In most top stables, riders are taught to meticulously care for their mounts—to know each leg and which bumps and swellings are unusual, exactly which feeds or supplements each horse needs to best do his job, any special shoeing requirements, whether he empties his water buckets each night or fills them with hay… and on and on for a million factors that go into that horse’s well-being.
In the prime of your horse’s life, as you’re competing together on a regular basis, this is the norm. But what happens when his best days are behind him? When he’s too old or lame to perform a job?
The measure of what we owe our horses after they’ve finished their jobs is a personal decision. For most people, it depends on each horse. Some you may never let go, while some you may hold your breath and cross your fingers until the trailer has left your driveway.
The story of November Rain (p. 28) shows the sad situation in between these two extremes. While this international show jumper had people throughout his life who would have gladly taken him back and offered him a retirement, they were never contacted. And the people who thought they’d set him up with a home for life only realized too late that that home wasn’t what they’d wanted for him and he’d been moved on again, to less than desirable circumstances.
Short of keeping him yourself or euthanizing him, there aren’t many ways to be sure of how a horse spends his final days. You can take someone’s word that he or she will keep a horse for life. You can even have a contract or right of first refusal. But the stark realities of how much time, money or inconvenience it can cost to keep a horse can change this situation at any time. Only if you have ownership of the horse do you have any control over his fate.
A retired horse is not necessarily kept in the same way as a horse preparing for competition. But I believe that horsemanship and horse care, and the responsibility that goes with this, don’t end in a horse’s final years.
Do the young people who come through your barn see elder horses treated with respect, living out their lives on the farm or in appropriate homes, or are they shipped off to someone else to deal with? Is the same horse who was once groomed meticulously twice a day suddenly sent to the first place that will take him off your hands when he’s finished?
We can only try to do our best by each horse that passes through our lives. Perhaps we can’t keep track of where they all go, but we should be honest with ourselves about where they could end up when they leave us. We should try to be as conscientious as we can—and brutally frank with ourselves about whether we’re doing something in a horse’s best interest or for our own convenience—especially about the special horses that pass through our lives.
This concern for the horse’s well-being isn’t so different from the care we show them throughout their lives, and it can prevent horses like November Rain from ending up with a most uncertain fate. Like the best instances of horse care, it puts the horse first.
Beth Rasin, Managing Editor