Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Old Horses and Mixed Blessings

                                                by Laura Crum

            This is Burt, the first horse I was able to keep until his death. I bought Burt when he was five years old. I was 21 and still in college. Burt lived to be 35—and though I had to farm him out occasionally, as I moved and went through life changes, he remained my horse at the end. He spent his last years turned out in a pasture fifteen minutes from my house, where I visited him as often as I could. He died one sunny winter morning five years ago. I was on my way out to feed him and the pasture owner called me and said that Burt had been trotting around and suddenly fell down. And now he couldn’t get up because he was caught in the fence.
            I got there within ten minutes and I got Burt out of the fence and rolled him over, but though we tried and tried to get him up, it became clear that it wasn’t going to happen. Burt was twitching and showing neurologic symptoms, and he wasn’t trying to stand up. He’d had a couple of seizures previous to this, but he’d recovered OK. However, I knew, as I looked at him on the ground that day, that his twitching/seizing was getting worse, and that this was the end.
            I called the vet, who was there within a half hour, and she concurred. We put Burt down as he lay in the sunshine, and his death was quick and peaceful. I was grateful, though I missed the old horse, and still do.
            Burt taught me a lot. He was a real character, and always made me smile—Burt was a horse with a zest for life right up until his end. It makes me happy to know he was trotting around (and sound) on the day he died. What makes me sad is I wasn’t there to watch his joy. Oh, I saw him often, but I didn’t live with him. I didn’t hang out with him a lot in those last years. I fed him and rubbed on him a little and made sure he was in good flesh and his needs were met, but I had a kid and horses at home and I was always on the run, always busy.
            Burt was, I think, happy in his pasture. There were other horses to socialize with and the pasture owner and neighbors gave him attention. I think he had a good life. He wasn’t the one who missed out. I was. And after he died, I was aware of that.
            Death is very final. I remember Burt with much affection and his photo is on the wall above my desk. I have many happy memories of riding him on the ranch in northern California where I worked for several years. I am glad that I cared for him until his end. I’m glad he had a long, happy life. But I wish I could just be with him again, and feel his particular upbeat energy. I wish I could watch him trot around, with the sun shining on his bright bay coat. And that isn’t going to happen.

            It’s hard to juggle several retired horses along with your current riding horses, if your space and budget is limited. My little horse property is set up to house five horses, no more. Over the years, I have often chosen to turn my retired horses out—in our 60 acre pasture in the foothills (three hours from here—looked after by an old friend who is an experienced horseman), or at that pasture fifteen minutes from my house, which belongs to a friend. It saved me both time and money to do this, and the horses had the benefit of living in a natural way, which I thought (and still think) is good for them. But the downside was that I couldn’t keep an eye on them and spend time with them.
            Losing Burt made me think hard about Gunner, who was living in the same pasture where I had kept Burt. When Gunner got to be 30 it became harder and harder to keep weight on him, and I thought he wanted more attention than what he got in the pasture. But more than that, I just wanted to be with him and spend time with him before it was too late. So I brought him one of my two boarders had left me, thus making a space for Gunner.
            The good news is that after living at home for a couple of years Gunner DOES look happier. His weight is just right, and he has plenty of pep. It gives me lots of joy to take him for walks and hand graze him. Every time I watch him run around his big corral, bucking and spinning, I get a silly, infatuated grin on my face. Every time I rub on him and see how good he looks, it takes me right back to all our many times together-- gathering cattle, cutting, team roping. I remember the blaze-faced three year old gelding with thirty days on him that I started riding thirty YEARS ago. I remember hauling this horse all over the western United States (Arizona, Nevada, Oregon, Washington) to various events. I remember camping with him. We did so many things together.
            So, yes, I am very glad I brought Gunner home. And it gives me joy every single day to see him looking happy and healthy. The bad news? The bad news is it takes a lot of time to care for an old horse properly. I now have two retired horses (Gunner and Plumber) and my riding horse (Sunny) to care for. My son exercises his own horse, Henry, but my kid is still young enough to require some supervision and help. So, in essence, I’m now in charge of making sure that four horses all get the attention they need. And this is on top of a busy life as a homeschooling mom with a large garden. For those who don’t know, both homeschooling and gardens take a lot of time, too.
            And then Gunner got cast just before Xmas, and I thought it might be the end of him. Luckily my old horse has made a full recovery, but it was a wake-up call for me. I began prioritizing Gunner’s walks and hand grazing over everything else. And though this DOES give me joy, there’s a limit to how much I can do in a day. So sometimes Gunner gets a walk and the other horses get turned out to graze…and there is no time for a trail ride. It’s my riding time that has taken the hit.
            I don’t think Sunny really cares—he is happy to be turned out rather than ridden. My son often rides his horse while I do the other chores. And I usually manage to ride at least once or twice a week. But I can see that, essentially, I’m exchanging riding time for time with Gunner. In a way, it’s a tough choice.
            Still, it’s the choice I’m making now. Maybe because I’m older and I’ve been riding all my life…maybe its easier to put time with my old friend first? I don’t know. I just know that despite my occasional moments of frustration, this is what I am drawn to do.
            Anyway, I thought I’d ask if any of you have had to make similar choices. Any insights? Because my horse time these days often looks like this.

            Instead of like this.


Anonymous said...

Either one looks good to me. The conflict between riding time/less riding time due to horse care responsibilitie was one of the reasons I decided a few years ago to send one of our horses (Lily) and Norman the pony, both retired, to Paradigm for retirement. Lily needs to be outside 24/7 to keep her COPD under control - hard to manage in our climate - and Norman was stuck in a small pen since he can't have much if any cool-season grass (Paradigm has mostly warm-season grasses). And then Maisie joined them a year later at the relatively young age of 14 when it was determined that she could never stay sound as a riding horse - I knew she would be happy seeing Lily again as they had been close - leaving me with no horses to ride.

I don't have my own place, and accumulating retirees at our relatively high-priced area boarding barns would have been much more expensive, and as you say, severely limited my riding time. I try very hard to keep my horses forever, so I needed to find a solution. It is hard not to see them on a daily basis as I used to, but I know they're getting excellent care and are happy just being horses.

You're fortunate that you have your own place so Gunner can be near you, and you can enjoy your time together. Horse time is horse time, whatever it is, and as you point out, they don't live forever and it's lovely that you can spend time with him now.

Laura Crum said...

Thanks, Kate. In your position, I probably would have sent my retired horses to Paradigm, too. Since I have the choice to keep Gunner here, I am enjoying this time with him--but it does come at a price, as I pointed out in the post. Still, I agree with you. At my age I'm happy with any sort of horse time--but I don't think I would have felt this way in my 20's and 30's. So perhaps this is one of the blessings of being older.

Marissa said...

Hi, I always read but rarely comment....
I think that horses come to bond with 'their people' and really see them as companions, just as we see our horses as companions, and in turn, even if not being ridden, they want to still come in contact with 'their people'. Of course, as Kate stated above, sometimes the best option for your horse doesn't allow you to stay close to them, but if you have the option, I think that it can really make a difference in your horses well being! I mean, after so many years of a horse giving you everything they have to give, I think they deserve to get some one on one loving back!

Laura Crum said...

Marissa--I completely agree with what you say and its one of the reasons I brought Gunner home. Despite other horses for company and the freedom of the pasture, I thought Gunner seemed a little morose there. I have definitely noticed that he seems happier here with all the attention he gets--and after thirty years of owning this horse, I can read his feelings pretty well. I am choosing to give back to him after all the years he gave to me--well said.

CG said...

I've got two full retirees, one semi-retired horse and two of riding age. A few years ago I was spending so much time doing barn chores (and working lots of overtime) that I hardly got any time to ride. I remember one day just sitting in the barn and crying because I was so frustrated and tired.

I finally decided to sacrifice my hay field, leave the horses turned out in the winter (this pretty much destroys grass in this climate) and I've had the horses stalled exactly one night this winter.

It is significantly better, timewise. I think the horses are happy too and I get to see them every day when I feed and even get two or three rides in a week.

I just can't imagine not giving them a retirement, or selling horses on as they get older. It amazes me that so many people can do it!

I read the Paradigm Farms blog too and that looks like a heavenly place to retire:)

Laura Crum said...

CG--I don't have a pasture here--wish I did. When my horses were turned out in the friend's field, I only saw them when I fed them--once a day. I just didn't feel it was enough. Here, I can turn them out on my property to graze, but its not a pasture situation. I let them out for an hour or so, then put them back in their corrals. The corrals are big and they can run and play, but they are not pastures. I feed the old horses free choice hay, and the others get three meals a day. Its the best I can do--but it is time consuming.

Francesca Prescott said...

Laura, I envy you being able to keep your horses at home, and I also admire your devotion to them. Not that I'm not devoted to my horses, but I don't think that, even if it were possible, I could have my horses at home. I don't think I could handle the full on, never ending hard work that having horses at home entails. I'd need to have someone to help me look after them. Anyway, having horses at home in this country (Switzerland) is almost impossible unless you're super rich or live on a farm.

As you know, I needed to find a home for Kwintus when we had to retire him, and although I'd have preferred to have him close-by, it simply wasn't possible, and the place where he now lives is about three hours away, but it's really wonderful. I'd rather know he's being very well taken care of relatively far away (I guess by US standards three hours isn't far away; for us it's A VERY LONG WAY!)than have him close by in less than ideal circumstances. I mean, he could be at my stables, there are retired horses boarded there, but he wouldn't live in some wonderful conditions as he does now. Sure, he'd see me, but, trust me, he's way better off where he is! Maybe he does miss my daughter and I (he was really my daughter's horse), but I'm certain he's in great company, gets plenty of love and attention, and is very well looked after. My daughter and I visit him whenever she's home from university, and it's always a special time for both of us. We think it is for Kwintus, too.

Laura Crum said...

Cesca--If your shoes I'd have done the exact same thing. And Kwint seems to have a lovely life. As I said in the post, I have Gunner at home partly for my sake. After Burt died, I realized that I was sad that I hadn't spent more time with him in his last years. Burt's life was good--I was the one who missed out. So I'm trying to spend time with Gunner while I can. And being with him helps me connect to thirty years of my life. This old horse that I'm leading around was the horse I rode in many competitions in my 20's and 30's. Being with him now is a way of reconnecting to my own youth. And I do think Gunner is happy here. He likes the attention and the company of the other horses here. Plus I have been much more successful at keeping him at an ideal weight than I was when he was turned out. Anyway...there are pros and cons to everything I guess. The downside here is Gunner takes quite a bit of my time. For me, its worth it.

Jane said...

I've had a number of beloved horses into old age. I watch Hudson, know the road we are on, and that his old age is relatively close. It makes me cherish the days we have. It also makes me very conscious of time. It's a blessing: I am going to show up for every possible second. Whether its riding, grooming, or just saying "hi". I don't want to miss a second of the grace in being together.
I'm aware that I have this choice, and others do not. For some horses, pasture retirement is the best option, hard as that may be.

Laura Crum said...

Jane--I agree. I'm lucky to have the choice and I choose to spend the time with my old friend. Exactly as you say--I want to savor every moment. But in some circumstances, I would definitely choose the good retirement farm.

The Equestrian Vagabond said...

I think it's wonderful you are spending time with Gunner. i haven't always been able to live with my horse, so it thrills me too when I look at my horse Stormy (only 21!) playing out there in 'my' back yard. there's never enough to time to do all the things we want to do, but for now it sounds like putting Gunner first is the right thing to do!
- The Equestrian Vagabond

Laura Crum said...

Merri_- I always enjoy your photos and writing about Stormy--it reminds me of the way I feel about my old horses. And I agree, being able to live with our horses and see them from our homes is really special. Its actually my very favorite thing of all I do with horses. As much as I like to ride, if I had to choose, I'd choose living with my horses over riding.