I had an email today from a friend who gave a home to my ‘retired’ dressage horse several years ago. He’s now 22 years young and still going strong although he no longer competes and these days he is just a happy hacker. But when should your horse retire and how should his autumn years be managed?
Caring for the retired competition horse
Unless an injury or other health problems mean that a horse can no longer be ridden, gentle exercise is very important for older horses. There’s no reason why your horse cannot continue to compete at a lower level as long as he is physically and mentally capable of doing so happily. It may be that the physical side of things is fine, but the stress of travelling and competing may be too much for your horse as he gets on in years and it may be better to forgot competing altogether. That’s not to say that he can’t have fun hacking out though, or maybe doing a little light schooling work. Always listen to your horse; he’ll tell you when enough is enough.
Bear in mind that many competition horses are not used to lengthy periods of turnout time. Introduce lifestyle changes gradually and stick to your horse’s usual routine as closely as possible, slowly extending the amount of turnout until he becomes accustomed to his new routine. However, don’t make the mistake of just chucking him out 24/7 and leaving him to his own devices. Horses thrive on routine and if your horse has had the same daily regime for 10 years, a sudden change, including an abrupt cessation of work, will be very stressful for him.
If you decide to take on a retired competition horse, make sure you do some research into his former career. Has he had any serious injuries or falls which could affect the work he is now able to cope with? What’s his personality like; is he inclined to get excitable and stressed with other horses if he’s used to working and being turned out alone? Remember that competition horses are very often ‘high mileage’. They can suffer from stiffness and aches and pains especially in their joints so be prepared to lavish plenty of TLC on them.
Most of us would ideally love to keep our horses through their retirement, however long that may be. For many though, this is just not possible for many different reasons and alternatives must therefore be explored.
You might be able to find someone who is looking for a companion horse for their youngster and who is willing to take your horse on loan in this capacity. Make sure you inspect the potential new home very carefully for suitability and experience and if you do decide to go down this route, have a loan agreement drawn up and always make regular spot checks to make sure all is well.
If you have your horse at livery and have been paying for an arena, stabling, horse walker etc; consider whether you may be able to downsize. If your horse is the type who would happily live out as long as he is provided with a field shelter, it may be worth relocating to somewhere offering grass livery. Many older horses are happy to live out and this also benefits stiff, arthritic joints. Do make sure though that your horse is well rugged up during the colder months and that you visit at least once daily to make sure he has everything he needs to be comfortable and warm. Do keep an eye on the fit of your horse’s rugs too; horses can change shape as they age and lose muscle tone meaning that rugs may no longer fit properly and can cause rubbing and sore patches. Use a weigh tape to keep an eye on his weight, especially during the winter and if you have any health concerns, ask your vet for advice. Older horses can experience dental problems which mean they can’t chew their food as efficiently, so more frequent visits from the dental technician will be necessary and of course feet will still need trimming even if your horse no longer wears shoes.
There are a number of places offering retirement livery in the UK. Your horse is cared for throughout his retirement until the end of his life. All the usual health care issues such as farrier’s attendances, vet checks, dental care and worming etc are taken care of and many of these yards will keep you updated with emails, photos etc. You have no need to visit your horse if you don’t want to; the yard will just send you a bill at the end of each month.
Many horses continue to have a useful, active and healthy life well into their twenties and even beyond but when it is time to hang up the brushing boots for good; a little thought and extra care will give them the long and happy retirement they deserve.
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