Wednesday, January 20, 2010

What Do We Owe Them?

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 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.


Anonymous said...

Excellent post - I think senior horses have offered and continue to offer a huge amount to us and certainly have earned the right to a good retirement. I've sold horses in the past, but not any more. All my horses are "forever horses" - two I have placed at a very fine equine retirement home (there are many bad ones out there as well) - I was having trouble taking care of 5 - and I have one retired horse here with me, as well as my two riding horses. Is it inconvenient - yes, sometimes. Is in expensive - absolutely. Is it the thing that I feel is right for me to do - without a doubt. Horses aren't machinery or equipment, to be used up and discarded, although a lot of parts of the horse industry are set up to run that way.

Susan said...

Every day I am grateful to have the acreage to let our Wild Bunch run free. We currently have three or four horses that would have been canners if we hadn't gotten them. A couple of mustangs we rescued went to good homes, but other than that we have kept our "useless" hay burners. They owe us nothing. Watching them run or catching sight of them up on a ridge brings us more joy than almost anything. Yea, we worry about money, but the thought of them coming to a bad end is worse. I am not opposed to horses being used for food, it's the way they're treated before they're killed that breaks my heart. I feel the same about the cattle industry.

If it was me, I'd try turning my old guy out with the rest. The horses will probably work it all out on their own. If he's unhappy, bring him home.

Laura Crum said...

Thanks, Kate and Susan--those were very inspiring comments. You're probably right, Susan, about turning Plumber out. And I'll probably get there in the end. It took me a year after I retired my good horse, Gunner, to be willing to turn him out. I guess I'm just overprotective.

As for cattle, I so agree. We raise our own beef now. The cattle live turned out in our pasture until they are five or six years old and are shot humanely by the ranch killer as they stand there grazing. They are not penned up or hauled anywhere. We eat grass fed beef from our own land--we know what's in our meat. Its delicious....and we give the steers a good life. Its win, win. I think horses could also be humanely slaughtered in just such a way and their meat used for a good purpose, instead of the abysmal situation that we have now.

However, my old horses won't be eaten...I'm hoping/planning to give them all the reirement they deserve.

Linda Benson said...

Laura - This is a thoughtful post, and I am dealing with this same issue. I have one old codger of a horse (still rideable) with arthritis and one older donkey recovering from laminitis. I have every intention of giving them a good home until they are no longer enjoying life, at which time I will humanely put them down.

But the hard reality of the situation is that it's difficult for many people to make that commitment, especially in these lean economic times. For those of us lucky enough to have land and pasture, the upkeep on a horse or two is not so bad. But many people board their horses, and this can make decisions like this difficult.

It's good to have this discussion, though. Horses are not like dogs and cats, which we usually (sadly) outlive. Horses have a long life span, and few of us have the means to keep one forever.

It's a difficult situation, certainly, but one that horse owners need to think about. I like your idea about re-homing a horse with a contract drawn up where you can take the horse back if the situation is not right.

Certainly food for thought. And I do agree. Horses give us so much. We owe them respect,and the reward of a good life.

Shanster said...

Nice post Laura - yes, there are many options out there. Re-homing, selling, retiring them.

In my opinion, if they've been with you for years and years and they are beginning to go south with age related issues, you do sorta owe them one. I just can't fathom turning my oldster to the sale barn. I'd euth him first!

I'm lucky enough to keep him at home along with 2 others for a little micro herd on 5 acres of pasture. I think that if something were to happen to me financially I'd be faced with harder decisions.

Maybe I'd find a nice cheap pasture someone would let me pay to keep him there - maybe not. I'm pretty sure a change would be awfully hard on him at this point. We all adapt to changes but none of us likes it much... animals included I think.

I hope I continue to stay blessed enough to provide for him until his end.

I've sold horses in the past without really any thought to where they would ultimately end up. I was younger then and not in a position to afford more than one at a time.

I'd have a harder time doing that now... but I'm also in a position that I don't have to. When times get hard, you do have to make harder decisions.

Laura Crum said...

Linda and Shanster, I agree with you that its not a simple issue. Especially for those who board. What if you can only afford the upkeep on one horse and your old horse is no longer ridable and you really want to ride? I can imagine how difficult it would be. Do you euthanize the old horse, even if he could have many happy retired years ahead of him? Try to find him a good home as a pasture pet (very hard to do) and be willing to take him back if this new home doesn't work out (but if you have acquired another horse to ride you won't be able to afford to take him back)? Its a tough one. I tried to present the many sides of it in my post, but I am interested to hear from others what they think about this situation.

Nikker said...

I just love your posts!
I have read a couple posts about this subject in the last week or so, all thoughtful and with good points. I think that we have become a bit of a throw away society on many levels...and just getting rid of an older horse because it doesn't fit our purposes anymore is just wrong. These animals didn't choose us, we chose them. They certainly didn't toss a saddle on their own backs and ask us to hop on. They do for the most part what is asked of them day in and day out (there are always exceptions to every rule of course)without fail. We do owe them a good life until their time comes. It can be argued back and forth about their level of "caring" for us, but we are part of their herd and important to them in our place in that herd...or so I believe. How we give them a good life in their golden years is different in each situation, but I really have a hard time with the thought of rehoming my "gray hairs"... Because like you said, its giving away control...the control to make sure they do live out their lives happy and comfortable. If mine get too expensive I'll eat mac and cheese, and then if it gets even worse...Top Romean is REALLY cheap! ( :

stilllearning said...

I've always been on a very tight budget. As a kid I earned my rides working at the local riding school. I was lucky enough to buy my own horse at age 30. Boarding out was my only option since we were raising a family in suburbia, and as the kids grew and costs rose (especially in the college years) I juggled income (more part-time work) and time to feed my horse habit.

I have always been an avid rider; my one horse needed to be a willing partner in my quest to keep progressing. I have also wanted the best for each and every horse I owned. I knew that I could not be the "forever home" for each horse, or I'd have to back off on the riding part. My solution was to find the best prospects I could at the racetrack (OTTBs are cheap), spend however many years it took to reschool it in whatever discipline best suited it (usually hunters) and do my best to place it in that forever home. I've been lucky in finding some great horses, and some great buyers. I felt satisfied that I gave them all the best chance I could.

Then...I found MY horse. You know, the one that I had to keep forever for no good reason except that I did. The one who got me through some tough times. The one I don't trust anyone else to take care of (he has some issues)...MY horse. But he was getting older, and really wasn't willing or able to keep up with my riding goals (now in dressage).

So...we found a tiny "farmette" with a tiny old house and barn that we could afford and moved my old guy home 7 years ago. Keeping him at home cut my costs in half, so I can manage to have a young horse, too. This is not the perfect place to keep horses, but we've managed to make it safe and comfortable for them with lots of hard work. (The house is still a work-in-progress.) My old guy is happy and healthy. My husband is a saint.

I feel very lucky to have found this solution. I can't guarantee the same for my young horse; I'll probably try and find another "forever home" for him eventually.

That's my tale, for what it's worth.

Laura Crum said...

Nikker--I loved your comment. The Top Ramen part made me grin. (I don't know if I'm willing to go quite that far.) I completely agree with your points.

And stilllearning--thanks for your tale. It makes sense to me. I always appreciate your insights. You once wondered if your younger horse had a "resistant" personality--how is that issue working out? Your solution of buying young horses cheap, training them and selling them in their prime to good homes is a great one...except when you find one you need to keep (that seems to happen to all of us eventually).

I think that rehoming a horse has a lot to do with individual circumstances. An owner who really can't afford the horse(s) she has will obviously have to find a home for one or more of them. The question I am studying on right now has to do with the ethics of rehoming a horse that we trained since it was young (perhaps creating issues that will always be with the horse) and have owned for a long time (creating a situation where the horse feels that he has a familiar, secure home and life). This horse has done much good work for us; we have valued him highly. Now, for whatever reason, he is no longer useful to us in achieving our goals as a horseman. Is it right to sell him? Especially if this horse is getting past his useful life as a riding horse. Unless we remain in control of this horse's fate, there is a very good chance he might end up at the killer's some day. More than that, isn't it our obligation to take care of this horse, as he has taken care of us? Shouldn't we be willing to make some sacrifices to do right by our old horses? Thus my question: what do we owe them?

stilllearning said...

Laura, you're right that my plan involved moving my horses to a new home while they were still useful--my goal was always to sell them before they were 10 years old. And I tried not to get totally attached (yeah, right) because I knew they'd have to be sold.

So, back to your question...what do we owe them? I guess I agree with you that we owe them a safe retirement and a dignified death. I actually was going to argue that it wasn't always possible, yada yada, but then realized just how far out on that financial limb we've gone to retire my guy in the way he deserves. I couldn't do it any other way.

Plan ahead. Make the commitment, either financially or by finding another good home for them. If you can't manage that--lease, rent, borrow...but don't own. And yes, in these hard times sometimes planning isn't enough and you have to come up with another solution. No one will ever say starve your family to feed your horse. But, yes, give up that vacation, or that new car, or that dinner owe it to your horse.

Laura, my horse is doing well. Our resistance issue is not totally gone, but very much improved. I still hit pockets of resistance, but we're managing to work thru them quickly and progress. Still don't know if he'll be a good dressage horse because of the total obedience required, but I feel sure there's a niche out there for him if/when I get tired of exploring how far I can take him. Thanks for asking.

Laura Crum said...

Thanks for the input, stillearning. I'm glad your horse is doing well. I find that the older I get the more I can see that there is a "right" niche for all sorts of horses. And I agree that we can't retire them all (well, most of us can't afford to retire all the horses we've ever owned) and that the trick is to plan ahead.

I'll give an example. I was partners on a very talented colt who had what we came to call an ADD personality. He could do it all but he frequently blew up and spazzed out when he was under pressure. We tried many riders but he wasn't going to be a good team roping horse for anybody, despite all his talent. He couldn't take the pressure. At the time I didn't need a trail horse, but this horse was/is gentle with kids and good on the trail. I gave him to an appropriate home and after this woman had kept him, ridden him and enjoyed him for two years, I aked her to make the committment to be his forever home. She's an honorable person and she agreed. I still check on the horse, but I trust this gal to keep her word. Thus I am hoping not to get landed with one more old horse (that I can't afford) when its this horse's turn to be retired. So, yeah, I'm trying to do a little planning here.

stilllearning said...

My remark about planning applies more to the one-at-a-time owner than to you, Laura. A trainer cannot take personal responsibility for every horse they work with--or they won't be a trainer very long.

You have done an amazing job in retiring so many horses, more than might be sensible. That's your call.

It's good that you raised the question here, to address the casual discarding of an older horse. Another question to raise might be "Am I the only one who can care for this horse?" (like on mugwump's recent discussion). Sometimes the "issues" our horse has that "only we can handle" are in fact things that can be handled just as well or better in a different situation. I do think that many horses prefer having a job over simply being pets. I sometimes wonder if my old guy would have been just as happy teaching someone else to ride for a few more years, and that it's my own ego saying that I needed to retire him when I did.

A friend's horse has been sold this week to what looks like a forever home, with a new owner who has the time, skill and enthusiasm to give him the attention he needs. My friend is sad that she couldn't keep him and fulfill the potential she saw in him (life interfered...) but is happy that he's found such a good new owner.

Guess there are no absolutes. You do the best you can.

Laura Crum said...

stillearning--I totally agree that there are no absolutes and we all just need to do the best we can. I'm not presuming (as I said in the post) to tell others what to do with their older horses. But, that said, lets say (hypothetically) that one has an older horse that has issues that were created by choices made by the owner. The owner sells this horse to what she considers to be a good home and loses track of it, or feels unable to take it back. Whether because of these same issues (or economic woes) the new owner needs to get rid of the horse (this happens a lot, as I've experienced when I rehomed some horses). The horse is sold to another home--not so perfect this time. The issues arise, the horse is sold again and eventually ends up at the saleyard and on a truck to Mexico. This is certainly not what the original owner intended--but it happens a bunch. It may have happened to some horses that I once owned and thought I loved. It really bothers me. Thus my post.

Yes, horse trainers can't keep them all or get too attached to them, or they'd be out of business. But when its our own horse, who has worked his butt off for us and (sometimes) has problems as a result, what do we owe this horse? My suggestion would be that we owe this horse (at the very least) keeping track of it and making sure it doesn't end up in a bad place, even if we have to make some personal sacrifices to do so. Its very true that others can possibly deal with a horse's issues as well as we can, but are they as motivated to make sure this horse has a good life and a dignified death as we might be? Sometimes they can be, sure. But it might be pretty easy for someone to say, as I did of Jackson, "I didn't make your problems and I'm tired of dealing with them. I'm passing you on." Or, worst case scenario, the horse's problems get someone (either new owner or horse) badly hurt. (This also happens a lot with a new partnership--I've seen it many times and I'm sure you have too.) So these are the reasons I think that we all need to consider long and hard when we rehome a horse that is older and whose issues are the result of our training and choices.