I’ve owned my mare Dixie for just over three years, and she’s the light of my life. I board her just over the river from my Philadelphia home in southern New Jersey, and typically I visit her six days a week. Dixie has no fewer than six blankets for any possible indoor or outdoor weather condition, consumes a cornucopia of supplements to ensure her peak health, receives hock, stifle and fetlock injections, and sees a massage therapist twice a month. I groom her meticulously every day, so she’s always clean, shiny and dappled. She has plentiful turnout and comes into a fluffy, deeply bedded stall each day. I am dedicated to making sure she has the best life I can provide her.
I also own an off-track Thoroughbred gelding named Chai. He joined our family when he was 8 and I was 14. Now, almost 15 years later, Chai and I are significantly less thin and gawky, as we prepare to turn 23 and 29, respectively. We essentially grew up together. He was never an easy horse for me, but he taught me so much, almost all of it the hard way. I am so grateful to still have my boy in the family, where he will get to live out the rest of his days.
I’m lucky enough to have parents who live on a farm, about 60 miles southwest of Philadelphia. It’s an idyllic landscape of 22 acres, a four-stall barn, six sheep, five chickens and an ever-evolving collection of cats and dogs. My parents are lovely and compassionate people who take the very best care of their farm and their animals. Chai lives a beautiful retirement there, accompanied by my mom’s horses Tucker and Wallie, and a family friend’s horse Gabby. It is the best retirement home I could imagine for a horse. It will eventually (but hopefully no time soon) be Dixie’s retirement home, too.
During one recent visit to my parents’ farm, I was helping tend to the horses, and I took a little extra time in the stall with Chai at dinner. I marveled at the differences between my two horses and the lives they live.
Chai’s desire to get dirty is notably higher than Dixie’s. His coat is thick and furry, and his unkempt mane is close to 8 inches long. He and his blanket are muddy, just the way he likes. He’s plump—an impressive feat for a coming-23-year-old Thoroughbred in the winter. He is not the pampered horse that Dixie is, and that he used to be, but he might be happier than I’ve ever seen him.
I know Dixie is happy in her life as a performance horse. Her every need is met. Because of this, it makes me a little anxious to think about her eventual retirement and transition to living a less structured life (although perhaps that’s partially my control issues speaking). But maybe my vision of what a horse’s ideal life looks like has been skewed; maybe it’s closer to the life that Chai is living. Maybe some horses prefer to be a bit coddled, and maybe it varies from horse to horse.
I won’t know for sure which way Dixie is happier until I see her at both ends of the spectrum—and I’m not going to change her lifestyle now while she’s still a performance horse. I believe that she is a happy girl right now. But watching Chai embrace his transition into retirement over the past several years has really made me believe that horses should be allowed the opportunity to just be horses for at least some part of their lives.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the concept of horses and happiness. What is the pinnacle of horse happiness?
Someday—hopefully not for several more years—Dixie will also make that transition from pampered dressage princess to just a horse. She’ll get to come and go from her stall to turnout as she pleases, romp around her 22-acre retirement home, play with her friends (sheep and horses alike), roll in the mud, grow out her coat and her mane, and just live.
Dixie gives me so much, just like Chai gave me so much for all the years he was in work. I make sure that my sweet Dixie girl has the best life I can give her right now, but I think the ultimate display of gratitude will be giving her the retirement she deserves.
Laura Adriaanse is an amateur equestrian and U.S. Dressage Federation bronze medalist based in Philadelphia. She started out in the hunters, rode for the University Of Mary Washington (Virginia) IHSA team, then switched to dressage after college. She trains with Ana DiGironimo out of DQ Performance Horses in Swedesboro, New Jersey, with her Hanoverian mare Dixie Rose, with whom she hopes to make it to the FEI levels. She also owns an off-track Thoroughbred gelding named Chai, who lives in retired luxury at the Adriaanse family farm in Nottingham, Pennsylvania. Laura is a marketing and communications professional with aspirations of pursuing full-time equestrian media work. Outside work and the barn, she enjoys writing, live streaming horse shows, and spending time with her three cats.