by Laura Crum
I’ve written on this blog before about my collection of retired/rescued horses that I keep in a pasture near my home. Among these horses is thirty year old ET—a horse I rescued when he was seventeen and had become a “trading horse” who was headed for nowhere good. I bought ET partly because he was sweet horse who needed a friend and partly because he was so unusual. He wasn’t named ET for nothing. You never saw an odder looking horse. His resemblance to the extra-terrestrial of the old movie is striking.
ET is a registered QH with a good pedigree—he’s by a son of Two Eyed Jack and out of a Blondy’s Dude mare. ET himself is about 14.3 and despite being a team roping heel horse all his life until he was twenty is still perfectly sound today. So his confirmation, if odd, was/is certainly functional. More than that, ET was a very good team roping heel horse, winning many dollars and awards for many tough young cowboys. But nobody ever kept him, nobody ever got attached to him (except me). Why? Again, he is the oddest looking duck you ever saw—I would guess that’s the reason.
ET looks like a cross between a giraffe and a dachshund. He has a long, thin, neck, and holds his head very high—not just when ridden—its his natural head carriage. He also has a very, very long back—the top half of him somewhat resembles a sixteen hand TB. Underneath this are his very short—but well made—legs. Add to this that the horse is missing one eye (said to have been lost in an accident—he looked like this the first time I ever saw him), and is slightly Roman-nosed, and you have one odd looking critter.
ET has always been a hard keeper—he’s a long, skinny snake of a horse by nature. When I first took him on, I gave him to a friend who roped and had little kids. The friend roped on ET and his kids rode the horse. Everybody was happy. The guy kept ET turned out in a large pasture—it seemed ideal. But about the time ET turned twenty this friend returned the horse to me.
“He’s getting too old to rope on,” he said, “and it costs too much to feed him.”
ET couldn’t get by on the pasture any more. And my friend said the horse was stumbling a lot. We wondered if he was losing vision in his one good eye, or just had cordination problems due to getting older.
I took ET home and gave him to a woman whose horses were all really fat. She kept them in little pens and fed the heck out of them. She didn’t ride, but she got the horses out every day and hand grazed them, led her kids around on them…etc. She always kept two horses and she had just lost her mare to colic. ET seemed like the perfect choice.
“You can’t make him too fat,” I said. “Go ahead and feed him all you want.” I told her the horse should be fine for leadline work at the walk, but advised against riding him any faster, because of the tripping issue.
Again, at first all was well. ET was plumb gentle. The woman’s kids loved him. When I went to see him not a rib showed. She took good care of him. We were all happy. I checked on the horse regularly for awhile and then I began to trust that it was a good situation and ET had found his forever home. This was a mistake.
ET stayed there about five years. I took to calling once in awhile to see how things were going, rather than visiting. Another mistake. One day I called and she said she was having trouble keeping weight on him. She fed him all the hay he would eat and some grain. I told her to start him on equine senior delight—this is not the equine senior most people mean, but a feed that is produced by a small mill around here. It had done wonders for my old horse, Burt, who lived into his late thirties. Well, this gal said she would do it. I trusted her. Mistake number three.
About six months later, the friend who had first taken ET came to visit. His kids, teenagers now, wanted to see the old horse. So we went by. What an eyeopener. ET was thin—way too thin. He looked as though he hadn’t been out of his small (and muddy) pen for a long time. I asked the gal what was going on. Wasn’t she feeding the feed I recommended?
Turns out she’d lost her job, had no money, her kids were older and uninterested and she had a new boyfriend who was taking all her attention. She had discontinued feeding ET the senior feed because it was “too expensive”. I picked the horse up the next day.
So now I had this very skinny twenty-five year old horse. I put him in a pen, wormed him, and fed him free choice equine senior delight. Three months later he looked fine, and I turned him out with my herd of retired horses, who were all fat on lush pasture. ET was in heaven. You never saw a happier brighter-eyed old horse. But it didn’t last.
By mid-summer the other horses were still fat and ET was too thin. I took him out of the pasture, and put him in a small field next door and kept him on free choice equine senior delight. It worked. ET rebounded, and was once again slick and shiny. But he moped, missing his friends. So I gave him my old horse, Gunner, for company.
Gunner and ET are the exact same age—they’re both 1980 foals. And Gunner, too, could no longer get by on pasture. I figured I’d feed them both equine senior delight and they’d be happy. Expensive, but workable.
For awhile it worked. ET was dominant, so he ate what he wanted. But Gunner was a chowhound. He cleaned up whatever equine senior there was left and when ET returned to eat more it was all gone. Gunner got fatter and fatter and ET, predictably, got thin again.
I had one small field left. I moved ET there. He could see Gunner and the other pasture horses. He had three acres of lush green grass. He got free choice equine senior delight all day long. Once again he rebounded and began to thrive.
OK, I thought, this is how he has to live. He still gazed longingly over the fence at his buddies, but overall he seemed reasonably content. And this situation has worked for some years. ET turned thirty this spring, and I was pretty happy with how he looked. For the hardest keeping horse I have ever known, at thirty years old, he looked pretty darn good. But…
A month or so ago, ET started to lose weight again. Nothing had changed in his situation, he still ate about the same amount of feed, but he was failing. I wormed him, and upped his equine senior delight, but it didn’t help. And he began to behave aberrantly. He had always been gentle, but now he began to shove over the top of me when I came to feed and spook away violently when I tried to blanket him. I couldn’t/can’t be sure if he has lost most of the vision in his one eye—and/or his hearing-- or if he is getting a form of “senile dementia”. My old horse, Burt, lost a lot of his vision and hearing near the end of his life, and sometimes seemed a bit dazed and confused. I never knew exactly why, I just took it for granted. Old people get like this, too.
But now I am faced with a hard choice. How far do I let this go? I am not going to invest money in diagnostic work, treatments..etc. This may sound harsh, but the horse is thirty years old. I have done my best to give him the retirement he deserved. But I have ten other horses to care for, let alone my family and other critters. I’ve been down this road before. Realistically, if ET can’t live a decent life with the conditions I’m providing, its time to let him go. It is not a time for pouring a bunch more money into him, or putting him through any stressful procedures. I am not hauling this old horse anywhere, ever again. When it is his time to go, I will have him euthanized in the field where he is now living.
What I struggle with in these situations, is where to draw the line. Usually I feel the horse himself will let you know, and I am waiting to get the message from ET. And yet, I don’t want to wait until he is suffering. Yesterday, when I tried to put a horse blanket on him (which I have done many, many times) and the old guy freaked out and almost ran through a fence, I began to think maybe the time has come. I remember another horse blogger, I’m not sure who, that had an old mare with similar problems, and I remember that she eventually chose to put her down, partly because she was becoming a danger to people. I think we may be getting there with ET.
Anyway, if any of you would care to chime in with your advice on how/where you drew the line in a similar situation, it would help me to hear your stories/insights. Thanks--Laura