Their Golden YearsJune 26, 2020
The Ins and Outs of Retiring Your Horse
By Christina Keim
Thanks to proactive health care, better nutrition, and thoughtful training protocols, horses are enjoying longer athletic careers than ever before. For owners with a commitment to lifelong care for their animals, this is good news. But eventually, it will be necessary to moderate your expectations for even the most robust athlete. Knowing when, how, and where to retire your horse is a decision often made in concert with your trainer and veterinarian.
The “Step Down” Approach to Retirement
“To many people, retirement means stopping all riding and all the maintenance you are doing, and turning them out in a field,” says Christina Major, a lifelong equestrian enthusiast and co-owner/head trainer at Dusty Dog Farm in Keene, N.H. “But many horses that have been career [performance] horses get used to the routine laid out by an industry. They get used to what that means for them. The horses enjoy it, and when you just stop it, they miss it.”
After seeing former performance horses languish in field retirement, Major has come to believe that owners should create a retirement plan that is both physically and mentally beneficial for the individual horse. In many cases, “retirement” starts by transitioning an aging animal from a higher performance level to a lower one.
“I have made the mistake of retiring horses too quickly in the past,” says Major, a hunter/jumper and dressage trainer whose farm is home to 36 horses of all ages and breeds. “Now, what I live by is a simple ‘step down program’ as they age.”
As examples, Dusty Dog is currently home to a former 3’ hunter who now teaches her lessee the ropes at 2’3”, as well as a former international show jumper who is the “go to” mount for those learning to canter. One aged lesson horse used to belong to a collegiate program, and is thriving with his lower intensity workload. When horses require an even lighter schedule, they become a part of Major’s Farming for Resilience community program, which primarily focuses on horse handling and riding at the walk.
“I have 10 equine employees in my lesson program,” says Major. “And they are often retired horses.”
The advantages of having older horses stay in light work are numerous. Their experience and education often make them invaluable teachers, and the regular attention keeps their bodies and minds in the best condition possible. Finally, horses with a job stand the best chance of finding a home should an owner’s circumstances change, and they can no longer keep the horse.
“Age is not a disease,” says Dr. Grant Myhre, owner, hospital director and senior surgeon at Myhre Equine Clinic in Rochester, N.H. “There are a lot more horses remaining productive and useful into their later years.”
Like any older athlete, some of these horses will need veterinary support to remain comfortable.
“I think about what kind of career they had, and what kind of wear and tear they likely sustained,” says Major of choosing how to support her retirees. Being proactive is key, and Major and her attentive staff give each animal a thorough daily check for symptoms of impending problems.
Helping owners to manage their aging horse’s various aches and pains is a big part of the work Myhre does at his referral hospital. He is often asked for advice when owners are trying to decide whether a horse’s chronic issues are significant enough to warrant full retirement. Whenever possible, he tries to keep aging horses functional to a degree where they can still have a job.
“For example, one of the most common forelimb lamenesses I see is chronic caudal foot pain,” says Myhre. “When it is symmetrical, sometimes you just see the short steps. The horse is in pain, but they never complain.”
In a case like this, Myhre will suggest employing imaging such as an MRI to determine how the horse’s internal structures are faring. If the MRI reveals that there is no significant underlying disease, a procedure such as a neurectomy can relieve the horse’s discomfort and allow them to go back into work, with care and supervision.
“Neurectomy has a bad connotation, but I believe it is one of the most humane things you can do,” says Myhre. “By doing the neurectomy, I am giving the horse a few more years of a pain free existence.”
Myhre has also had good success with helping horses find placement in therapeutic riding and other donation-based programs once they have been returned to baseline comfort.
“We try to make the horse functional to a degree where the horse is beneficial to somebody else,” says Myhre. “This can also be a good option for a younger horse with some issues who will never be good enough to show. If they can meet donation criteria, the owner can even receive a deduction.”
Greener Pastures: The Equine Retirement Farm Option
Another option to consider is the equine retirement farm. These farms are filling an important niche within the industry, offering long term sanctuary to permanently retired animals. Often the amenities are fairly straightforward—field board, shelter, and basic care for a monthly fee.
But Mitchell Farm in Salem, CT, was founded in 2004 with a different vision for equine retirement. It is set up as a non-profit; the farm takes ownership of (mostly) older, unrideable horses, and the former owner donates a monthly, deductible fee toward their long-term care.
“We cover everything,” says Dee Doolittle, founder and executive director. “Obviously with an older horse, things can go wrong, and the fee may not cover it. But that’s the risk we take, and that’s why we’re a non-profit.”
Horses at Mitchell Farm spend their days on grassy pastures, weather permitting, and come into a stall at night. The farm staff are experts in geriatric care, often catching problems early due to their experience and quick attention. The farm’s set up is the perfect fit for former show and racehorses who have never been maintained in a large herd or run-in style environment.
“We give them a low stress retirement,” says Doolittle. “For a lot of them, it actually extends their life. We give them as much of a ‘just be a horse’ experience as we can, but they avoid the cold of wintertime and the bugs in summertime.”
But it isn’t just former show horses who make Mitchell Farm their final home. They are also caring for backyard ponies whose families aren’t able to physically take care of them, horses with old injuries that prevent them from being ridden, and even a few former Thoroughbred broodmares who are there on “scholarship,” supported by donations (Mitchell Farm is a proud member of the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance, a network of non-profits working to support off-track horses in need of second careers and homes).
“There are a lot of for-profit stables starting to open up stalls for retirement,” says Doolittle. “But to be in a situation where it is busy and people have other things going on isn’t necessarily ideal for geriatrics. We have a very focused agenda.”
If you are considering a retirement farm for your horse, you must plan early. Mitchell Farm averages 30 residents, and has a waiting list at least two years long.
“We stress highly, please plan ahead,” says Doolittle. “Think about your horse’s retirement. People get discouraged when they call and want to retire their horse right away, and I can’t take them.”
Retiring your horse is an inevitability, so considering your individual animal’s long-term needs in advance can ensure that your horse’s golden years are comfortable and safe. End of life planning is ultimately the owner’s responsibility, but guidance from professionals can help owners to be confident in the choices they make.
Sidebar: Preparing for a Final Goodbye
Perhaps one of the hardest parts of caring for any animal is making the decision to have them euthanized. Our experts recommend making an end of life plan while your horse is still in good health, so that if a crisis strikes, difficult decisions will not be clouded by emotion. Considerations include your budget, logistics, and avoiding prolonged pain and suffering for the animal.
Dr. Grant Myhre, owner, hospital director and senior surgeon at Myhre Equine Clinic in Rochester, N.H., says that the American Association of Equine Practitioners has established euthanasia guidelines, which can be used by both veterinarians and owners to help inform the decision.
“There are several points they bring out,” says Myhre. “The most important is, ‘is the horse suffering?’ But how do you determine that? I get this question all the time.”
In their Guidelines, the AAEP offers several clear examples of times where euthanasia is indicated. Specifically, it includes animals living in chronic, unmanageable pain, those with medical or surgical conditions with a hopeless chance of survival, and horses with a condition causing them to be dangerous to themselves or handlers. But Myhre acknowledges that sometimes, there are gray areas.
“For example, some conditions we can manage with medications,” says Myhre. “But the question is if the cost of those medications is sustainable for the owner.”
When it comes to a horse in need of surgery, owners should consider both their pocket book and the likelihood of successful recovery.
“I tell owners that if a horse has less than a 50/50 chance of surviving a surgery, they should be considering the possibility of euthanasia,” says Myhre.
Christina Major, co-owner and head trainer at Dusty Dog Farm in Keene, N.H., feels that euthanasia is the right choice for horses when they are no longer physically comfortable.
“One has to weigh their condition carefully,” says Major. “Can they comfortably eat, drink, and see enough to make their way around?”
This is not to say that the judicious use of common NSAIDs, like bute, is not appropriate for animals with aches and pains.
“I like ibuprofen, and it doesn’t mean I should be euthanized,” says Myhre with a laugh. “Using one or two grams of bute is not a bad thing to do. It is an anti-inflammatory, not a direct pain killer. But there is a limit, because it can cause kidney or gastrointestinal issues.”
If you choose to euthanize your horse, you must also plan for their remains. Horses can be buried, cremated, or in some areas, composted. Myhre Equine Clinic maintains an equine cemetery on their property, but some owners choose to bury their horses at home.
“Be sure to know the rules for your town, county, and state,” says Myhre.
Increasingly, owners choose cremation for their horse. Many clinics will make arrangements for this process for a grieving owner, with the cremains being returned to the owner if so desired. If this is your preferred plan, be prepared for the cost—pick up, cremation, and ash return can easily run over $2,000.
For Major, euthanizing an animal in declining health or soundness is the right choice for a loyal partner.
“A peaceful death with an intravenous injection does more to honor the horse than a tragic colic or slip and fall on the ice resulting in a bad injury,” says Major. “It is not a cruel thing, and it is a very individual decision.”