The normal path for an aging horse seems to be some cut-off date when the horse officially retires and is no longer a ridden horse. That day may be chosen due to a general decrease in ability to cope with the workload desired by the owner. Or it may be accelerated due to an injury or diagnosis of a degenerative condition. Or a behavioural problem the owner chooses not to address. The horse may then be turned out, sent to a retirement home, sold as a companion, even euthanised - a whole array of options to help the owner make way for a new and more useful replacement. Afterall, horses are expensive and they need to earn their keep, do they not?
We use the term "retirement" to suggest a new, positive life for the horse as though he is on holiday. No doubt, an anthropomorphic reflection on our own desire to be on holiday too! But our holidays are not always about doing nothing - we make decisions, we plan, we choose lots of thing to do or see. We don't just stop doing what we have always done before. Even if we want to do nothing, we choose to do nothing. Not so for the active, busy horse who is suddenly abandoned with a very under-enriched life. What should we be doing differently?
Of course, enrichment is needed for all horses to help them cope with the burdens of domestication, not just those in retirement. The restricted diet and home range can be expanded by walks in-hand and/or riding out to different hedgerows. The paddock can be altered with toys, various types of branches, feed-balls, track systems. The environment can be altered so as to increase the horses opportunities to choose - can they opt between inside and outside? Do they have access to the companions they would choose? Do they have ad-lib access to varied forms of forage? And can we maintain this enriched environment by varying it from time to time?
A few years ago I saw a wonderful photograph of someone riding her horse and her elderly, retired horse following behind. They were cantering along together in beautiful countryside, the retired horse totally loose. It was the first time I had considered my horse's retirement and it etched a permanent image in my mind. Retirement should not be about stopping but about enjoyment. When the time comes, I don't know if I will have the means to do this "ride and follow" safely but it is certainly something I would like to make available for my horse if he would like it.
I have often found myself privy to debates as to whether we should be riding horses. I've tended to come down on the side of supporting riding in the interests of adding to the horse's enrichment. But despite this, I also find myself riding less and less, mainly due to other commitments. It's almost as if we are starting the retirement process - having a rehearsal. I can't help noticing that our rides are more enjoyable for it. He is much perkier, in a more exploratory sense rather than fearful, than if we go out more frequently. And he is more likely to remain sound, particularly if I ride him bareback (he has a long-standing injury and conformation imbalances which cause his shoulders and pelvis to tighten up if we over-do things). His life-long propensity for lameness has always made me consider very carefully what we do and it finally struck me that if we start our "rehearsals for retirement" now then I will be making the process smoother on a number of counts.
Firstly, by doing less now we run less risk of having that injury and/or hastening his degenerative condition. That way we can continue doing what we do for longer that if we over-do it now and come to a sudden stop. Secondly we avoid that sudden transition from "busy horse" to "field ornament". Psychologically we keep things on a much more even keel. There is no sudden cut-off for me either - I have plenty of time to adjust to his changing years and avoid that feeling of "I need a new horse I can ride".
The more I think about it, the more I feel it makes sense. For years I had imagined that I would "want to make the most of him while I still could". But the implications of what that means have hit home. He is not some commodity for me to use to my advantage, whatever the outcomes for his longevity. The responsibilities of caring for a older horse start while he is still a younger horse.
(*and yes, for anyone thinking the title is more poetic than I generally manage, I must confess that it is indeed borrowed shamelessly from the wonderful late singer-songwriter Phil Ochs. The pain and anguish of the beautiful song and album of the same name are, I hope, not relevant to this article or my horse's forthcoming retirement but certainly provide much to think about.....)Copyright Catherine Bell 2013