best thing for Plumber would be to uproot him from his comfortable life and move him to a retirement farm? Even if it was the best farm in the world?

Below you see Plumber about six years ago, when he was 17 years old and still in full use as a riding horse and team roping horse (we retired him at 20, still sound, because he gave us signs that he didn’t enjoy working any more). Look at that sweet face. How could anyone choose to send a horse like this away if they didn’t absolutely HAVE to?

And yes, I know, my kid and I are not wearing helmets. If I had it to do over again, we would be. But this photo was taken before I began blogging—and interacting with so many horse folks on the internet. No one in my real life horse world wears a helmet—and their kids don’t either. I did buy my kid a helmet (and made sure he wore it always) about a month after this photo was taken—at the same time I bought him a pony for his 5th B-day. And, in my defense, we rode Plumber just as you see for many years, with absolutely no problems. My conviction that Plumber would not dump me, and that I could hang on to my kid if the horse spooked (and he did spook occasionally), was perfectly accurate. And yes, to those who have an eye for detail, I am wearing pirate pants and clogs. I ride in pretty much whatever I have on.

Anyway, Plumber is a very sweet little horse, and he knows who his people are, and it would make me, and I think also him, very sad if I had to send him away.

Mind you, if I couldn’t keep him here for whatever reason, and chose to send him to a retirement farm, he’d get through the transition. Horses do. Sometimes its harder than others and a horse will really mope for awhile, but eventually the new place would be home. But given that I can keep him here in what has been his true home and not force a big transition on him late in life, I think its much better choice for him (and me) to keep him here.

Yes, it’s an inconvenience in many ways. Gunner and Plumber take up two of the four large paddocks that I have for horsekeeping and I get no “use” out of them. But it is more than worth it to me to have them with me—for my sake as well as their sakes. I love them. I don’t want to break the bond between us. I want them to remain “my” horses. And yes, I want to be there at the end—to take upon myself the responsibility of when is the right time to make that choice and to insure that it goes as smoothly as possible. This is not something that I want to give away to someone else, no matter how experienced and well intentioned that person may be. These are my horses. It is my privilege to care for them until the end of their lives. I don’t want to send them away if I don’t absolutely have to. And I don’t think this is a point of view that should be ridiculed in any way.

If I truly didn’t have room for them or couldn’t keep them in an appropriate way, or if I lived in a harsh climate where I felt the winters were too hard on them, I might indeed send them to that retirement farm for their sakes. But in my own circumstances I think it a far better choice to keep them with me, and I feel sure that many others would benefit from making the same choice.

So my point is not that retirement farms are a bad choice. They can be a very good choice, depending on your circumstances. A much better choice than selling an old horse and not keeping track of him (which is a terrible/evil choice, in my view). A good retirement farm is a responsible, loving choice. But the best possible choice is to be able to keep your old horse with you and enjoy his company, and be there with him at “the end”. The rewards of doing this are huge, and I’m pretty sure that others who have followed this path will agree. So…no ridiculing those of us who do NOT want to send our old horses away, and who want to be there with them at the end. Not without a rebuttal, anyway.

Please feel free to give your own thoughts on this subject in the comments.

And…my fourth book, “Roped” is now available on Kindle for 99 cents. I have to say that re-reading this book (which I haven’t read in over ten years) was kind of fun. I almost have to pat myself on the back. The book is set in the ranching/team roping world of central California—the world where I spent my twenties and thirties—and the story brought the working ranches of my youth back so vividly I almost felt that I was there again. The gathers in rough country, the horse wrecks, team roping contests, and hours spent hanging out in the local bar with the cowboys, everybody talking horses….it’s all there. Along with an exciting mystery plot. I mean, even though I knew how it was going to end (duh), I was still pretty gripped.

OK—its silly to blow my own horn. Of course I like the book—it’s my book. But I do think that any of you who have the slightest tinge of interest in the ranching life will enjoy this mystery.

Anyway, Cutter, Hoofprints, Roughstock, and Roped—the first four books in the Gail McCarthy series, are now available on Kindle for 99 cents. Click on the titles to go there.

Also, anyone in the continental US who would like a free review copy of my latest book, “Barnstorming,” (12th in the series), can have one by emailing Susan Daniel at susan@danielpublishing.com with your snail mail address. Your only obligation is to post a short review (can be a couple of sentences) on your blog or on Amazon.

And last thing, we FINALLY updated my archaic website, which I’ve pretty much ignored for oh, about the last ten years. It was very 90’s—and that’s putting it kindly. It’s still a work in progress, but thanks to my husband, it now has a slightly more current look and up to date info. We are going to keep working on it over the next couple of months and hopefully it will soon be pretty interesting. Check it out at www.lauracrum.com

32 comments:

jenj said...

I too read the blog to which you are referring. I actually agree with many of her points. I've seen old horses kept in situations that aren't the best for them because the owner couldn't bring themselves to do what was best for the horse, and it breaks my heart.

Your situation is unique. You have property and the time to personally care for your horses. Most people do not. They board, and in many places, that means turnout for only a few hours per day. Turnout is not always age-appropriate, so an oldster who's moving a little slower can get hurt more easily. If you can find 24/7 turnout, they often don't separate the horses at mealtimes, so older horses don't get what they need. In other words, it is VERY hard to find a barn that caters to the oldsters that is not a retirement facility. Several years ago, that was my option - keep my retired Paint gelding at a regular boarding stable (with all the problems mentioned above), or move him to a retirement facility an hour away. I chose the retirement facility, and it was the BEST decision I could have made for him.

I missed him terribly, and when I did make it out to see him, he didn't remember me after a while. But I was OK with that because he was fat and happy and looked half his age. Now, I have my own place, and I can give him the exact care I want him to have. You're right, having him home is absolutely priceless. He's the one who nickers to me every morning. He's the one who waits at the gate for his bedtime alfalfa cookie (being the oldest does have it's privileges, you know!). He asks for me to scratch his butt or his withers, or sometimes his face. I absolutely adore having him at home, but I'm very, VERY lucky I can do so.

We are lucky that we have that option, don't you think? I do feel bad for the folks who opt to send their horses away, but sometimes it really is the best thing for them given limited alternatives.

(Eeep, sorry for the long post. I didn't mean to write a novel!)

Laura Crum said...

jenj--I agree with every word you wrote here. And I hope I made it clear in my post that I'm not saying retirement farms are a bad choice. I am simply saying the BEST choice is to keep your old horse with you, if you can provide appropriate care.

When I read the post in question, I, too, agreed with much of what she said. But it sort of annoyed me that she more or less ridiculed a visiter to her farm who said that she would not want to send her old horse away and wanted to be with him at the end. Also, while pointing out the virtues of her retirement farm (which are legitimately many, as far as I can tell), she never once pointed out that of course its preferable to keep your old horse with you, if you can care for him appropriately. I wrote a comment along these lines, and as I say, it was never posted. I have no idea why. But I do think my points here are both valid and important, when we talk about our retired horses and what is best for them and us.

Yes, you and I are lucky that we CAN keep our old guys with us. I don't in any way fault those who send theirs to a retirement home because its the best thing for the horse. As you did with Cash when that was what was best for him. But just as you say, having them home with you is priceless--and I wanted to point that out.

Thanks for a great comment.

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Laura Crum said...

Thank you, Blogger. Jeez. It refused to post my comment--and when I kept trying to post it, it then posted it eight times.

Linda said...

I would agree that for some it's best to send them to a retirement home, however, around here, I've never heard of anyone doing that. There seem to be two options: keep your horse or send them to auction. Of those two, of course I recommend keeping your old horse. I don't know why around here--the West--I never hear of people sending horses to retirement homes. Is that an east coast thing? How much does one cost? That's a sad thought to not be recognized by your old friend, but I agree, if you give up their care, and they're herd animals, why would they want to remember you? That in itself is reason for me to keep my horses home. It would break my heart if they didn't recognize me. My bond with them is as much for my own soul as theirs. I just had a thought...I would actually love to own a retirement home for horses. ....hmmmmm....

Laura Crum said...

Linda--You're right. No one that I know has ever sent their horse to a retirement farm. They either keep them or sell them, just as you say (I'm in California). And I, too, would love to run a retirement home for horses. I'm not sure how the whole deal pencils out, but what a great thing to do to make a living.

Funder said...

Wow, I think jenj really said everything I was going to say.

Retirement in Nevada - my hay guy has a retiree pasture, adjacent to his hay barn. It's a calm group of oldsters. It's right on the road, with not much room to pull a trailer in the driveway and get the gate open, so it's not really suited to horses in use, but it looks like a very pleasant place for an old one. It makes me think of the pasture where you had your herd of grumpy old men, Laura.

I think those of us who have our horses at home are both very lucky and very dedicated. There's no shame in boarding, if you aren't able or willing to plonk a corral in your backyard. And once you're boarding, you might as well find the best facility, even if it's across the state (like jenj's was), or across the country... it's a slippery slope. :)

Anyway, I hope I can get back to where I can have a backyard horse again, so one day a creaky old Dixie can toss her head and demand cookies from me.

Laura Crum said...

Funder, You know that pasture where I kept my old men? That's a perfect example of how tough keeping old horses CAN be, if you don't have them at home or a retirement farm. I made that work for a LONG time in this nearby pasture--went out there once a day or more often to feed, check on them, blanket, ...etc. But it was hard to do in the midst of a busy life, and eventually most of the horses were so old they required more care than what I could provide out there. And, on top of that, the pasture owner began asking me to get some of them out of there. So we put down the two in the worst shape (made me very sad), brought my old boy, Gunner, home where he is thriving, and left the two geldings who were still doing fine out there--where they currently look great. So now everybody is happy again--horses, pasture owner, and me. But we had to go through a bit of turmoil--and this is often how it goes when you are dealing with a place that is not your own.

I hope you get to spend many happy years with a creaky, cookie-eating Dixie.

Kate said...

I think, as with many things, it depends. I didn't have the options you have - I don't have my own place and our climate makes horsekeeping more difficult - and a couple of my horses had special needs - Lily has/had heaves and needed to be outside 24/7, and Norman-the-pony was stuck in a small paddock by himself because he couldn't graze our mostly cool-season grasses. I did keep Noble with me to the end, but he had no special needs and did very well until almost the end.

Of course I'd prefer to have all my horses with me forever, but I couldn't do it in a way that worked, for them and for me. I'm just glad that I have a place for them with excellent care and appropriate conditions for them.

Laura Crum said...

Kate--In your situation I'd have done exactly what you did. Those cold winters are hard on horses, and, as jenj pointed out, most boarding stables aren't set up to care for a retired horse's needs. But...I bet if you were in my situation, you'd probably keep your loved old horses with you, and think that was a better choice--as I do. I know you know the joy to be had this way--because you had Noble.

The point of my post, as I said, is not to run down retirement farms, but to acknowledge that if you CAN keep your old horse with you and provide him with appropriate care, that is the best possible choice. Both for you and for him.

Jessica Boyd said...

I sincerely hope I can have Bar and Lena until the end (which, really, I can't even think about without getting emotional because I'm a big baby, but anyway..)

Since they are not on my property, I'd probably have to hornswoggle a deal with the barn owner, but since they are respectively only (almost) 12 and 11, I am hoping to put this decision off until I'm, oh.. 80. 80 would be good. :)

My Kindle is about to get a few more books in its library, too--thanks!

Laura Crum said...

Thank you, Jessica! I love having my old horses with me, and it was a gradual transition from full work to retirement--with a few years of partial work in between--so the whole "retirement" thing wasn't too traumatic.

Terri Rocovich said...

To my mind, no matter your circumstance or choice, the only thing that matters is that the horse is taken care of. I have always chosen to be there until the end as hard as it can be. For me, it is what I feel I owe the horses and it is what I need for closure in saying goodbye. I have taken in retired horses over the years and they just need room to move and just be a horse, proper nutrition, care and shelter. If you can provide all that and can deal with the trauma when the end comes, then they horse should be with you.

The problem in my area is that there are very few reputable retirement facilities and the ones that are good can be very expensive. As a result many older horses are discarded by either selling them dishonestly or by being abandoned at stables which is just despicable. Great post Laura, in my opinion, if you are not in it for the long haul, both emotionally and financially, you should not have the horse in the first place. Just like having a child.

AareneX said...

Great post, Laura. There aren't really any "official" retirement farms in my part of the Swampland--I suspect because trying to make a living in such a way would be really difficult in our climate. There is a "field of oldsters" available through the friend-of-a-friend network, but that's about it.

Our local options for old horses are: board them (some boarding situations aren't bad), keep them at home (ideal, obviously, but sometimes not feasible), sell them (not a good choice), and euthenasia. If a horse is still healthy, I wouldn't race to euth him...but if the choice is between humane death and the uncertainty of the auction yard, it's pretty easy to figure out what the moral choice is...even if it's a difficult choice.

Death is not the worst thing that can happen...to anybody. That's a hard thing to remember sometimes, but it's important.

Laura Crum said...

I agree 100%, Terri. If you cannot afford to care for a retired horse, either at home, by sending him to a retirement farm, or paying for board at a facility that will do right by him, then you should not own a horse. Most of our horses will live past their working life and we need to remain responsible for them. Selling a horse when he is at the end of his working career (without offering to take him back or checking on him), is a despicable thing to do. Especially if that horse has given you many years of good service.

Also, you make a good point in that you are able to care for retired horses adequately at your boarding stable, so the boarding stable option can be quite viable.

There are no good retirement farms near me, that I know of, either.

Anonymous said...

I recently retired a horse so I felt a desperate need to chime in here because I read the post and comments and saw two separate universes talking past one another.

Yes Laura -- if you have your own property, etc., definitely keep your retiree with you. That's almost so obvious it isn't worth saying.

But for many of us -- me included -- I never have had and never will have a farm. EVER! I live in an urban apartment. I board my horse at what I believe have been excellent facilities that meet my needs as a working adult with a horse who also has a job.

When my old guy needed to stop working he was at that boarding facility for the first month or two. He and I were miserable, the turnout options were not appropriate, the group options were not appropriate and the excellent barn staff knew little -- if anything -- about the differing needs of the aging horse.

Of course, selling him was not an option -- ever (and I actually had an offer). I was never going to risk losing control of his future.

As a result, I needed to find a "retirement" option. I spoke regularly with the farm you are referring to (I'm not sure why we are pretending that we don't all know it is Paradigm Farm in Tennessee). He would have gone there if they had had space. Since they didn't at the time I was looking, he moved to a farm about an hour away from me that mostly boards retired horses.

It isn't particularly a "special" facility. Most of the differences relate to the expectation of the barn manager and staff. First, they know older horses. Second, they KNOW that the owners will not be there to visit every day. They routinely take responsibility for elements of horse care (e.g., daily hoof picking) that owners often do in boarding facilities. And, they often send pictures, so owners can stay "involved."

I frequently cry when I think of my guy -- and that I will be seeing him less often than I would if I kept him close. But I made a choice that was in his best interest rather than one to make me feel better.

And guess what -- he is happier, even if I am not longer the highlight of his daily existence.

Laura Crum said...

Aarene--I had the same thought. If you cannot afford to care for your old horse, then you MUST afford euthanasia and the tallow truck. That is the bare minimum for acceptable care. It is sometimes possible to find an old horse a good home (and I have done this at least half a dozen times for friends who did not want to keep their old horses--because I didn't want to see these horses end up at the sale or euthanized), but it takes persistence and lots of connections in the local horse world.

On a brighter note, just the other day, I happened to drive by the pasture of the farm where I had placed Plumber's mother many years ago (for my uncle, who owned her), and I saw her grazing in the sunshine with two other horses--all of them fat and slick. By my reckoning she is 28--and the people took her eight years ago as a pasture pet. So sometimes there can be a happy ending.

Laura Crum said...

Anon--I'm not pretending anything. I just thought it wasn't polite to call them out by name. I'll stand by what I said. Did you notice that I many, many times pointed out that a retirement farm can be the BEST choice under certain circumstances (like yours). I said this repeatedly. What I was trying to point out in the post is that it is really a wonderful thing to be able to interact with your old horse every day and keep him with you. And no, its not so obvious it goes without saying, because I know quite a few people who unloaded their old horses onto others-without offering to stand behind those horses if needed.

I'll say it again--and I'm quoting myself in the post, "A good retirement farm is a responsible, loving choice."

I'm sorry you aren't able to keep your old horse where you can see him every day. But it sounds as if you did the best possible thing you could do in your own circumstances, and I admire you for your choice.

Laura Crum said...

OK--there's something bugging me here, and I want to clarify. I can agree that I'm "lucky" to have my own horse property, but you know what? I'm not rich. At best you could call me middle class. My horse property is small (two and a half acres) and not fancy. You know how I got it? Twenty years ago, when all my friends were buying a house, I bought this small piece of raw land that I thought would make a horse property, and that I could afford, barely. It had NOTHING on it. I built a corral first thing, and I moved a travel trailer out here. I lived in that travel trailer for seven years before I could afford to build my small (650 sq ft) house. (Of course, I built the barn first.) My friends thought I was nuts. But I knew I wanted a horse property, and that's the only way I could afford one. So, no, I'm not entirely lucky--it was about choices and sacrifices, too.

whitehorsepilgrim said...

A lot will come down to personal circumstances. My old retired horse had a nice field with quiet neighbours when he was in work, and I kept him there afterwards as he seems to thrive in that place. There isn't trouble at feeding times because the norm here is to keep horses separate. (they can groom one-another over the fence.) The horses at the farm range from 2yo to a pony aged 40 or thereabouts.

It's curious how his attitude has modified. Now that he isn't ridden there is no rushing up to the gate and not much movement faster than a walk in the field. He comes and goes as he pleases, enjoys being scratched and groomed, and likes his food. But the absence of time out riding has made the relationship more of an acquaintance than anything closer.

I think that the old fellow would be perfectly happy on a nice retirement farm. However that wouldn't be any cheaper, the care would be much the same, and I'd miss seeing him. If he lived elsewhere in retirement then, yes, he'd very likely hardly recognise me after a short period away. That's an adaptive trait that serves horses well. They seem to bond more strongly with favoured equine friends, and that is a harder bond to break.

Laura Crum said...

Whitehorsepilgrim--You put that very well. "I think the old fellow would be perfectly happy on a nice retirement farm. However that wouldn't be any cheaper, the care would be much the same, and I'd miss seeing him." Yes--that's how I feel, too.

And I, too, have noticed that bond between me and my horses does change when I am no longer riding them. However my two retirees are both very people oriented horses, and always were, so that affects how we relate, as well.

Alison said...

I received Barnstorming. Great cover! Review to follow. :)

Francesca Prescott said...

I spent ages writing a long comment on here last night but when I went to post something went wrong and I lost everything. Whereupon I went to bed, as it was late!

As you know, I had to put Kwintus in a retirement home late last year, in fact I had to move him from the home he was happily living in to a new place because we got "evicted"... which was very sad and worrying at the time, but turned out to be a blessing in disguise as Kwint is thriving in his new place, and gets far more exercise and far more stimulation than he did before.

I'd love to have been able to keep him closer (keeping him at home is simply impossible, I don't live on that kind of property...and few people do in Switzerland)), but finding a nice, reputable place is difficult, so he had to move a little further away. It's hard not seeing him as often as I used to, but I get regular feedback about him, get to hear lots of little stories about what he and his friend Newton have been up to. One of my friends also has her old horse there, so we know our horses are in good hands and don't have to worry about them (my friend has known the lady who runs the retirement facilities for a very long time).

I'd never have sold him on, or given him away; who knows what would have happened to him, and like you I strongly believe we have to be responsible for our old friends until the end, make sure they get everything they need.

I'll be driving down to visit him in a week or two, as soon as my daughter gets back from University in England and I know we're both looking forward to seeing his lovely face. He may not be too bothered to see us, but that's ok, as we'll be thrilled to see him.

Thanks for writing about this :)

Laura Crum said...

Thanks, Francesca--I know you were one who really did everything you could to do right by your old horse, and the retirement farm you found was the best available choice. And sometimes that's just the way it is. I'm glad Kwint is happy.

Thanks, Alison. I like the cover, too.

Cassie said...

Laura I agree so much with what you and lots of others have said. I will keep my "kids" till the day they die. I board my horses and visit them every single day. Only horse I worry about is my big thoroughbred and what to do when he retires. I will likely take him to a friends house less than an hour away, so I can still see him weekly but he can have a nice big pasture. My current senior citizen (an arab named Max) still teaches walk/trot lessons to kids 100 lbs and under, and gets lots of turnout time so he isn't in need of a pasture yet. My horses are my children and I don't trust anybody but myself to ensure they get the best care right till the day they tell me they're tired and ready to leave this world. They gave me so much in their prime it is my duty to make sure they're taken care of in their senior days.

Laura Crum said...

Cassie--I feel exactly like you do!

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