Last Updated on February 23, 2022 by Allison Price
Memphis, my Thoroughbred Thoroughbred mare, was taken out of the show ring by me. It was a difficult and emotionally draining decision. I felt a deep sense of grief at losing a significant part of my life. I also felt overwhelmed by the question of where we were going next.
Memphis, then 19 years old, was my faithful companion in the hunter/jumper competition over 14 years. All of my worries and anxieties were forgotten as we entered the ring. I felt a strange sense of calm, and everything seemed to melt away. Only me and my horse were there, dependent on each other.
It was hard to imagine quitting all that you loved when Memphis asked me to retire. In the end, however, I couldn’t help but feel that Memphis was my only option. Memphis was involved in an accident that left him with a chunk of bone the size of a baseball. This happened long before I got to own him. He was a sound horse throughout his long career. However, arthritis began to show in his later years. I knew that he would not be able to continue riding him in the difficult sport of jumping. It would make his joints worse and make it more difficult to keep him comfortable. His risk of serious injury would increase. I wanted to be kind to my friend and thank him for everything.There are many options available when it comes to retraining your horse. Keep both your needs and his in mind.
But what did it mean to Memphis? Retirement used to be a party at the office with sheet cake and then a move to warmer areas. Nowadays, people choose to take a more diverse path at the end their working lives. Horses are no exception. Horse retirement could mean any number of things, from a change of occupation to a slight reduction in activity to life as an ornamental pasture horse. There are many factors that will determine the best horse for you and your family.
Nearly a year passed before I finally decided on the best Memphis retirement plan. I spent nearly a year pondering our situation and talking to horsepeople about their experiences and how they have made it work for them. There were many answers, just like the horses. There is no universal equine retirement plan.
Although no one can determine what retirement looks like for your horse, there are some things I can share with you. These are five options with insight from horse riders who have chosen them. These experiences can help you make an informed decision about your future with your horse.
OPTION 1: CHANGE HIS CAREER
You may be unable to compete in a physically demanding sport, but you feel that riding your horse is more important than competing. If this is the case, you might consider a different activity that your horse can handle and you can both enjoy.
For example, a former jumper might not be able endure the physical strain of the sport but could be suitable for trail riding, endurance events, or other activities. You might be able to compete against your horse in less-impact activities, such as Western dressage or equitation on a flat, depending on his condition.
Sharon Witherspoon, Bells, Texas had to stop Aria, her Paint mare, jumping at 13 years old, due to soft-tissue and bone injuries. She began looking for other activities that would allow Aria to excel, without causing any pain or putting her mare in danger.
Witherspoon explains, “Before we showed over fences, our competitors in hunt seat and Western riding classes so Aria was used switching gears between English or Western events.” “So hunter under saddle and ranch riding were the obvious choices.”
With hard work and perseverance, Aria and Witherspoon learned the techniques required to equitate patterns. They were so successful that they were crowned world champions of Amateur Solid Paint-Bred Hunt Seat Equitation in retirement at the 2017 APHA World Championship Show.
However, the couple’s new lifestyle goes beyond the show ring. Witherspoon and Aria find trail riding enjoyable and physically rewarding in this new phase. She says, “Trail riding has helped foster our bond Aria and me. It’s provided us with valuable real-life experiences by teaching her lessons she couldn’t get anywhere else. From negotiating rough terrain to encountering unanticipated wildlife to building endurance to confidence. It’s a great way to keep Aria’s mind sharp and prevent arena burnout.
The pros: Helping an older horse transition to a new career or job means you can continue to ride him and you can also help with his daily care. Moderate low-impact exercise is a great way to help your horse stay fit, flexible, and toned as he gets older.
Cons: If you don’t have the funds to buy or lease another horse you will need to make a trade-off. This means you’ll have to give up riding in your favorite area or competing.
OPTION 2: LEASE HIM A “SCHOOLMASTER”
You may consider leasing your horse to a less experienced rider if you are unable to compete in your sport. These horses, often called “schoolmasters” in dressage, are highly sought after. They are also known as “packer ponies” in the hunter/jumper or equitation arenas. Here, too, the demand is high, particularly among young riders.
These leasing agreements are a great option for many aging horses. It helps them keep in shape and gives them a sense purpose. A leasing agreement allows you to retain ownership and monitor your horse’s care. You can also save money for your horse’s future care, if he becomes too old to ride.
Rachel Rode, a Dallas, Texas resident, decided to retire her 18-year old gelding True Masterpiece, a hunter/jumper horse, four years ago after she and her trainer noticed some troubling signs. Rode claims that True Masterpiece was often cranky after jumping, and that his joints were becoming stiffer after a hard workout. True found this unusual. He loved his job.
True was riding with Rode, so she reduced her riding. She remained on light trails riding. But Rode knew True would be happier if he had more activities. She half-leases him for lessons and walk-trot classes to beginning and young riders.
Rode states that True is great with children and that he likes the challenge of a job. He’s a good-natured person, I can see. He is a lover of human interaction and will be happy as long as he does.
To make this retirement plan viable, your horse should have calm temperament and patience. An inexperienced rider looking for a lease will not be able to handle a high-strung horse that is prone to spooking or difficult to control. To ensure safety for all, a trained trainer can evaluate your horse to determine his suitability.
The pros:Leasing an older horse or half-leasing it to a novice rider can give him a sense of purpose and a routine. It will also benefit his health. You can save money for your horse’s care, or buy or lease another horse to compete in your favorite event.
Cons: Depending on the terms and conditions of your lease, you may lose some control over the care of your horse. When drafting a lease agreement, consult a lawyer.
OPTION 3: MAKE HIM a THERAPY HORSE
Therapeutic riding facilities are always in search of horses that are sound, healthy, and calm. Equine-based therapy is not only for those with mental and physical disabilities; it can also help people who are struggling with addiction, posttraumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and other issues.
Therapy programs are often very strict about temperament. This is despite the horse’s achievements in the show ring.
Sometimes, this option is a great choice for older show horses. Amanda Reed Hollinger, Dillsburg, Pennsylvania offers lessons for physically and mentally disabled riders. She uses several horses that were retired from previous jobs.
Hollinger was gifted Gorgeousorkie, a Western pleasure competitor and one of her most successful therapy horses. He was 16 years old when he was retired at stud. He was a great therapeutic mount once gelded.
Hollinger states, “He’s the type of horse that you can put anybody on–a truly one-in-a lifetime horse.” Many of Hollinger’s therapeutic students ride “George”, including Erin Fox (29), who suffers from osteogenesis imperfecta (OI), also known as brittle bone disease. Fox’s condition prevents her body from producing enough collagen for strong bones. This makes it difficult to keep fit and tone the muscles through traditional exercise.
She has been able to regain her mobility and build muscle through riding George. Fox states that riding doesn’t cause a lot of stress to my bones and has helped her build muscle in her legs, back, arms and legs. She’s also becoming stronger with each ride. My doctors are stunned that I have made so much progress through riding. I have found that riding George has been more helpful than any other form of physical therapy. They’re all tried and tested.”
The pros: Your horse is likely to enjoy being a therapy animal and you will be helping those who are in need. Your horse will be well looked after at a therapeutic riding center.
Cons: Some horses are not suitable for therapeutic riding programs. Consider asking for a trial period if you are unsure about the suitability of your horse.
PLAN #4: FIND HIM A NEW HOME
Even though you would love to keep your horse forever financially or logistically, sometimes it is impossible. It can be difficult to consider, but you may decide that selling your horse is the best choice. It doesn’t mean you have to give your horse to someone completely new. You can also sell or give him to a friend, relative, or local riding school that is suitable for his skill level and health. Everyone can be happy in a new situation.
Sherry Kneipper, a Dallas, Texas, woman, had to find a new home after her Appendix Quarter Horse, Look who’s Trucking, 14-year-old, was injured and kept her from going into eventing. Christie Gard, a longtime friend and fellow equestrian, was her first choice. She now lives in Los Angeles, California. Gard was just out of college and had a tight budget. Kneipper offered “Gus”, a very small purchase price, to her.
Gard says, “While I have been riding for most of my life, and would not consider myself a beginner,” Gus was the right horse for me. We ride trails in the Hollywood Hills, and we take cross-rail and walk-trot canter lessons at the Los Angeles Equestrian Centre. Sherry receives updates and photos from Gus at least once per week. She really appreciates it. It was very comforting for her to know that I was able take him.
Your older horse can enjoy a happy retirement with a rider who is compatible with his personality and physical abilities, just like Gus. You can feel secure in knowing your horse will be loved and cared for by someone you trust. Even if you spread the word via social media and word-of-mouth, it may take some time to find the right place for your horse.
You should consider a sales contract to ensure you have the right of refusal if you are rehoming your horse with someone new. If the new owner decides that the horse is worthless, you have the right to take him back. For advice on con-tracts, consult a lawyer.
The pros: Rehoming your horse with someone you trust and a riding program will allow you to have some control over his future. You’ll be able visit him if he has a local home.
Cons: You will lose control of your horse’s care and possibly even the ability to visit him.
OPTION #5 – FULL RETIREMENT
Horses live longer and are healthier if they’re active. Regular, scheduled exercise–even walking–helps to maintain muscle mass and keep arthritis under control. In some cases, a horse may need to be retired from all work. He may be “pasture sound” meaning that he can only move at his own speed and will not respond to commands. He may have neurological problems that make it difficult to handle. Your veterinarian will help you make the right decision.
Full retirement is more than just putting a horse in a pasture and going home. He may feel lonely if he has spent a lot of time traveling and socializing with horses. You should find a stable place that he can be with other horses. Burros and goats can also make a great companion.
Senior horses are more able to adapt to changes in the environment, hierarchy, and surroundings than younger horses. Horses age and are less capable of coping with heat, humidity, and cold. It is also important to consider social factors: Your show horse might struggle to compete for food, shelter, and shade if he has lived in a stall most of his life.
Some horses may have difficulty mentally adapting to full retirement. There are many stories about retired competitors whining and kickbumping at stall doors while their stablemates load up for an event. These horses can be very anxious if they are left alone in a stable. You might give your horse a job as a trailer companion or steadying hand for young horses who are heading to their first show. You might also consider retiring your horse at a busy barn. Although it might seem counterintuitive at first, the hustle and bustle in the barn aisle can help your horse feel “at home” and comfortable even if he doesn’t wear a saddle again.
The pros: Your horse can enjoy the company of horses and pasture life. You can also keep an eye on your horse if you have land or own it.
Cons: Older horses who are used to living in stalls may find pasture life difficult, especially in areas with extreme heat and cold. Additional monitoring may be necessary, at least initially.
Click here to find out which activities are most effective for keeping arthritis horses healthy and happy.
Memphis’ retirement was about three main considerations. Memphis had lived full turnout since he was 7 years old with a herd that included 30 horses. He was also used to being able roam free with his friends during off-hours. Memphis was a hard worker and enjoyed his job. He was a Thoroughbred and never felt tired.
Memphis was retired with a small group of older horses and an old donkey. They were kept on pasture turnouts with lots of shade, a run in shed, and plenty of hay. Memphis was unable to jump or do much trot or canter work because of his arthritis. I provided him with exercise through trail riding and longeing, as well as hand-walking.
Memphis and I shared many adventures together over the past four years. We walked the trails together and enjoyed the walks. But we never lost our incredible bond. We became closer, in fact.
Unexpectedly, Memphis died last October from a cerebral hemorhage. But I am very happy to know that I was there for him in his golden years. I am grateful to have had the chance to repay my friend for his 17 years of dedicated service. For the last chapter of his life, he was healthy and happy.