Occasionally we get the question asked about how to recognize when it is time for your horse to retire.
Many people decide to retire their horses due to their age. However; this is an inaccurate way to gauge things. The readiness of a horse to retire depends on what the horse has been used for throughout their lifetime. For instance, a horse who has been jumped hard all of its life may be ready to live the easy life at 12. Conversely, a horse who has been a trail hack all of their life, may still be quite capable of doing that job up until his late 20’s.
Just like humans, aging in equines happens a little at a time. This gives the horse time to adapt to the changes and continue to do their job. It may become necessary for the owner to adjust the horse’s workload in response to these changes, however. Perhaps the lesson horse may be half leased to one child for riding 2-3 times per week. Or the jumping horse become a moderate trail horse. Telltale signs that change needs to happen would include depression, loss of weight, heavy breathing with little exertion, recurring lameness after work, changes in vision, pinning of the ears or grumpy looks when you come toward your pal with riding equipment, or frequent stumbling and tripping. If an owner does not pay attention to these signs, the horse’s aging process will accelerate rapidly.
Knowing your horse goes a long way toward determining when it’s time to slow down. Since aging is basically damage and breakdown, if the horse’s activity is a contributor to this, then it’s time to slow down.
If the horse can only perform and compete with medications, this then becomes a moral question. Painkillers can be given to a horse to temporarily relieve pain symptoms, but the horse continues to put wear and tear on whatever is bothering him. Of course, then the owner is causing him to wear out faster. It is our opinion that if your partner has performed for you, it is owed to him to retire when he is no longer up to the job.
A complete retirement/lack of activity is actually detrimental to your horse’s health. Instead, change to something your horse can do without discomfort. Horses need to keep moving around instead of rusticating in the stall. Not being allowed to move around causes a loss of bone density. I actually knew of a retired horse who stood in his stall for a whole year. The owner decided he wanted to sell him. When he had a prospective buyer come to look at him, he took the horse out of his stall to show him off. The horse took 5 steps and his leg snapped. His bones had become porous from inactivity. Even if your horse cannot be used for riding anymore, he can be used to teach how to properly groom a horse or how to lead one. He is probably used to human interaction and would miss it were he deprived of it anyway. And of course, many older horses can become companions to others in the field or babysitters to weanling foals. If you find that you have retired your horse, and he is depressed, he is missing having a job. Be creative and find something meaningful for him to do.
Knowing when to retire your horse is an important part of owning one. Even retired you can still have a beautiful friendship and a rewarding relationship with him.
(pictured is 30 year old Dakota who died suddenly 15 months later, without ever suffering a bad day in his life)