Monday, January 16, 2012

Here's to the Retirees

By Terri Rocovich

Blogs in past weeks by Laura and Alison; and the worry that Francesca went through to get Qrac settled into a new home; got me thinking about retired horses and how important it is that we remain responsible guardians throughout their lives. On one of her past blogs Laura commented about her heard of equine retirees, that we, at the very least, owe horses a happy and peaceful retirement. I could not agree more!

I have never been one to sell or pass horses along when they need to slow down or retire completely because of age or injury. This is not to say that others should not, sometimes finding a semi-retired horse for a beginning rider is the best thing that benefits both parties as well as the horse. Several of my students have horses that were formerly high level competitors and these horses, now in their teens and twenties, are now gleefully teaching their riders jumping and dressage at a lower level. However, I also tell my clients who are lucky enough to get one of these wise and accomplished horses that, when the time comes for full retirement, they are responsible for that horse’s care for the remainder of their days. It IS the least we can do.

As for me, I have sold only 1 horse in my lifetime. This is partially because I get far too attached to my horses to let them go and partially because as a trainer, my semi-retired horses have an invaluable use as schoolmasters. On the occasion when horses due to injury can no longer work at any level, I let them live out their days in pasture but with the same level of health care as any of my competition horses. Horses not in work still need regular farrier care, deworming, vaccines etc., and somehow people forget this when horses are no longer in full work.

As hard as it is in some ways to watch out animal’s bodies’ age (I feel the same way when I look in the mirror), it is fun to watch their personalities change, or not, as the years pass. My personal herd of retired or semi-retired horses include Pete, my 23 year old thoroughbred, Tahoe, my 30 something lesson pony, Charlie, my 32 year old retired event horse and Hank, my 12 year old Paint, sidelined because of progressive Sidebone. Pete and Tahoe still have careers as schoolmasters while Charlie and Hank are not ridden at all.

I have had Pete since he was 9 and his personality has not mellowed much as he has reached his golden years. Even though he is definitely creaky, especially on cold mornings, he still thinks and acts like he is in his prime. The running joke in the barn is that he thinks that 23 means 2 plus 3 equals five and that is how he should act. He is still known to spook at invisible demons and leave the ground at inopportune times, especially if someone dares to hang on the bit while riding him. He is good hearted about his acrobatics and rarely does anyone come off of him, but he does get rider’s attention as if to say “I may be older, but I still have it.” In spite of his age, he still has a huge extended trot, albeit not as through as it used to be. His flying changes are a bit stiff but he now often throws a buck in the middle for some added flair.

Tahoe on the other hand relishes in his role as the elder statesman and is renowned for his sweet temperament and his talent for building any rider’s confidence. At 30+ years old I don’t allow much jumping for Tahoe, other than very small ones, but his value lies in easy trot and canter that even the smallest of kid can feel comfortable on. This is not to say that Tahoe has always been perfect. He could be quite the bad boy when he was younger and sent my niece flying on more than a few occasions that would then result in “Aunt Terri” tune-ups on appropriate behavior. Today though Tahoe takes his job as a babysitter very seriously and will walk the minute he feels a kid off balance and wait for them to right themselves. He loves being in the center of attention with the kids and will stand patiently for hours being groomed, giving kisses and begging for treats.

Charlie is a mare that I bought as a 3 three year nearly 30 years ago back in my barrel racing days. She is an appendix quarter horse and was bred for speed which I thought made her perfect as my next barrel racing prospect. She was fast and could spin and turn on a dime, the only problem was that her dislike for running barrels was only matched by her dislike of cowboys, ropes and rodeos in general. Needless to say I started looking for another career for her which is what led me to the sport of Eventing. Charlie was a cute mover and could score very well in dressage when she chose to be calm. She also loved the running part of cross country and was a very scopey jumper when she chose to be. Detect a theme here? It is amazing that I love her as much as I do considering how often I flew through the air like a missile off of her. Charlie could easily pop over a 4 foot oxer one moment and then dump me on a small cross rail the next. It all depended on the day or the minute. Can we say moody mare!!
She did have a somewhat successful career as an Event horse but it was definitely hit and miss but regardless, when a suspensory injury ended her jumping career, I kept her eventually sending her to live in pasture at my sister’s gorgeous farm in the Santa Barbara area. Charlie is now 32 and has cataracts in both eyes that significantly impair her vision but she lives in a pasture with a spectacular view of the Pacific Ocean. Geez, I want her retirement.
Hank is the adorable Paint on which I am pictured on the side bar of this blog. He was rescued from Mexican Charros and even though his past abuse still keeps him from trusting anyone completely, he was a great lower level Event horse and rose to 2nd level dressage until Sidebone, probably stemming from past abuse, calcified to the point that I just could not keep him sound, even for flat work.

Hank was miserable just hanging around my barn and would sadly watch me ride the other horses not understanding why not him. I finally made the decision to let him live at one of my client’s facility and be a barn mate to her horse. Hank is happy and healthy and is a great buddy to Faleno, Sandra’s horse. Hank and Faleno play and hang out together and Hank has recently taken to jumping out of Sandra’s arena when turned out (a 4’ fence) so he can go graze in her avocado orchard. Not great for his Sidebone, but try telling him that.
The other retiree at my place is Krissy, Michele Scott’s mare. Krissy suffers from a mild neurologic “wobbler” syndrome which prevents her from being worked. She can be ridden as long as she stays quiet and does not over flex her neck but that is not always an easy feat. She still thinks she is a sweet young thing and when not trying to be the “cougar” to every young male horse on my property, she is bucking as playing in the turn-out like a 2 year old.
Sadly not every horse enjoys the happy retirement that they deserve and even some of the most accomplished and famous of equine athletes have been cruelly discarded once they are no longer of “use” in other words, making money, for the human that controls their destiny. One such case was Ferdinand, an incredible thoroughbred race horse that even after winning the Belmont and being exported to Japan as a breeding stallion, ended up at the killers when he was no longer of value to the syndicate that owned him. It all comes down to the ethics and scruples of these horse’s human guardians.

This brings me to another equine celebrity who IS living the kind of pampered retirement that they deserve. Anyone who even remotely follows Dressage knows the name Brentina. Brentina was one of the greatest dressage horses of all time and she and her rider, Debbie McDonald, accomplished what no other U.S. horse/rider dressage partnership had done before. Their accomplishments are too many to list, but Debbie and Brentina were one of the first to really put the U.S. on the global dressage map. And I am happy to say that Brentina receives the same level of conscientious care today as she did in her competitive years. How do I know this?? Well I am proud to say that, at least for this Winter, Brentina is a resident at my sister’s farm in Santa Barbara, a fact which gives my sister gloating rights over me, probably for life.
This past Christmas, I got teased when, upon arrival at my sister’s place on Christmas eve, I stopped by her barn to meet Brentina before going up to the house. My sister Christi, chided, what you go to see Brentina before me, to which I answered – well it’s BRENTINA!!!!

To add to my star struck delight, I even got the opportunity to bring her in from pasture and groom her. What an amazing horse she is, even several years retired, she is still gorgeous and loved all the attention I showered on her. She loves her face to me rubbed, especially her eyes, and is VERY serious about her food. Debbie McDonald chose my sister’s farm for Brentina to spend this winter because of the grass pastures, a 16’ stall with attached paddock, their ability and willingness to soak her hay and feed several small feedings per day, plus the farm’s proximity to Brentina’s regular vet. I think I can safely say that in retirement Brentina receives a higher level of care that many people do let alone horses. In a world where competition horses are often discarded and/or even put down when no longer of competitive value, Debbie McDonald’s devotion to Brentina’s care and happiness is both refreshing and gratifying. It is as it should be.
I only wish that every horse in their “declining years” could live this kind of life. Like Laura said – we owe them at least that much. Do you have a retiree? I would love to hear about them.


jenj said...

Oh Terri, what a lovely post! I often think hearing about the "older statesmen" is the most fun, because they've always got such wonderful stories.

I have a mostly retired horse, Cash, who evented Training level back in the day. He was retired due to a bone spur on the LH, under the suspensory - it's aggravated by hard work. He'll be 24 in April and lives at home with my other boys (although he was at a retirement facility for several years). These days he is ridden on the weekends (walk and trot, tiiiny bit of canter) by a friend of mine who had her hip replaced about a year ago, so they are both careful with each other.

Cash also blogs occasionally. :)

Terri Rocovich said...

Cash sounds like a cool boy. Don't you think that he enjoys being a riding companion to your friend? I think that even retired horses need some sort of a job at least in the beginning. I think that Hank knows that his job is as a companion to Faleno, a beautiful but slightly neurotic andalusion. Also sounds like Cash and Pete were probably eventing in the same era. Pete did a few prelims but retired from eventing to specialize in dressage after a suspensory tear. Bet they could swap stories if we were closer.

jenj said...

Terri, I absolutely think they enjoy having a job - the challenge is always finding one that's within their capabilities. As for swapping stories, I often wonder what they talk about when they're hanging out. If I take two of them foxhunting, do they tell the others what it was like when they get back? Do they reminisce? It would be really neat to know!

Laura Crum said...

Great post, Terri! I loved the photos. I have two retirees living at home with me (and two rescues--not sound--turned out in a neighbor's pasture). My retirees are my personal riding horses--one is 32 and one is 23. Both are sound, but stiff, and both let me know pretty clearly that they didn't enjoy being ridden any more. I would turn them out (one was turned out for many years), but they really seem happy living in their big (200 by 50) corrals and being part of the barn life. They are given lots of attention and turned out to graze on a regular basis and they seem very content. And I absolutely love having them with me. I have owned both these horses since they were three and trained them myself. Both of them were my main mount for ten years respectively, and I have so many memories with them. It is a great joy for me to care for them, a privilege, not a burden.

Thanks again for a wonderful post.

Cassie said...

Terri, you know my retiree Max. He was my show pony for many years and was the best lesson pony for several years after that. I believe at one point 75% of the pony clubbers in Rainbow had taken their D-2 on Max. He is still with me and gives walk-trot only lessons and is my moms trusty trail pony for short rides with her friends.

Cassie said...

Terri, you know my retiree Max. He was my show pony for many years and was the best lesson pony for several years after that. I believe at one point 75% of the pony clubbers in Rainbow had taken their D-2 on Max. He is still with me and gives walk-trot only lessons and is my moms trusty trail pony for short rides with her friends.

RiderWriter said...

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this post. As a kid, I'm afraid I thought ALL horses went to some sunny green pasture where they could graze their leisure days away, when they weren't able to be ridden. Or to be completely honest, I just didn't think about it. As an adult hanging out on the internet, my eyes have been opened to the uncertain, possibly horrible, fate that awaits our faithful "useless" steeds. It's great to read about your TLC of your retirees!

I do have a question, though: I know there were plans in the works to breed Brentina to some stellar stallion. I thought Totilas? What happened, is she infertile? Thanks for the photos of Her Majesty in retirement though, she still looks super (and this makes me think even more highly of Debbie McD)!

Francesca Prescott said...

Wonderful post, Terri. You know my Kwintus has been retired for a year and a half and I recently had to move him down to the Burgundy region of France when he was evicted from his supposedly ever after place. But it's all worked out as his new place is much nicer than his old place, and the ladies who look after him are absolutely wonderful. He even gets a neck massage every day to help with his arthritis! He's made a new friend and spends his days in huge pastures, and his nights in a big cosy stable.

Like many people, I never really thought about what happens to older horses until I had an older horse. I hate the idea of people getting rid of ageing horses in an effort to pass the retirement buck onto someone else. Of course, it also comes down to what you can and can't do, financially speaking.It's not always simple, is it...

Qrac would probably be happy to give Brentina a baby, by the way!! Imagine how cute that would be!

Thanks for all the lovely photos:)

Terri Rocovich said...

Laura, You and I are of like mind. I feel that being a horses caretaker throughout their life is a priviledge not a burden. I was given a yearly mare on my 16th birthday and she was named Carrie. She taught me to be a trainer and she went on to be a top seated barrel horse, later had 3 wonderful foals and then lived out the rest of her days under my watchful eye. She passed just shy of her 32 Birthday and today resides in a beautiful oak urn in my living room entertainment center. We were together for 31 of her 32 years and I consider myself blessed.

Terri Rocovich said...

As you know, I think Max goes in the "more than special" category on the same plain as Tahoe and other loving horses who teach kids. Thank God he has you. We cannot have enough horses like him.

Alison said...

Terri, you are a saint and your elderly horses look FABULOUS for their ages. (I can only hope I look as great) You need to figure out how many retired horses you will have by the time you are a hundred. :)

Terri Rocovich said...

RiderWriter - I am glad you enjoyed my post. As for Brentina, I don't have all the scoop, sadly I did not get the opportununity to meet Debbie McDonald when she was at my sister's, but from what I understand the breeding to Totalis was not successful. I have been told that they were able to harvest 2 embyros from Brentina and that one was fertilized by Leslie Morse's Kingsten. My sister did not want to pry and the info was not offered; she just feels honored to have Brentina on the property.

I don't have this knowledge first hand but my guess is that being older when she was retired, Brentina is now 23, perhaps she did not have a lot of viable embryos left? I will try to find out more details and let you know in a future post.

Terri Rocovich said...


Thanks for your comments, it just dawned on me I referenced Qrac not Kwintus in my post. Sorry for the mix up. I was thinking of you and Kwintus when I wrote it because it was clear by the care you took that you take your guardian responsibilities as seriously as I do. I am so happy that Kwintus is happy in his new returement home. If it was only the same for all horses. Give both of your boys a kiss from me on the other side of the "pond". They are lucky to have you.

Terri Rocovich said...

Alison: The running joke in my family is that I will die an old woman surrounded by cats and the urns of my many departed dogs, cats and horses. To that I say "and what is wrong with that!" With Uiver as the new addition, some day I may have more retirees than I can count but they and I will be happy, that is for sure. I wish there was Social Security for horses but that not even be around for me when I retire.

Laura Crum said...

Terri--You are an inspiration for all of us. What a great expression of love for our good horses. Thank you!

Michele said...

I ride The Royal Pete on occasion and as Terrie says, "he still has it." He keeps me on my toes and that horse and Terrie have taught me more in the last year than any horse or anyone else ever has.

As far as Krissy goes, she is a sweet girl and it makes me sad that I don't get to ride her. We didn't have much of a career together because she was diagnosed pretty soon after I purchased her. I am suspect of the former owners. However, I truly believe this mare came into my life for a specific reason. It is her sense of humor on days when I am down that I can count on to cheer me up. Like my dad, she has a neuro disease and dealing with her has helped me deal with Dad's disease. It's funny what our animals teach us.

I feel that someone pawned this very sweet animal off after they had used her up. It's sad to think that her former owners didn't care enough to give her a retirement she deserves. I intend to continue to provide that for her. Just because she is no longer rideable does not mean she doesn't serve a purpose in my life.

Thank You, Terrie for taking such good care of Krissy!