Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Perfectly Useless Horses

by Laura Crum

This post has been in my mind a long time. Because I occasionally read other blogs (when I have time) and some, particularly Joe’s TBFriends blog, are about rescuing horses. I read this blog and I think, I wish I could take on another horse. I wish I could help Joe in this noble work. And I do believe it is a noble work. But I always add things up and realize I can’t. I don’t have room or time for another horse, let alone I can’t afford the cost. I still feel sad about it. There are so many horses that need help.

I said as much to a cowboy friend the other day, and he looked at me like I was nuts. “Laura,” he said, “you already take care of seven useless horses. What more are you supposed to do?”

Well, I thought about that. I do take care of seven retired/rescued horses. Three were rescued from others for one reason or another, four are horses I rode that were retired due to age or injury. Some of them have been in this group of pasture horses for over twenty years.

My friend said, “How many people do you know that have taken care of a perfectly useless horse for over twenty years?”

That really made me think. I know there must be plenty of others in the world who have done and are doing this. There are people who write for this blog and who write in the comments that I know are taking good care of their retired/rescued horses. But I also know that there are so many so-called “rescues” that come and go, after taking on more horses than they can care for, frequently leaving a legacy of dozens of half starved horses that yet another rescue has to take on.

I thought about what it really means to retire a horse—and believe me, I know. Years and years (sometimes over twenty years) of usually escalating cost, as the horse needs senior feed and more vet care as he gets into his late twenties and thirties. And if you are a responsible horseman, you make sure the horse has pasture or adequate turnout time—it is not doing any horse a favor to keep him in a small pen the rest of his life when he can no longer be ridden. And then, there are the final months/years when you agonize over whether his quality of life is good enough, as he grows more stiff and sore or has health problems. Finally you make the call and with much sorrow, end his life as peacefully as possible, paying quite a bit for this privilige. This, all this, is a huge investment in time and money and emotional energy.

So today I want to send out a huge thank you, not to those who rescue horses, even though I totally admire the good horse rescues out there, but to each and every one who does retire their riding horses when they become too lame or old to use. Thank you so much for your kindness and love. If every horse owner were like you, no one would need to rescue horses. All horses would have a good life.

And I want to make a plea. Please, even if you, like me, can’t afford to take on a rescue horse right now, make a plan to retire the good horses you have when their riding days are done. Selling them to a “good home” does not cut it. Not unless you remain responsible for them and keep checking on them and are willing to take them back if needed. I can tell you dozens of stories of older horses who were sold to a “good home” and ended up going down the road…to an eventual fate we all can guess.

Yes, sometimes older horses do get a good home. Henry got one with me at nineteen years of age. Sunny, too. Because I am going to retire my two good little trail horses when their using days are done, even though I bought both of them as teenage horses. But sad to say, I’m afraid this is the exception not the rule.

So this is the point of today’s post. A huge thank you to all the unsung heroes of the horse world who do retire their horses when they are no longer able to do a useful job, and a plea that more people consider this. I truly believe you will be earning much good karma, if that matters to you. I know it isn’t always easy or convenient. But it’s the right thing to do. Keep your good horses and retire them when their working life is done!

And if you keep a few “perfectly useless horses,” to quote my friend, and have done so for years, I'd love it if you'd write and tell me. I know that quite a few of you do this—it cheers me up to realize I’m not alone. I’m sure we can all share stories both about how expensive and time consuming this can be—and the smile it brings to your face to see your old horse looking and feeling good on green grass. I think, of all the fun things I have done with horses, this may be my favorite. The joy of knowing that my old friends are having a good life—after all the gifts they gave me—well, its hard to describe how rewarding it is. Perhaps some of you can do a better job than I can. Any old horse stories to share?


Anonymous said...

It is a burden to have "forever horses", both in terms of money and in terms of emotional commitment. But it's also very satisfying and is what they deserve, and I don't think of them as "useless" - they're just being horses. I also think it's important to be able to recognize that a horse needs to be retired permanently - sometimes it's hard to accept with a younger horse (like my Maisie, who is 13). And as you point out, "out of sight and out of mind" doesn't cut it when an older horse is sent to a new home.

Laura Crum said...

Kate--I don't think of my retirees as "useless" either, but the phrase made me giggle when my friend said it, and I thought it would make a good title. And, of course, from this guys point of view, that's what they are. A horse you can't use.

I know what you mean about it being hard to accept when the horse is younger. Two of my pasture herd had to be retired in their prime due to lameness issues--one at 7, one at 9. It is really hard when that happens--not to mention I have taken care of Rebby (the one who was retired at nine) for twenty years now--its a long haul.

I know you just retired Maisie and have two others retired at a lovely farm. I've seen the photos you post. People like you are my heroes.

Shanster said...

I disagree with "useless".. grin. I know, I know. Many would think since you can't ride them... they are.

Brandon, the 33 yr oldster, at our house still does his job. (and with much chagrin will pose quietly for Christmas pix..)

He keeps the younger, hotter horses calm. When Rosso spooks, he generally shadows old reliable Brandon and looks to him for guidance. Brandon is still top dog in our tiny "herd" so he keeps those young'uns in line, never letting them get too full of themselves.

He's taught me about senior care, feeding horses who can't eat hay, cushings, ringbone, arthritis, pain management... maybe not fun lessons to learn but it all gets stored in my brain under the horse files and adds to the experience of being a horse person.

horsegenes said...

First off I want to know if you tear up every day that you read Joe's TBFriends? It usually isn't because I feel bad about the horses, it is usually because reading it renews my faith in the human race. I know about the asshats out there that throw their horses away but what you don't hear about enough is the wonderful youth we have in this great country. O.K. enough of that before I start bawling.

I have 4 old broodmares that we call the Twisted Sisters. The are absolutely worthless as saddle horses but they look pretty out in the pasture grazing. They all have done jobs, have had babies and are now retired. Sometimes when I have a young unruly baby I throw him out with the old girls and boy do they straighten them out! So they still have some purpose. But for the most part they just eat and poop. They have a standing bi-monthly appointment with the farrier, bi-yearly with the vet and that is the extent of their existance. I am guilty of not grooming them much. Once in a while I will go out and take all the knots out of their manes and tails and in the spring I go out and help with the shedding out. They live at the family ranch on 5 acres of permenant pasture. My husband stops everyday and feeds them hay and pellets. They have a dry place to eat and get out of the rain, wind or cold. My mother in law loves watching them graze - she says it is very relaxing. I wrote about rescuing "Miss Patricia Tee" on my blog. She is one of the twisted sisters now. She is my only actual rescue. I think that she might have had a small stroke a few months ago. She feel down and ended up with a couple of large hematomas but has bounced back and seems to be doing fine now. She is the oldest at 27. I know that their will come a day when I have some tough decisions to make but for right now they all seem to be fat, dumb, and happy.

Laura Crum said...

Shanster--I was thinking of you and Brandon--and Kate--and others, when I wrote the post. I loved the Xmas photo on your blog. And yeah, old horses do teach us a lot. I agree.

Yesterday I took the blanket off 30 year old Gunner and watched him roll in the warm sunshine, on the green grass, and just thought how lucky I am still to have him. I bought him as a three year old with 30 days on him. He's been my friend a long time.

And not too many years ago I stared across the pasture at three happy, slick, bay horses, one of which was Gunner, and thought how lucky I was that the three "main" riding horses of my life--the horses I ranched on, and competed on at cowhorse, cutting and roping, and rode through the mountains--were all here with me, happy, grazing, enjoying their old age. Burt and Flanigan are dead now, but I have great peace in knowing that I gave them this gift.

Laura Crum said...

kel--You were another one I thought about when I wrote the post. I knew you had a herd of retired mares. I keep my retirees much the same as you keep yours. They have pasture and are looked at/fed once a day--sometimes by me, sometimes by my boarder/friend Wally. I blanket Gunner when its rainy and cold because he is a lily and he shivvers. The others don't seem to need it.

My horse Burt lived to his late thirties and had a couple of small strokes where he went down, but then recovered. He eventually went down one morning, we couldn't get him up, and he began twitching and seemed to be in a coma--the vet said it was a big stroke and I had him put down. Actually, it was a not-bad end, because he had been trotting about in the sunshine that morning, and from when he went down until I had him euthanized was only about an hour. And it was a clear cut decision--easier than some.

Joe's blog gets to me. I always want to rescue another horse. Have to stop myself from calling him every time.

horsegenes said...

Laura - I swear if I every win the lottery, the first big fat donation that I will make will be to Joe. That man is a saint and there is a special place in heaven for him. He is only about 50 miles from me, but I am scared to death to go there for fear that I will come home with a horse or maybe not come home at all.

One of my fears with Patricia Tee is that she will go down at night and lay there and suffer in the cold, wet grass. She has had a rough life and isn't wintering as well as she did last year. Her weight is good but she just seems very lethargic and doesn't really have any energy. The light in her eyes isn't there. You know what I mean? I have been kind of wrestling with what do to. I don't want her to go down and suffer, but I don't want to take her before her time either. URGH.

Laura Crum said...

kel--I know just what you mean. I am sort of in the same position with ET--my other 30 yr old horse. His weight is still good and he seems content enough right now, but he is awfully spacy and doesn't seem to hear or see too well. I go through periods where I think he's failing and I should end it, and then he perks up and (like now) seems stable and OK. We have gone through this at least half a dozen times with him. So at this point I tend to wait until the horse tells me something clearly.

On the other hand, I, too, feared that Burt would go down and lie in the cold grass all night. I will be forever grateful that he had his big stroke on a warm sunny morning, just as I was driving out to feed. The neighbor saw him trotting around and saw him go down and I was there five minutes later. That was a real gift.

Sometimes there's no easy answers. Pistol, another one of our old guys, grew lamer and lamer and began to have chonic abcesses in his "good" leg--we just had to draw a line. Its hard.

dazey said...

Thanks for this very sensitive and compassionate post and comments. In 1987 after moving to the country I was finally able to have horses! I've had seven horses, and they were all forever horses. Two lived well into their 30's, but I never had any thoughts of sending them to another home. This is home.

I've enjoyed trail riding with each of these horses, even the one that was born here with birth defects, including abnormal eyes. My horse on which I learned to compete in judged obstacle trail rides lived to be 21 and taught me about how to take care of a horse with heaves, ringbone, and Cushings. He and my young mare were the reasons for my writing Basic Training for a Safe Trail Horse, so it was a heart-wrenching decision to put him down last winter.

My mare with the defects is 17 and retired and is now the only companion for my young mare. She has been extremely difficult to care for. Besides being unable to see normally, which contributes to her antagonistic personality, she's very prone to founder and cannot eat field hay. She has been called "useless" by many people, but I see her as necessary for the well-being of my young mare now that there are no other horses here. She and I have been through so much together to keep her going that I feel a strange bond with her like a two-way loving understanding.

If anyone is interested check-out some You Tube videos of my young mare by putting "granny with a trail horse" in the search box!

Laura Crum said...

dazey--it sounds like you are providing a good home for your lucky horses. I applaud you. And it also sounds like you have fun on the trails. It is good to be able to do both, and I am very grateful that I have been able to both keep my retired horses and still have a couple of "using" horses.

Gabriella Elise said...

I have two "perfectly useless horses" at two separate barns. The first is Tarzan - he was a perfectly useful riding horse for a few years off and on, but then went dreadfully lame (beyond use) a few months ago. He's been a pasture horse ever since, and otherwise nothing has changed. He's still the spunky 9 yr old he's always been.

The second is Lucy, somewhat of a 'rescue' horse. She was a boarder who was abandoned in ragged, thin, filthy condition at one of my barns. Her feet were overgrown to the point that we were all shocked she could stand. We helped her recuperate and eventually she was sound enough to ride. We had a good month 1/2 or two months of riding progress, but then one day she came up extremely lame. She was on stall rest for a month and a half, and we had no idea what was going on. Four different vets and two farriers looked at her, and couldn't figure out what was wrong. Some suspected navicular, some thought founder, or a number of other problems. When she was semi-sound (sound enough that she wasn't in extreme pain), we started her on a couple supplements and regular hoof treatments. Today, she's a regular 9 yr old pasture horse that gets extra hoof attention.

I love my perfectly useless, 9 yr old horses.

Joy said...

I love Joe and Cathy at TB Friends. I too will give a HUGE donation when (not if) I win the lotto.

My "useless" horse was my TB mare. God I miss her still. And I guess some would say my gelding is useless. But he still rides great, even with his special "gait". He's mine til death.

I feel the same way about my cat and dog. And did about my previous dog.

How the heck do people just give 'em away?? I could no more do that than cut off my own arm by myself. No way.

Lovely post Laura. Thank YOU for being such a great horse owner. Love your updates/blogs.

Fantastyk Voyager said...

I'm kind of at that point with my horses. I've got a 27 year old that gets light riding- heck, they all get light riding, and two teenagers-17 and 15. I've had all three for a dozen and a half years and I just say, "Who would take them now and how could I separate them? They're family!" They're all sound and rideable and I love them dearly but to some of my family members, they're perfectly useles horses and I'd be better off without them. Moneywise I would, but otherwise??

Unknown said...

@Laura - Your post was forwarded by a board member and it couldn't have been more timely. My "job" is working with unwanted, neglected, abused, and abandoned horses, all "perfectly useless" to someone else, but more valuable than gold to us. These horses - old, middle-aged, young, trained, green, whatever - have so much to teach us! Your post was very well-written and right on target. May I have your permission to reprint your comments on our website?
Jenny from Hope For Horses (

Laura Crum said...

Jenny--It is totally fine for any of you to reprint this post. I would appreciate it if you would credit me as the author and mention that it was first posted on the equestrianink blogspot. And many good wishes to you in your work to help horses.

Voyager--My horses are family to me, too. I know just what you mean. I absolutely could not sell them.

Joy--I always enjoy hearing from you. I hope you and Willie are both doing well. And yes, Joe is one of my heroes. I have donated to his rescue before and will again, but times are pretty tough right now financially--just like for so many of us. I am grateful to be able to take good care of the horses I have and need to be responsible and not overcommit myself.

Munci--Sounds like you are doing A very kind and responsible thing with your two horses. Good wishes to you.

kippen64 said...

My Thoroughbred Hank is retired due to a dodgy knee and his enthusiasm when ridden. It's good fun but too much stress on his clicking knee to even consider. He's sixteen and I am hoping that he will be around to delight for many years to come. Bought him from a home where he nearly starved to death, promised him and his former owner that he has a home for life, and he does. He's at a retirement facility and has been since May of last year.

Laura Crum said...

kippen64--Sounds like Hank got very lucky when he got you for an owner. Here's to all the good horse owners out there!

Anonymous said...

I'm currently horseless, but I owned my last horse for thirty-two and a half years! He was two when I got him, thirty-four and a half when he died. I always knew I would keep him all his life, he was my friend, he taught my kids to ride, he knew what I was thinking! How could I ever have sent him away?

I was lucky in that his health was good (except for Cushing's disease and no teeth to speak of) and he was perfectly sound right up until the day he died, though I'd stopped riding him a couple of years before (light riding only, of course) because his vision got so bad that he wasn't safe. Instead, I would take him for walks, and I am comforted remembering how he was giving me attitude and acting like he was hot stuff when I took him for his walk two days before he died. He felt good! We think it was a heart attack, as he just keeled over one morning, early.

It's been seven years, and I still miss him.