Is it Time to Retire Your Horse?

I get many calls this time of year from owners who are grappling with the effects of a long winter, and wondering if their beloved equine partner might be ready to retire. In fact, many of my owners contacted me long before they ultimately moved their horse here, and were able to get another season, or more, with their best friend before he began his retirement.

The most asked question I get is: how do I know when it’s time to retire? For you, the owner, it’s difficult to gauge, because you likely only ride your own horse, and sometimes the early signs of aging come on so gradually that you don’t really notice the change in your partner. A winter like this past one can make it seem as though your horse aged overnight. So here are some of the signs that your horse is ready for retirement, or signs that he may just need a fresh start with consideration for his age.

Age is a dominant factor. If your horse is less than 15 and doesn’t have any structural unsoundness issues (poor joint angulation or navicular disease are the two most common reasons for an early retirement), then a change in work may be all he needs to continue his job. If this winter meant that you were only able to ride once or twice a week, and your horse seemed unusually uncomfortable, then I would suggest giving him some time to get back into shape. A young horse gets into shape quickly, after ten it might take twice as long for him to return to the horse you have ridden in past years. Even with good turnout, horses didn’t get much exercise this winter. The snow was deep and they tended to “yard up” around the hay piles, self-restricting their activity to a 50 yard box. If your horse wasn’t ridden regularly or given free turnout in an indoor, then he likely is feeling as stiff as a couch potato would after three months of a sedentary life.

Many horses continue to compete well into their twenties, and most of those share two qualities: great conformational structure and an owner devoted to keeping them fit. As horses age, turnout is just as important to physical soundness as it was when he was young. With six hours or more of turnout on big fields and good slopes, horses can maintain their toplines as though they were working. Free work through turn out will keep your horse consistently mentally and physically sounder than any under saddle regime. However, regular under saddle work is also important, as he uses his body somewhat differently when ridden.

If your horse hasn’t been getting that this winter, then give him a few months to see how he improves before you decide to retire him; he may have many more months or even years to give you. On the other hand, if your horse has had more than two serious lay ups each year for more than a year, he may be telling you he can’t quite hack his workload any more. If he is “off” in a vague but uncomfortable way monthly, then he is likely heading to a change of work as well. Check his schedule, his farrier, his teeth, but consider if his work is really agreeing with him. Many horses simply can’t keep up their demanding work load, but return to complete soundness when they step down to a lower level of work, or a less stressful job. Think grand prix jumper moving to the juniors, or foxhunter becoming a trail horse.

So many times a retiree arrives stiffly moving off the trailer, only to return to complete pasture soundness two months later. The gentle hills at Broad Reach Farm and all day (or all night) turnout lend themselves to restoring soundness. Occasionally a younger retiree has been put back into work by their owner once they are back to looking right, but inevitably, unless the regime is changed, that horse has returned within three months. That horse has told his owner, “I feel great as long as I’m not working, but I’m just not up to the job anymore.”

Let’s hope we equestrians have paid our penance over the past two brutal winters, and we get repaid with a beautiful summer and benign winter next year. Both riders and horses should reap the benefits in being less stiff, and ready to go once again!