by Laura Crum
The other day I was thinking about the riding school where I took lessons as a kid. And I began to remember my favorite lesson horses. Melody and Gypsy, the two old mares who were my mounts when I was just a beginner. Dusty, a horse I actually progressed to jumping three and a half foot fences on (pretty good for a thirteen year old who had previously only ridden western). Peg, on whom I learned vaulting, and won many a bareback class. And there were others. Rhonde, Uncle Max, Thunder, Freckles…all were my favorite at one time or another.
I took lessons at that riding school for many years. I went to their summer camp program. I knew their horse herd well. And they had almost a hundred horses. They took pretty good care of these horses. The horses were turned out every night in a big pasture and fed hay every morning in the corral; the ones who were to be used were then caught for the day. No horse was thin. Lame horses were not ridden. The horses did get vet care. If a horse was old, that horse only had to give a few lessons a day. Many times I heard the instructors refusing to let the more advanced kids ride Gypsy and Melody, telling them that the old girls should not be used too hard. In short, it was not a bad place.
Still, I have little doubt that when these horses’ time was done, they were hauled to the local saleyard and bought by what, in those days, was called the “chicken man”. The guy who bought horses for chicken food. This was just what most people did at that time. It was taken for granted.
Now, I have a confession to make. I sold my first horse, an ornery bay gelding named Jackson, to this riding school. Jackson was not a particularly endearing or successful first horse—I have written a few times about the fact that he was prone to vertical rears and kicking (under certain circumstances), and that once he kicked me in the head and knocked me out cold. What my parents were thinking to turn me loose on such a creature I can’t imagine. But, if only asked to walk, trot and lope around a ring, Jackson was reasonably gentle. And when I determined to be rid of him and buy myself a young horse to train, I sold him to the riding school where I had taken lessons.
Jackson was a success there. I went up to visit him some years later and he was doing fine, well loved by the little girls who rode him. And no, he didn’t end up at the sale. I heard from a friend who taught there that he was kicked by another horse and suffered a broken leg. He was euthanized by the vet right there on the place. By that time he was over twenty, so, all in all, I’d say things worked out OK for him.
Now I didn’t train Jackson—when I bought him he was fourteen. I owned him for three years. I did not create his problems, and he left me a more cooperative horse than when he came to me. But also, I did not take responsibility for him. When I sold him I left him to his fate. Would I do that now? I’m not sure.
I think of all the horses I rode at the riding school, Gypsy and Melody and Dusty and Peg, all such good horses. I was grateful to them. I thought I loved them. As a child and then a teenager I never thought to ask what would become of them. I never thought of it as my problem.
I think of other horses I owned at one time and then sold. I don’t, to this day, know what their fate was. Did they end up on a truck, bound for slaughter in Mexico? Was the basic trust I tried to instill in them when I owned them completely and finally betrayed? How much might they have suffered? It will always torment me, to some degree.
And this is what I am trying to do differently with my son. We talk a lot about our old, retired horses and why we retire them. We talk about being grateful to our horses and taking care of them until they die. My son goes with me when I feed the retirees. I am trying to show him, both in words and by example, that it is our business what happens to these horses, how they end their lives. It is definitely our problem.
I have no idea what effect this will have, of course. But at the very least I am hoping that when he looks back on the horses that taught him to ride, he will feel good to know that we took care of them and were there for them until the end. I am hoping that we can begin a new pattern. I am hoping that, unlike me, he will be free of this nagging sadness.
I’m grateful that I have had the resources to keep my horses, that I have not been forced to sell them out of financial necessity. But if I did have to sell some horses because I didn’t have enough money to keep them all, it would not be my older horses who would go. No, the horses who worked hard for me all their lives, whose quirks are the results of my training and my choices, these are the ones that I owe. I will honor my debt to them by making sure that they have the retirement they deserve. Its not that I think I am the only one who can take good care of a horse. Its that this is my responsibility, not someone else’s. It is my privilege to do right by these horses.
Believe me, I sure know how tempting it is to decide to offload a horse that is no longer useful to the owner. Its so easy to develop a convincing rationale for doing what would be most covenient for us, the human in charge. Maybe the horse is old, maybe it has issues, lameness or otherwise. For whatever reason, we, the owner, no longer want to ride this horse. And so often we have other, younger horses that we’d rather ride. Our older horse is taking up space, or costing us money, or taking time (usually all three) that we would rather devote to these younger horses that are our current interest. And so we decide to find the older horse a new home. We rationalize that it could be “better” for the horse, that the horse will get more attention. And sometimes this can be true. But what we are really motivated by is the fact that it will be “better” (more convenient) for us. We are justifying our ready excuses as to why we shouldn’t have to take care of a horse who has served us well and perhaps been injured, physically or emotionally, or perhaps just grown too old for the job we want to do.
I’m not saying that one should never find a new home for a horse. I have “rehomed” several horses in the last ten years that just didn’t fit my needs. But I always took responsibility for these horses. I didn’t sell them. I placed them in homes where I thought they would work. One lived happily in that home until he was retired and eventually euthanized. One is still living happily in his home. Three I had to take back. Why? Were they bad homes? Not at all. In two cases the people lost their jobs and could no longer afford the horse. In one case the woman went through a divorce and could no longer afford the horse. If I had not been there, ready and willing to take the horses back, if I had simply sold them and lost track of them, they would have been sold again. There is no way of knowing where they would have ended up. Thus, I believe that if one wants to rehome a horse and still be responsible, one needs to maintain control of that horse. Usually, this means not selling the horse.
I am currently facing this dilemma with my horse, Plumber, who features in my mystery series. I’ve known Plumber since he was born; I’ve owned him since he was three. I broke him and trained him myself. He’s been a competitive team roping horse since he was eight. He’s won several saddles, lots of money, numerous buckles and awards. He started to slow down at nineteen. Last year, at twenty, we used him very lightly. It became clear near the end of the season that Plumber just didn’t want to run hard any more. He also doesn’t care for steep hills. He’s still sound for walk, trot, lope type work on level ground. But he’s not really a kid’s horse. A little too flighty, inclined to spook and prance, rather full of his own ideas. (And all these issues are no doubt due to my failures as a trainer.) This spring Plumber will be twenty-one. He isn’t going to be much use to me as a riding horse, since I want to trail ride and the country where I live is very hilly. It would be fairly easy for me to find him a home if I gave him away. He’s gentle for an intermediate rider, kind, smooth gaited, no one has ever come off him in his entire life. He’s very safe. Lots of people would enjoy him. It would be convenient for me to have an extra pen and one less horse to take care of. So, am I going to rehome Plumber?
I don’t think so. I owe him. He’s my little horse and he did his best for me. It may not be convenient for me to keep him, but I’m going to, even if I have to eat mac and cheese, or make other sacrifices. I plan to keep him and retire him because I think that’s what would be best for him.
The writer of one blog suggested that horses don’t really get attached to us the way we do to them. No doubt this is true. Plumber nickers whenever sees me, including when he’s in a group of other horses…etc. Is he fine when I’m gone? Sure. But there is also no question that this little horse who has lived in the same big corral here on my property for seventeen years and been hauled to many, many events, and who has covered a great many miles under my saddle, is used to his people and his life. Could he accept change? No doubt. But what if I’m not trying to figure out a solution that’s convenient for me and might be acceptable. What if I want to do the best I can for this horse?
I’m not going to say that I know what’s the best thing for every owner of an older horse to do. I don’t. Plumber won’t get as much attention here as he would if he were somebody’s one special pet horse. I have four other saddle horses at my place that need my attention, as well as my other retired horses.
What I do know is that I accept responsibility for my horse who has done so much for me and seems so bonded to me and his life here. It isn’t about ego and thinking I’m the only one who can do it. Its about love and doing the best we can for the ones we love. Its about hanging in there when it isn’t easy or convenient. That’s what I want to teach my son.
When we sell a horse we lose control over that horse’s fate. That’s a fact. Its possible to rehome a horse and do right by him. As long as we retain control and keep track of how the horse is doing, it can be a good option; we need to be willing and able to take that horse back at any time—or his end may not be so pretty. But there’s a whole nother equation. And that’s about wanting to give back to the ones who gave to us. And yes, it sometimes is about eating mac and cheese (figuratively, anyway). We can delude ourselves that its not about that, but those are meaningless words. Unfortunately its often about making sacrifices so that we can do our best by our horses. Sometimes we need to do things that aren’t easy and convenient for us because its better for someone else. Often we need to stretch ourselves a little and look beyond what comes as the most “logical”, “natural” choice for us, the human owner. Sometimes we need to look at what would be best for a horse who has done a great deal for us. Maybe we need to consider what we owe them. And so I will continue to study on what’s the best path for my horse, Plumber, with an open mind and a willing heart. Because I really want to do what’s best for him….not just what’s convenient for me. And its my belief that Plumber, like me, loves his pleasant life and his companions and his familiar routines. And I don’t plan to take that away from him lightly.
The real question in my mind is whether it would be better for Plumber to turn him out with my other retired horses or keep him here at home and try to give him what attention I can. Plumber is a fussy critter, more like a mare than a gelding, prone to kicking at his companions in the next corral and squealing, and he is very, very used to his routines and very people oriented. In the pasture he would get far less attention, but much more freedom and grazing. The fences in the pasture are not perfect, though they’re decent, but still not as safe as my pipe corrals at home. I have never had a horse seriously hurt in this pasture (knock on wood) in over ten years of horsekeeping there. But I worry. Plumber is not the ideal candidate for turnout. If he made it through the transition, I’m sure he’d be fine, but would this fussy little people oriented horse be happier here or in the pasture?
If anyone would like to chime in with suggestions about the best way to retire a real “people horse”, I’d love to hear them. I’d also be interested in your thoughts concerning rehoming an older horse with issues (whether due to lameness, age or whatever) that are the results of one’s own training and choices.
And don’t forget about our Reader’s Write Saturdays. Send us a post about you and your horse, or short piece of your own fiction, or your favorite blog post from your own blog. Or your take on one of the many subjects we’ve brought up and discussed here. Anything you think might interest our readers. Send it to Jami at firstname.lastname@example.org and she’ll post it on the next available Saturday. We’ve very much enjoyed all the contributions so far. We’d be glad to feature you soon.