They are the life blood of your business, carrying small children around and teaching adult beginners how to ride. They work hard for you, day after day, doing what they are asked, often under difficult circumstances. So when they have reached the point in their lives when they can no longer do their jobs, how do you repay them for the years of service they have given you?
We are talking about lesson horses, of course, those dutiful creatures that are such an important part of any training business. No matter how good the care you give them, lesson horses eventually reach a time when they need to retire. Riding instructors and barn managers around the country face the dilemma of what to do with a lesson horse that can no longer work. Each has his or her own way of handling this situation.
Before trainer Nancy Unger-Fink of Condee Farms in Davis, Fla., became a professional horsewoman, she went off to college and sold her horse with a first option to buy it back should the owner want to resell. The owner didn’t honor this agreement, and Nancy lost track of her childhood mount. Years later, she found the horse in terrible condition and rescued her just to ease her suffering by putting her down. “This experience traumatized me,” she says. “Ever since then, I’ve made a promise to myself to never let another one of my horses suffer that fate.”
Consequently, Unger-Fink, who runs a family-oriented riding program, keeps all of her retired lesson horses in her possession to ensure their well-being for the remainder of their lives. “The majority of my lesson horses are 25 years old and older,” she says. “I have one that lived to be 44 years old. I take good care of them and they last a long time. I have a great farrier who does therapeutic shoeing for me, and I even go so far as to give all of my lesson horses a shot of the generic for Adequan every Friday to help keep them going.”
When Unger-Fink retires a lesson horse, she still keeps the horse in a very light work program to help him feel like he still has a job. “Once a lesson horse becomes too arthritic to work, I still ride the horse lightly 12 to15 minutes a day,” she says. “This keeps the horse going. They feel they have a reason to live if you take them out everyday. A lot of lesson horses die psychologically if you don’t use them.”
Retired school horses that can’t be ridden at all should leave the property and go to a pasture where they can’t see the other lesson horses work, according to Unger-Fink. “They shouldn’t be able to watch the other horses get out when they don’t,” she says. “It’s not good for them.”
Although it might seem that a horse who has worked all his life might enjoy hanging out in a pasture doing nothing, Unger-Fink has found the opposite to be true. “I had one 39-year-old retired lesson horse who would follow the other lesson horses around the arena while they were working,” she says. “He knew the routine and he did the whole thing without a rider.”
Because her horses enjoy their work so much, Unger-Fink keeps them working as long as she can. She believes each horse will let her know when he’s ready to retire. “You can see it in their eyes when it’s time to retire them,” she says. “They tell you when they can’t do it anymore.”
Mary McKinley of Little Neshannock Stables in New Wilmington, Pa., has anywhere from 10 to 15 lesson horses at a time in her beginning and advanced riding program, depending on her seasonal needs. McKinley retires her horses when they show clear signs of physical aging, such as slowing down, stiffness, an unwillingness to perform, or if they are becoming unstable in their movement. “For our older horses with poor teeth, we give them pelleted senior feed that is especially designed for older horses,” she says. “Any of their other special dietary needs, such as supplements, are met as well.”
During the summertime, McKinley’s retired school horses are kept outside as much as possible, with a run-in shed for shelter. “We stall them in the winter and turn them out whenever the weather permits,” she says. “When they are indoors, the stall size depends on the particular horse or pony, but can be anywhere from a tie stall to a 10 by 10, to 10 by 12, or 12 by 12 box stall.”
Providing a healthy living situation for retired school mounts is a priority among lesson barns that care about the welfare of their older horses. Christine Cole, owner of Full House Farm in Sebastopol, Calif., keeps all her riding program horses in a herd environment and continues to handle them even after they are retired from work.
“Retiring a horse here means no more riding, but not necessarily no more touching, rubbing, grooming, or giving treats,” she says. “Their interaction with humans just shifts a bit.”
Cole notes that it can sometimes be tricky to know when to retire a horse. “I thought one of my horses wanted retiring,” she says. “She had re-injured an old torn ligament, so I retired her. She looked longingly after every student who did not choose her for five long months. I finally saw her injury repair and she was so happy to reintegrate into the program. She is 30, and this was last year.”
Some horses need to retire without a doubt, however, such as Cole’s 34-year-old Thoroughbred gelding. “He has bad arthritis and would not be able to carry anyone without endangering himself or his student, so he gets to be groomed and fed treats and he greets all our tours,” she says. “He is very concerned about all his herd members and keeps track of everyone.”
Cole’s philosophy is that a role exists for everyone in a community, even if that community is a lesson barn. “The old are as much a member of the community as the young,” she says. “The old horse is a part of the day’s routine. He moves with the herd, eats with the herd, plays with the herd and involves himself with decisions that relate to the herd. The only change is that he does not carry a rider anymore.”
Although many lesson barns have the room to retire their older horses on the property, some do not. What kind of options do you have for retirement if you don’t have your own pasture?
“The best option is to try and find a horse retirement farm, even if it will cost you a small monthly expense,” says Keré Knautz, owner of Shenandoah Riding Center in Galena, Ill. “In most cases, these animals have given their heart and everything they have to their humans and they deserve to be taken care of in return.”
The cost of retiring a horse out to pasture varies considerably on locale and the kind of care the horse will receive. If the horse doesn’t require special supplements or medical treatment, a pasture situation with other horses is the least expensive. Horses that need daily medication or supplements must be in a facility that provides hands-on interaction with the horses every day. These facilities charge more for the extra care.
“Perhaps the notion that a horse does not have a life without the work we have assigned to it is inaccurate,” says Cole. “Could this be how we view our own aged community members? I have heard it said that people, when they retire, often go downhill. Is this because we have the perception that our work is what gives us worth? If we have designed our horse's life so this is the case, then providing a life for that horse that gives joy is the advice I would give to anyone thinking about retiring a lesson horse. In my opinion, horses do not place value on what they produce but rather on the level of joy they can experience. Horses are seekers of good feelings.”