What seems like a lifetime ago, before my ‘heart’ kicked in and I was ruled by my head (being practical etc.), I admit with deep feelings of guilt and regret that I sent some of my old horses to the local ‘dog man’ to be ‘put down’. They were no longer of any use to me (couldn’t breed or be ridden) and at the time I thought it was too difficult and not practical to keep them.
It’s interesting the words we use to cover up for the crime we commit! ‘Dog man’ being the owner of greyhounds who are fed horse meat, and ‘put down’ being slaughtered! Amazingly, the ‘dog man’ was also a horse owner and professed horse lover – he even bred and showed his own horses! But he had no issues with disposing of old, injured or un-wanted horses. The only ‘nice’ thing about it was that the horses were not part of a production line – they were shot in his pasture, munching their final feed.
Nowadays, I would no more do that than take my kids/dogs to be put to sleep just because they were old or had passed their usefulness. So why is it so hard for people to offer their old or no longer ridden/breeding horses a loving and caring retirement? I know for some its a financial issue, but hey, if you have one horse, you need another to keep it company. If you have a few horses, then what’s one more mouth to feed provided you can give them the things listed below?
If you look after your oldies, they need not cost you a fortune to care for. Here’s what I find works well for me and my two ‘old folks’ to keep them healthy and happy.
- Keep them in a ‘stable’ relationship with a longtime buddy of similar age if possible. (if you don’t have another retiree, ask friends and maybe you can share in their care to keep two together). Don’t swap and change their friends for convenience sake – emotional bonds that are broken, can cause a horse’s immune system to crash as depression and finally illness sets in.
- Give them the feed they need – this may mean a separate pasture with more grass (or less if they are prone to laminitis). It’s important to ensure they aren’t losing out on food by being low in the herd order.
Feed simple but healthy – a balanced mineral mix, ad-lib hay (or several feeds with chaff a day if they can’t chew hay/grass), a senior feed with herbs if needed, a salt lick, and fresh water that is easy to access (not a slippery or steep sided dam or creek).
- Weather protection is important – ensure they have shelter from the elements – a shed they can escape from flies and hot sun that also provides wind and rain protection is ideal. If a shed is not possible then ensure there are trees in their pasture for shade, and provide a rug in winter that is removed daily so they can roll and itch.
- Regular hoofcare and dental checks are vital to their long term health. Please don’t neglect your oldies just because they aren’t being ridden. Dental care is especially important as their teeth wear out and possibly become infected due to gum shrinkage.
- Give them love and attention daily along with regular grooming/scratching. Retirees deserve and love to be appreciated as much as your best horse – maybe at one time they were your best horse!
- Involve them in life around the other horses as much as possible – if they can live alongside the main herd, even better. Taking them for in-hand walks when their riding days are over keeps them fitter and mentally stimulated. Older horses make wonderful teachers for small children or fearful adults to learn ground skills. Some can even play a role in Equine Assisted Therapy providing it is not too demanding. Like wise old people, older horses can have a role to play in our lives if we allow them to.
If you really struggle to keep your retirees, and have enough heart to allow them to live out their days, consider an equine sanctuary or retirement home for horses. It would still be necessary to pay for their up-keep, but at least they could live out their days being cared for in the company of other retired horses.
Remember, ‘family’ is everything to a horse and that ‘Horses are For Life’.