Thursday, Jun. 6, 2024

Senior Horse Jackson Celebrates (Roughly) 50 Years Of Life

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Jennie Ratcliff was 21 and fresh out of nursing school in 1993 when she ran into an acquaintance who was trying to offload a horse called “Big Red.” The person had acquired him from a horse trader and had no firm information about the 16-hand gelding’s past, his breed or even his age, though a vet estimated him to be about 19 at the time.

Living in her Asheville, North Carolina, apartment post-grad, Ratcliff had been casually looking to purchase what would be her first horse for a while, waiting for the right thing to come along. She tried the gelding, bought him and renamed him Jackson.

Undaunted by his estimated age, Ratcliff started riding Jackson daily, and he became a cornerstone of the adult life she was building. She often trailered him—he’d happily load himself and ride alone—to the 8,000-acre Biltmore Estate in Asheville to trail ride and condition him to compete in lower-level eventing.

Jackson, left, now lives happily amongst his pasturemates at Hope For Horses in North Carolina. Photo Courtesy Of Kelly Gray

“Jackson always loved it when I stopped at a gas station to get him some SweeTarts, his favorite treat,” Ratcliff said. “I would drop his window down and go into the gas station to get a drink, and he would yell at me across the parking lot for his SweeTarts.”

He was a fast learner, and always eager to please her, whether out on the trail on in the dressage ring. They ultimately worked their way up to competing at the novice level of eventing.

“Jackson was always really good at lateral work, so any time he got upset it was like, ‘We’re gonna go do some shoulder-in,’ to remind him that everything was OK. We had all these jokes about him,” Ratcliff said. “He was just precious, just precious. We definitely could read each other very, very well.”

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Jackson was always the “most well-behaved horse in the barn,” she said, except that he would kick at his stall walls when he heard her truck coming down the driveway and would not stop until she showed up at his stall door. Ratliff once broke her femur in a fall into the water, and afterward she would visit Jackson at the farm. He was never afraid of her crutches, and once she was ready, he would stand quietly while she climbed up the tailgate of her truck to sit on his back in the field.

Over the years, Jackson followed her through the roller coaster of life’s events—career, marriage, motherhood and, eventually, divorce—and he was the one, steady thing that never wavered as years passed.

Twice the age of most senior horses, Jackson still begs for treats. Photo Courtesy Of Kelly Gray

“He just took everything in such stride. You know, whatever came from life, he just kind of changed with it,” Ratcliff said. “I was looking at pictures of us when he was ‘young,’ and I kind of tried to recreate the picture now. It’s very, very different! We’re both like, well, not 20-something anymore.”

She had hoped to return to him the stability he gave her—to be the unwavering presence in the remainder of his life—and hoped to keep him and care for him until the end of his days. However, divorce forced her to relocate in 2020, and she struggled to find a farm that could appropriately care for her senior horse in her new circumstances.

During her search, a friend named Connie Moore recommended she look into Hope For Horses, a nonprofit equine sanctuary in Leicester, North Carolina, where Moore volunteered. Hope For Horses takes in abused and neglected horses, rehabbing and rehoming those they can, but also takes some like Jackson, there because they need permanent, specialized care, Executive Director Kathleen Kelley said.

“We just thought, ‘Well he just needs a soft place to land; he’s not going to be around for much longer,’ ” Kelley said, referring to Jackson’s already advanced age, estimated to be north of 45 at the time they took him. “And I think that’s sort of the joke, isn’t it? He’s thriving and he continues to thrive. And he found his soft place to land, and he plans to stay here for a while.”

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The organization’s roughly 30 volunteers provide senior care for Jackson as he continues to navigate his abnormally advanced years—the oldest horse on record was verified to be 62 at his death in 1760—and compared to his pasturemates decades younger than him, Jackson is actually a relatively easy keeper, she said. Jackson remains full of life and still occasionally takes off in a canter across his field.

Jackson is thriving at Hope For Horses, having just celebrated an estimated 50 years of life. Photo Courtesy Of Kathleen Kelley

“Jackson is a symbol of strength and perseverance, a living testament to the power of love and compassion,” said Hope For Horses board president Ann Stuart, DVM. “Behind every step Jackson takes, there is a team of volunteers devoted to his care.”

In May, the organization held a 50th birthday party for Jackson, based on his estimated age. They invited the public to meet their extraordinarily senior elder statesman at his party and learn more about the organization, which relies on donations and a fleet of volunteers to care for and rehabilitate horses in its care.

At Jackson’s 50th birthday party representatives of Hope For Horses gifted Jennie Ratcliff a hand painted table with Jackson’s picture on it. Photo Courtesy of Kelly Gray

Ratcliff and her now-17-year-old son were among those who attended the festivities. She still visits Jackson at the farm when she can and always remembers to bring him his favorite treats, donuts and SweeTarts. She attributes many of her favorite memories in life to time spent with her beloved horse.

“I mean, he’s just made my life so much better,” she said. “I was super thankful that Hope For Horses took him. … He’s getting just excellent care.”

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