The central Virginia horse community was rocked recently by the discovery of alleged abuse and neglect at an equine retirement facility run by a respected member of the local equestrian establishment, Byrd Rareshide, who now is facing 10 counts of animal cruelty. Horse owners who thought they’d found a safe spot for their longtime partners’ golden years were shocked to see pictures of animals instead on the brink of starvation.
As someone who has already retired one horse—and is facing the very real possibility of needing to retire another at an extremely young age—the news from this retirement farm hit me hard and got me thinking about the challenges of finding safe, affordable retirement board for horses, and whether anything could be done to improve availability of quality care.
There’s a chance my young mare Azul won’t recover from her suspensory injury, and when I imagine early retirement, these are the anxiety-riddled issues that come to mind:
First, I look at the math. If field board ranges from $400-$600 a month, that means I could be looking at $96,000-$180,000 in board for my hypothetical pasture ornament, not counting vet, farrier or dentist. Those numbers are difficult to swallow, even though I as a horse owner am prepared to pay, because I feel that’s what I made a commitment to when I purchased her.
Then I get to the more difficult issue: How can I be sure that even when I’m paying for retirement care, I’m actually giving my horse a good retirement? The Virginia facility now in the news came very highly recommended to those who placed their horses there, but over the course of just one winter, some of the animals got so thin that vets reportedly found permanent organ damage. This possibility, to me, is the most terrifying.
The only truly secure solution, then, is to buy land and keep my old ones at home when they need to step down. But land prices and life complications also make this option feel overwhelming. What if your partner is an urban dweller who thinks that living in the country is akin to being sent to Siberia? And then there is the 24/7 responsibility that comes with having them at home. You think finding a cat sitter is tough? Try finding a sitter for your thousand-pound cat whose litter box is the size of your bedroom.
All of these factors leave me feeling very alone in an industry that thrives on community. We have our tribes and support at every step except this final one, where suddenly, the support system is gone. This feeling of isolation points to a larger issue facing the performance disciplines: the lack of prioritization or planning for end of life care for our animals on an industry-wide basis.
With horses, whoever is left holding the reins at the end of the day is also left holding all of the financial and personal responsibility. On the one hand, this is a risk we all sign up for as horse owners, and one we all must be ready to take on the moment we purchase. On the other hand, how fair is it to the horse for it to only have this one person to depend on at the end of the day, regardless of how many other trainers, riders, farriers, show management companies, etc have all made a living off of it along the way?
The racing industry has done a remarkable job of stepping up to the plate in aftercare and transitioning its athletes from one stage of life to the next. True, in many cases this means retraining for a different career, but not always—funding also goes to accredited permanent retirement facilities.
When have you heard any other discipline discuss aftercare or long-term care in such an open and direct way? Why are we not, when we owe so much to the animals who make it all possible? Whenever a horse starts getting older, or has some sort of injury, it often becomes a hot potato, bouncing from one place to the next until, devastatingly, it may land in a kill pen. This outcome should be unacceptable.
While the undertaking wouldn’t be easy—other disciplines are not as cut and dry as racing in terms of how they operate and who would even be eligible for support funds in the first place—I believe it’s an undertaking worth considering. What if a percentage of each show fee went to an aftercare foundation instead of centerpieces for the exhibitor’s lounge? What if there were specific benefit divisions or classes where entry and maybe even prize money was donated to retirement facilities? These are all just spitball ideas, but you have to start someplace. Right now, the conversation feels more like a non-starter.
The options facing owners of retirees both old and young are, across the board, not great. They are also very isolating; the owner alone carries the burden. We can, and should, strive to be more proactive than simply shrugging our shoulders and saying, “That’s horse ownership.” Because ultimately it’s not just the owners who are suffering—our horses are suffering, too.
Sophie Coffey grew up riding by the seat of her pants in Virginia hunt country, and she took a flying leap into the top levels of the sport through sheer will and luck after a cold call landed her a job at Hunterdon, Inc. She continued freelancing as a jack-of-all-trades through her 20s for some of the top names in the industry, getting the best education possible in horsemanship and larger life lessons. After leaving the sport to pursue a career in marketing, she returned in 2018 as an adult amateur and is currently teaching her baby warmblood mare Azul the ropes. She resides in Richmond, Virginia, with her fully indoctrinated horsey husband and several kitties. Follow her adventures on Instagram @coffeyinthesaddle.