Saturday, January 23, 2010

One Horse's Story

by Laura Crum

In the discussion following my last post stillearning raised some great points about the issue of selling a horse you feel you can no longer keep. She referenced the idea that it may just be ego that tells us we are the only ones who can deal with this horse’s issues. I agreed with her that there may very well be others who can deal with the horse’s issues as well or better than we can, but is their loyalty to the horse going to be as high as ours, who trained him and owned him for many years? Perhaps he worked his butt off for us, acquiring his issues along the way. I suggested that we owe him at least keeping track of him and taking him back if need be, to be sure he doesn’t come to a bad end. And I referenced my first horse, Jackson, who was mentioned in my previous post.

Well, it occurred to me this morning, reading stillearning’s last comment, that Jackson makes a great illustration of the point I am trying to make. So here is his story.

I bought Jackson when I was fifteen years old. I had saved my money for many years and hounded my parents, and I was finally permitted to buy a horse of my own. My cowboy uncle was my trusted advisor. We tried many horses, but my uncle liked Jackson, who looked like a rope horse (15.3 and strongly made). We found the horse through an add in the paper; he was dirt cheap, and the woman who owned him said he was gentle. She’d owned him for two years, she said. He was fourteen years old. She was clearly a novice, and was able to walk, trot, lope the horse around her little ring. My uncle and I rode him and we bought him that day. That’s all in the world we knew about him.

I owned Jackson for three years. He turned out to have some issues. Though gentle to walk, trot, lope around a ring, he did not care for solitary trail rides and would rear vertically to make his point clear. I dealt with it. If put under pressure to load, have his feet worked on, and at certain other times, he would kick out, hard. I learned to be careful. He did not care for being a rope horse and tried some pretty violent evasions. Fortunately nobody was hurt.

When I had owned him three years, I decided I wanted to buy a young horse to train. I was not so attached to Jackson and sold him, as my previous post describes, to the riding school where I used to take lessons. The fact that he did not end up at the saleyard is pure luck. (See my post--"What Do We Owe Them?" for more on this.)

Here’s my point. When I was trail riding Jackson one day I met a middle aged lady on a horse. She looked at my mount and asked me his name. When I told her she said, “I raised that horse and trained him myself.”

I kept quiet about the training.

She asked where I got him and I told her.

She said, “I sold him to that gal when he was twelve. She was just a beginner and wanted a gentle horse. I sold him cheap because she said she’d give him a good home.”

And I could tell this lady was not pleased. She had not expected that her horse would be sold again in two years. And this time to a fifteen year old girl. But she had clearly not kept track of the horse. And she did not offer to buy him back if I wanted to sell him. She simply rode on, on the younger horse she now had.

When Jackson was seventeen I sold him to a riding school. I was tired of his issues, which were not of my making. As I said, it is simply luck that he didn’t end up at the sale and get bought by the killbuyers. So, I think it is a point worth making, that, as long time owners and trainers of a horse, we may have a little more loyalty to that horse and an acceptance of his issues, since we know exactly how he got them. They are usually due to our own choices. Someone who has owned the horse for a couple of years and didn’t create his problems may feel quite free to pass him on. It may not be ego to suppose that we are more likely to take good care of this horse when he gets old and give him the retirement and dignified death we might feel we owe him in exchange for all the years of work he has done for us.

Again, I’m not suggesting that we all need to keep all of our horses. I know its not always possible. I am wondering, however, if we don’t owe our horses something, if we have owned them a long time, and made the choices that created the issues they have, lameness or otherwise. I guess I’m asking if we don’t at least owe it to keep track of them and be sure that they don’t come to a bad end. Which means be willing to take them back. The problem, however, which I understand very well (because its happened to me), is that we often get these horses back when they really have no more useful riding horse years left, but may have many years as a pasture pet…which is all about taking care of them and writing checks to pay for their care…and not about riding and having fun. So, there’s the question in a nutshell. Do we owe them that?

I am asking a question--I'm not saying I know the answer. My own opinion, for what it's worth, is that I do owe my horses that, and if it's financially impossible for me to keep my retirees any more (which may well happen), then I owe them that dignified death. I am not at all adverse to letting someone else care for them (and write the checks) as long as I continue to be responsible for them and have enough control over their fate to be sure they don't end up starved or otherwise abused (or dumped at the sale.)

As always I welcome hearing your thoughts on this. Its a complicated subject, because we all have different circumstances. And yet everyone who has owned a horse for a long time will probably understand how critical it is that we as responsible horsemen give some real thought to what we owe these horses.

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Anonymous said...

This is a hard one - not everyone can afford to keep every horse - but I'm compulsive about my "forever horses" at this point - I feel I'm responsible as long as they're around - all 5 of them. I couldn't take care of all of them successfully, so I decided to retire them to an excellent place (there are a lot of bad horse retirement places, so this took some work). I now have 1 retired and 2 riding horses, and I can deal with that. If anything were ever to happen to me, my family is to keep the horses, or make sure they are OK, forever - it's a big financial burden but they've given us a lot. A couple of my horses have particular issues that made me feel particularly like they deserved not to just be handed off from person to person - I used to just trade horses but I no longer feel comfortable doing this. But I think each person has to find their own way on this.

Anonymous said...

I meant to say - I retired 2 of them - I still have 3 with me.

stilllearning said...

My one "keeper" is thriving and will hopefully have a long and happy retirement. I just can't afford to make that promise to any others, so I'm going to have to stick with my strategy of placing them while they're young and useful. I don't follow them forever, because I can't afford to buy them back.

This is the best I can do, and I'm ok with it.

Laura Crum said...

Kate and stillearning--I agree its a hard one and everyone must find their own way. But when I wrote the "What Do We Owe Them?" post, I did it because I feel pretty darn strongly that we need to consider this question and take it seriously. So often people pass their older horses on, and they make up a zillion reasons why this is OK. And quite often these horses come to a bad end. No one wants to tell someone else--"No, you need to step up and take responsibility here." We all feel respectful of the fact that everybody's circumstances are different. We don't want to be seen as saying, "You ought to keep your horse and bankrupt your family." But there are always choices to be made. I think it is usually possible to retain some control and check on a horse and make sure he's doing OK, even if we do really need to find him a new home. That's been my experience, anyway. Its not that finding a new home for a horse is wrong. Sometimes its a great solution. I'm just suggesting that as long time owners of a horse we might want to consider whether we need to stay responsible for the horse's fate.

Yeah, its not an easy subject, but it is a really important one.
I just got back from visiting with my thirty year old pasture pets. It may not be "fun" like going for a ride, but it really is rewarding to see how happy they look. Gunner, my old cutting horse, a very flighty horse in his youth, stood for long minutes with his head on my shoulder while I rubbed his neck. I am so grateful that we can have this, rather than me wondering what became of my old friend who did so much for me and whether he ended his life at a slaughterhouse in Mexico. Well, I know you know, since you have retired horses, too. Thanks for the thoughtful comments.

And stillearning, I didn't mean to criticize you. Your program makes sense to me. If you train a horse and sell him in his prime to what seems like a good home, there is every hope that he will find a good life. I also sold plenty of them and did not follow what happened to them. I'm not totally sure I'm OK with myself on that, but I truly don't see what else I could have done, given my circumstances at the time.

Again, I'm not saying I know the answers. I'm saying its an important thing to think about. Which I think you said also, stillearning.

Shanster said...

yes, for an older horse that is past his 'usefulness' and I'm the owner and have been for years, I do feel I should be responsible.

I really cannot fathom giving my 31 yr old Cushing's horse with high and low ringbone along with other arthritic issues to anyone... unless I was in some sort of control over his fate.

If I HAD to find a spot for him, I think I know enough people in the area, I could find a cheap piece of pasture for him to be. Tho the new herd dynamics would be awful hard on him at this point in his life.

I also can't fathom anyone WANTING him... he's a very easy horse but he's at the point where we sort of wonder each year if this will be his last winter.. the winter storms can be hard on him. Even with shelter and blankets when needed and plenty of food...

His teeth are almost gone and he can't have hay anymore cuz there's nothing left to chew it so we make him warm mashes of beet pulp and complete senior feed.

On his bad days he gets bute and I watch and I really hope I'll know when it's time to call the vet to put him down.

But he seems cheerful enough - calls out for his supper and occasionally gets the gumption to actually TROT a bit out to pasture or in for dinner.

The 2 younger horses still stay out of his way when he lays his ears back so he must be able to follow thru with his threats sometimes!

I think he's pretty happy and no way would he have gone anywhere once I stopped riding him in his 20s - that thought never even occured to me.

I bought him when I was 16 and he was 8... he's been a wonderful horse and taught me so much. Absolutely, it's my responsibility to help him as much as he helped me...

Laura Crum said...

Thank you Shanster. You totally made my day. I really do believe we owe our longtime horses this, and I, too, have walked and am walking your path, checking my thirty year old horses carefully, wanting to be sure their quality of life is still good enough...etc. I did have to choose to euthanize a twenty-eight year old whose lameness became too painful when we could no longer manage it successfully. I know how hard it is to find that "right time".

I don't actually think that anyone who has gone that far with a horse is going to unload said horse on someone else. Its horses like my Plumber, who is twenty-one and still sound and useful as a riding horse that often get passed on, as the owner looks at the cost and trouble of retiring this horse for another ten years. And, as in the case of my horse, Jackson, who I mentioned in the post--when we sell a twelve year old that we have owned his whole life to a "good home" we better darn sure be aware that that good home can unload the horse in a couple of years to a less good home and the horse ends up we all know where by the time he's twenty.

When I bought my son's horse, Henry, as a nineteen year old, I promised the old man who was his longtime owner that I would not let Henry become a "trading horse" and end up in a bad place. I said I would keep him and take care of him. That old man is dead now, and I have owned Henry only two years, but I intend to keep my promise. So, yeah, older horses can sometimes find a good home.

Shanster said...

Hey Laura!

My husband and I talk about being home to another older horse someday. It'd be great to have an older, safe horse that I could put kids (or their parent) on when they wanted to have the horse experience... or if my husband ever felt like riding (not likely tho he does enjoy them a lot from the ground)

The horse wouldn't have to be totally sound - he/she could have on and off days and mostly be a pasture ornament.

So yeah, we talk about that when my old gelding goes to the big pasture in the sky but we also talk about how nice it might be to only have 2 for awhile!

I think we're open to an older horse who needed a place someday. Somehow these sort of critters find their way into our homes and hearts!

Feels really good to be able to do it, like you with Henry and your promise to the previous owner. I would absolutely be the same way. We took in a mare who was mid 20's on the same sort of deal. She lived to 31 before it was time to end it for her.

And I know the 2 young ones I have will be with me until they die.. now that we have land and the luxury of caring for them ourselves...

It absolutely does buy peace of mind. And I think there ARE good people who keep their word and provide good homes... it's just a matter of ferreting them out.

The bad people make that really difficult and I'm not sure how we find our way around that??

Joy said...

I absolutely feel that I owe it to my current horse to keep him for the rest of his life. We've been through a lot together and he's amazing. He is also permanently mechanically lame. There's no way I could sell him for any $ and I would not give him away either.

My first horse, an OTTB mare, was mine until the end of her life also. It was a struggle at times having 2 lame horses. But I made it work.

I do think that it can be appropriate to sell a horse, don't get me wrong. I would probably be very choosy if that situation came upon on me. It just wouldn't be my fat red lame horse I'd sell. He's priceless to me.

Laura Crum said...

Shanster, In my experience its not just "bad people" we have to worry about when finding a horse a home. I have placed horses with very good people who gave them great homes....for some years. And then the people lost their job or got a divorce or their situation changed in some drastic way. And here's the old horse, still with many years ahead of him, and they can't keep him any more. If I had not been willing to take these horses back the people would have "rehomed" them...and who knows where they would have ended up. One horse, who had previously been well cared for was thin as a rail, because the woman had lost her job and couldn't afford the equine senior he needed (and didn't want to tell me this). It really pays to keep track of them and take responsibility for them if you want their lives to have a happy ending.

And Joy, I know just what you mean. My personal horses are priceless to me, too. I'm not keeping them just because I "ought" to, I'm keeping them and taking care of them because I want to. Its my privilege to give back to them for all they gave to me. It gives me joy (no pun intended!).

Laura Crum said...

Ok--I just have to add this in. I read a great post today on fugly's blog (well, great but sad), a perfect example of the sort of thing fugly does best. She is outing some wealthy gal who dumped her old hunter at the livestock auction. Yeah, I agree, that's wicked. But tell me folks, how much better is it to sell your teenage horse that you've trained and shown to death to a "good home" and not keep track of him? When that horse is sold, and sold again, and eventually ends up at the same sale to be bought by the kill buyer, is his end any better? Are you somehow better than the gal fugly is outing? There's my question. And believe me, I am applying this to myself.