Saturday, September 11, 2010


by Laura Crum

The topic of this post is one that has been on my mind for a couple of months or more. I pondered it in odd moments throughout my vacation, without coming to any conclusion. Now that I’m home I still don’t have a clue what is best to do, or not do. So I thought I’d put it out there and see what insights folks could offer.

As most of you know, I own a horse named Gunner. I bought Gunner as a three year old with thirty days on him, trained him to be a cowhorse, showed him at the Snaffle Bit Futurity, and then went on to show him as a cutting horse until he was eight, and campaign him as a team roping horse from nine through thirteen. I did every bit of training on Gunner myself, and you can imagine what a willing, talented horse this son of Mr Gunsmoke was and is, when you consider that I taught Gunner these three events while I was just learning them myself. Despite this I have several buckles and headstalls that Gunner and I won together. He truly was/is a great horse.

When I created my mystery series featuring equine veterinarian Gail McCarthy, I gave her Gunner for a mount, faithfully describing my much loved bay gelding in the stories. So those of you who have read my books know Gunner pretty well.

I retired Gunner from competition when he was fourteen, due to various arthritic complaints, and used him for light riding for a few years before I retired him to the pasture. For many years he spent the grass season in my sixty acre pasture in the Sierra foothills and spent the dry season here in my largest corral, with his companion, Danny. This worked well until Gunner was in his late twenties, when it began to be hard to keep weight on him.

So, a couple of years ago I put my too-thin old horse in a five acre field ten minutes from my house and put Danny in with the small herd of retired/crippled/rescued horses that live in the twenty acre field next door. The owner of this setup is a friend and I have been keeping horses there for many years. I put Gunner into the same field where my previous old horse, Burt, had lived into his late thirties.

Now that he was by himself Gunner could eat just the diet he needed (including lots of equine senior delight) and he quickly started to bloom again. Today he is fat and glossy and bucks and plays (a bit creakily, but with gusto) when I show up to feed him. He grazes his pasture well and his teeth are fine. He looks very good for a horse that turned thirty this year.

The problem? When its not feeding time and my little boy and I drive out to visit with our favorite old horse, it seems to both of us that Gunner looks sad. Sad, lonely, bored? I don’t know. He doesn’t seem much interested in us or being with us, which isn’t like him. He can see the other horses and visit with them over the fence and he doesn’t seem to be pining for them. Often he is out in the middle of his field, all alone. Sometimes grazing, sometimes not. I can’t tell if I am projecting my feelings onto him or not when I say he looks morose.

I have thought and thought about this. I can’t really put another horse in with him. He needs to be fed a specific diet or he won’t thrive. I could bring him home and put him in a corral (if I had a corral to spare), and he might get a little more attention, but he wouldn’t be able to wander about grazing as he does now. And realistically, I don’t have much more time to give him than I give him already.

When I add it up, I am giving this horse the best life I can think of for an old horse. He is getting a diet that keeps him slick and in good flesh. He is servicably sound (for an old horse) and trots stiffly but with no bob. He isn’t hurting. He can visit with companions. He can graze whenever he wants and has lots of room to move around. If he were my only horse I could give him more attention, but he isn’t. I have my son’s and my riding horses, Henry and Sunny, and my just retired from team roping horse, Plumber, who take a great deal of my time and attention. I wish I could spend an hour a day fussing with Gunner, but the truth is that I haven’t got that time.

Does this mean I have too many horses? Maybe. After a lifetime with horses I have a few retirees. But if I want to keep them and also still ride, then I need to have more horses than one. So, I’m juggling all these balls, trying to do right by all of them. And it still bugs me that Gunner seems sad.

I don’t know if its just the way old age is feeling to him or what? My horse, Burt, who lived to his late thirties, remained bright-eyed and perky, living in the same field under the same conditions. Gunner, however, is quite perky at feeding time, but seems to have lost his bright-eyed, curious demeanor otherwise. He doesn’t have any obvious problems—just watch him lope in, bucking in a geriatric way, at feeding time, and its clear enough that his health is good. He is slick, shiny, not a rib shows. I can’t figure out why I’m getting this feeling from him.

I have no idea what the solution to this problem, if it is a problem, might be. Maybe I need to let go of the idea that the horse needs to look the way I think he ought to look. Maybe its just my ego that wants him to seem interested in me. But I thought it was worth putting the story out there and asking for your thoughts. Many of you have been through this with older horses and probably have some good ideas and insights. I’d welcome hearing them.


Mrs. Mom said...

Laura, all you can do is listen to Gunner. He'll tell you what you need to do.

Best wishes to you guys. This is a hard decision, and never easy for any of us.

Laura Crum said...

Mrs Mom--I know you have a lot of wisdom, and I am trying to listen to Gunner and I'm not getting very far. If I only visit at feeding time, I think everything is great, but if I come later in the day I get another message. Gunner is very healthy, and a ways from the put down or not decision. I'm trying to work out whether his quality of life is good enough or if I need to try harder. And if so, what should I do ? I'm so confused.

BB said...

Is there any other horse that can roam with him. I truly believe he lacks companionship. If you think he's sad, then he's sad. No one knows a horse better than his owner/keeper. If not a horse a goat? something? Try it and see if he perks up at all. We were taking care of 4 horses on a plantation in Charleston and it was 2 and 2. Two Morgans and they stuck together. The other two was a walker and a quarter. We lost the quarter to colic and the walker was isolated and sad. Unfortunately we moved away so I don't know how is was doing but my guess is he isn't around. Go with your gut and see if you can keep it company with a goat or even a dog? Worth a try.

Unknown said...

I don't have much experience with old guys, but being alone is tough. Still it may be something not as apparent.

One old guy at our place really went down hill and was very depressed - even though he was turned out with others. He'd stand away from everyone, gazing off into the distance, barely swatting at flies. As it turned out it was pain. He had a sinus cavity tumor and was actually hurting. But he was so stoic the depression was the only sign.

You could try toys in his paddock, a buddy, anything to see if it would help.

Funder said...

No experience with really old horses, but how about another creaky old companion? If you had TWO in a paddock who both need free-choice Equine Senior, maybe there wouldn't be a feeding problem. Any friends with oldies?

You and Gunner always make me smile. Whatever you decide to do, you're an inspiration to the rest of us.

Anonymous said...

My Noble got a bit distant and sad towards the end - maybe it's just a natural development of old age. If he's eating well and showing no obvious signs of pain - some horses are pretty good at concealing it - I wouldn't be too worried. He'll probably tell you if he needs you to change something.

All we can do is the best we can do - and it sounds to me like you're doing well by him.

Alison said...

hi Laura, love your post about aging. The 'maybe Gunner needs a friend' idea is good, but maybe not. Both my parents as they have grown older have withdrawn. They live in senior housing and carefully pick what they do and do not want to do with 'others.' Now my mom's favorite thing is tennis on TV--she is so into it--and knitting. She likes her family but in small doses. When my father was in his last months (at a nursing home)too much attention exhausted him. One day I brought my Chihuahua in to see him. He tolerated Fang's lovin' for about five minutes and that was enough. When I asked him if he wanted Fang to visit again, he very clearly said, "no."
All you can do is keep loving Gunner and caring for him as you are--and perhaps let him keep deciding how much love he needs.

Laura Crum said...

Thanks all, for your comments. I have definitely thought long and hard about putting a companion in the field with Gunner--and I have tried twice to put another of the "retirees" in with him. First was ET, who is also thirty and needs equine senior delight. Unfortunately, Gunner was dominant and ate way more than his share of the chow and he got very fat and ET got too thin, so I had to separate them. Then I tried Gray Dog, who was a little lean and I thought would benefit from the senior feed. For awhile all was well, but Gray Dog ended up being rather agressively dominant, and I couldn't stand watching how creaky old Gunner had to scramble to get out of the way. Gray Dog got fatter and Gunner got scared of him and I had to separate them before Gunner got hurt.

For awhile being alone seemed to benefit Gunner. He wasn't scared any more and began to buck and play and look confident in himself. To this day, Wally, who helps me care for the retirees, thinks Gunner is better off now that no horse is bossing him around. And, of course, he can see and visit with other horses over the fence, so he's not really alone.

I have really thought about a pony/goat (and after reading Linda's post, a donkey), but there is a compelling reason for me not to do this. I have eleven horses in my care, and I am maxed out on what I can do. I can't take responsibilty for another critter. We all know how it goes. They get sick or hurt or old and the vet bills can be very high. Not to mention feed and routine care. I am able to do what I do because my friend Wally boards his horses with me and his board bill pays for my feed. But Wally is 77 and has soundness issues of his own and we both wonder how I'm going to cope when Wally can no longer ride and perhaps can't afford to board horses here, let alone help me with the chores. So, realistically, even a goat or donkey is a responsibility I can't shoulder. I admit, I'm tempted, though.

Funder said...

Yknow, after I posted I thought I remembered that you'd tried companions for him. Woops. :)

I wouldn't recommend a goat or small equine, even if you could - a pony or donkey would probably get super fat on ES, and I'd worry that it'd do something terrible over the long run to a goat. They're ruminants, and I don't know enough about them, but I do know grain can cause problems.

Maybe he just has to live alone now. Like Mrs Mom and Kate said, you'll know if he needs you to change something.

Laura Crum said...

And thanks, Alison and Kate, for your insights on old age. I've been meditating on this quite a bit and am somewhat getting the insight you both suggest. Maybe Gunner is detaching a little as his life comes to its end. It is helpful for me to hear your thoughts on this. What makes it harder for me is my last old horse, Burt, was so bright eyed and perky right up to the end--in his late thirties. So I keep comparing Gunner to him. But, of course, they are very different individuals.

Laura Crum said...

Funder--that is a super good point. The only thing that would really work is a horse that needs senior feed just like Gunner does. I have one more candidate--the old OTTB mare that belongs to the pasture owner. She would benefit from the feed, she's not agressive, and they would probably fall in love. The problem is that she's currently in with three other geldings in the bigger pasture next door and everybody is very settled and content. If I move the mare there is going to be huge consternation for awhile, and the fences aren't so great and the mare doesn't belong to me and aargh... Well, you see my problem. It is tempting to leave this very settled, quiet, mostly quite good situation as is--I just agonize over whether I'm doing the best I can for Gunner.

Enjay said...

If you think he'd benefit from some extra attention, and he has the nature for it, have you thought about contacting your local 4-H of FFA chapter to see if they have a student who might like to take him on as a project. Back in the 80's and early 90's I had a friend who used her grandfathers' retired grey Percheron pulling horse for a management program and she wasn't required to show him, but she did have to go take care of him regularly and keep well documented records of his care and management. He had been turned out for at least 5 years with his teammate but the other gelding had passed away a year or so prior and Jack had been declining. He perked up quite a bit under her ministrations. I went with her a few times to take pictures for her records, it was so cute to see him arch his neck and do a creaky old prance around the field after he had a good fussing over.

Laura Crum said...

Enjay--That is an appealing idea, and yep, I have thought about trying to get someone (kid or whoever) interested in spending time with Gunner. I just don't dare because he is not on my place and I'm afraid the pasture owner might not like it, not to mention I would just worry too much if I weren't supervising the interaction. Even gentle thirty year old horses can hurt someone by accident. My son and I get out there to fuss with him when we can, but he honestly doesn't seem too interested in us, other than at feeding time, of course, when he is very excited. Its one of the things that puzzles me, because Gunner used to be very interested in "fussing" with me and my kid. But lately he seems rather indifferent to it.

joycemocha said...

What kind of shape is his vision and hearing in? Since he's withdrawing, I'd figure it's either age or else perhaps he's starting to gradually lose sight and hearing. Considering he used to be interested in you and your son visiting him and paying attention to him, my guess is that it's not a lack of company that's the issue. If it were, you'd still see that reaction.

Enjay said...

Hmmm...I have a feeling that this is probably a non-specific cumulative type thing. It might be a good idea to shuffle things around so he can be on your property for a week or two of close observation and fussing. If your ring is sturdy I'd consider putting him in there for even just a few days, just the change of scenery might perk him up.

Laura Crum said...

joycemocha--You are exactly right about the hearing/vision loss. It has been apparent to me for quite awhile that Gunner does not hear or see as well as he used to. Since this has been true of every horse I've owned that lived into his thirties, I have not been overly concerned by it. ET, the thirty year old horse who lives in the field next door to Gunner, is considerably worse off in this respect. It is, however, one of the reasons that I am reluctant to change ANYTHING in these horses' enviroment. I have found it is much harder on these guys to adjust to any sort of change due to the vision/hearing issues. When I visit with Gunner I am very careful to be sure he is aware of me before I touch him. Nonetheless, both he and ET are quite adept at spotting my pickup as I drive in to feed, so they're still reasonably sharp.

Enjay--I have thought a lot about bringing him home for awhile. The above is one reason I haven't, lack of space is another, and, finally, I do believe that what I'm seeing is, as you say, the cumulative results of old age and I'm not sure what I could do that would be helpful. Also, the last time I hauled him it was clearly a stress for him.

I may yet bring him home, or try putting the pasture owner's mare in with him. Those are both possible. At the moment, I'm still "agonizing", and all input is helpful. (Well, agonizing is an exageration. Gunner's life is reasonably good--I just want to do the best I can for him.)

Martha Seaman McKee said...

You know him best, but Alison might be on the right track. I have had old dogs that wouldn't leave my side, and others that wanted to be by themselves more as they aged. One old Norwich wanted to sit outside and stare off into space for hours at a time. But she loved her food and was healthy otherwise. It saddened me to see her alone, but that is what she preferred. I imagined that she was thinking back over her life - and Gunner as well.

Martha Seaman McKee said...

You know him best, but Alison may be on to something. I had an old Norwich that preferred sitting by herself outside. It made me sad to see her alone, but that is what she preferred. I imagined she was thinking back over her life - maybe Gunner is, as well.

Laura Crum said...

Martha--Yes, that thought has come to me a lot, and you, Alison, and Kate confirm it. Some old critters (human and otherwise) seem to need to be alone and detach and ruminate as their life nears an end. If so, then Gunner is actually in the best possible place as he has a pasture to roam and be relaxed in, and yet can see other horses--but they can't bug him. Certainly a man I knew who was diagnosed with very advanced cancer refused to see anyone but his wife in his last month of life, to the dismay of all his friends who wished to be "supportive". But this guy needed the space to reflect and detach--and insisted on it. So everyone is different.