by Laura Crum
First of all, Happy Mother’s Day to everyone--to those with horse, dog, cat, other critter kids, as well as those with human kids. I used to resent Mother’s Day before I had a child—I felt as if I were somehow being excluded from this role as “mother,” even though I loved and cared for all my animal kids. So I want to acknowledge that everybody with a dependent creature is a mom. Happy Mother’s Day to you all.
I have been thinking about what it means to be a good “mom” to a horse. I love my horses. I think a lot of us who read this blog love our horses. And when you love your horses, you don’t get rid of them when their useful life as a riding horse is over. No, you retire them and take care of them as long as they can be reasonably comfortable as pasture pets. And when their life is no longer any pleasure to them, you have them humanely put down. Sounds simple, doesn’t it?
In theory it IS simple. In practice, not quite that simple. Let us take my particular situation. I have owned horses all my life. Twenty years ago I was able to buy a small horse property (actually I bought raw land and slowly built a horse property—but that story has been told before). The maximum number of horses that I can keep here is five. And not only do I have my horses, but my longtime friend, Wally, boards his horse (s) with me.
Over the years there have been times that between Wally and me, we owned a dozen horses. Our using horses, our retired horses, rescued horses, and young horses we were training. It was a real juggling act to find places to put all of them. For many years our retired/rescued horses were turned out in a pasture, where either a friend or the pasture owner looked at them every day. When we weren’t training them, we turned the young horses out, too. And this worked pretty well for awhile.
But our retired/rescued group got older. They all needed more care. Some of them were no longer thriving in the pasture, though they had been happy there for many years. And Wally and I got older, too. Neither one of us wanted to ride young horses any more. And neither one of us wanted to be constantly running out to the pasture to try and give adequate care to the old horse herd—on top of taking good care of the horses here at my property. So we made some tough choices a couple of years ago.
We found good, happy homes for a couple of the younger horses that were ridable (where they are still happy today). We euthanised two of the older horses that were steadily failing. We brought my oldest horse (Gunner) home to live with my recently retired horse, Plumber. This gave me five horses at home—my two retired horses, my riding horse (Sunny), my son’s horse (Henry), and Wally’s horse (Twister). Sounds simple, right?
In some ways it IS simple. I can take good care of the horses here at my home. They get fed three times a day—a mix of alfalfa and grass hay. The ones that need more alfalfa get that, and the ones that need more grass hay get that, too. Each horse is kept in a large (averaging 50 feet by 250 feet) paddock where they can be fed exactly what they need. They hang together under the oak trees and interact as a herd, but the old horses are safe from being bullied, and each horse is carefully fed what that horse specifically requires. Gunner gets lots of equine senior and free choice hay and is thriving at 33 years old. In green grass season the horses get turned out to graze, in the rainy season they are blanketed if needed and have run in sheds, in fly season they get fly spray and fly masks..etc as needed. I look at them many times a day and can catch problems very quickly. I can do all this because they are living here with me. So yes, in some ways, it is simple.
Sunny grazing in the riding ring.
Henry climbing the steps to the back porch.
The problem? Well, the problem is that the youngest horse on the place is Twister, who is 17. Sunny is somewhere between 15 and 20 (no papers/weird teeth) and I just ballpark him as the same age as Twister. So I have two 17 year old horses, two that are about 25 (Henry and Plumber) and one that is 33. They are all doing great. But it doesn’t take a horse expert or a mathematician to tell me (or you) what is going to happen next.
If I am committed to giving these five horses the best care I can for the rest of their lives (which I am), sometime in the next five years or so, I am apt to have five retired horses to care for and nowhere to put a useful riding horse. What’s a good horse mom to do?
The option of a good retirement home isn’t viable for me. Every truly good retirement home I have ever heard of (and there are none that I know of near me) costs a LOT more per month than I can afford. I consider myself comfortably middle class, but it would be next to impossible for me to afford board for more than one horse in this part of the world. The option of keeping the horses in someone else’s pasture—or my own pasture (3 hours away)? Well, I’ve done that. And I have to say that even though the people who looked at my horses did their best, the horses got glanced at once every 24 hours, if that. The pastures were big and if the horses weren’t in sight of the driveway, no one was going to hike out to find them. Without being paid big bucks, no one was going to put blankets or fly spray on these horses or give them their daily ration of senior food (separating them from the herd to do so), or painkillers that they might need. I always worried that a colic or injury might not be caught for a couple of days. I went out to do the chores as often as I could (in the pasture near my home), but it was impossible for me to be there more than once a day. I just felt that the level of care wasn’t really adequate, especially as the horses got older.
So I’m left with the fact that when my current five horses are all (possibly) too old to ride, I’ll just be taking care of them—like a good horse mom. And the truth is, I won’t really mind. I have done SO many things with these horses over the years—competed at cutting and roping, ridden in the mountains and on the beaches, taught my son to ride…etc. Every time I interact with my horses, even to feed them, all these happy moments come back to me. Time past is present along with time present. So, for me, taking care of my retired horses is OK.
But…it wouldn’t have been OK in my 20’s and 30’s. I wanted to compete and train—most of all, I wanted to ride. Faced with this herd of old horses, I would be looking anxiously to find good homes for some of them so that I could get a new riding horse.
I’m glad I don’t feel that way now. But I did feel that way once, and I understand the feeling. I’m wondering how many other horse moms out there are looking at an increasingly older horse herd and wondering what their options will be when none of the herd is ridable. Any thoughts or solutions?
PS—Don’t forget that Linda Benson’s book Six Degrees of Lost is on special for 99 cents until May 15th.
And the first two books in my mystery series, Cutter and Hoofprints, are also on sale for 99 cents each. Click on the titles to find the books.
Happy Mother’s Day! (Look what my husband gave me—a hanging basket begonia he raised from crosses he made—ain’t it great?)