“When is it time” is a question that’s difficult to answer for most horse owners.
Some of us have a number in our heads, while others prefer to wait for their horse to show them know it’s time to decrease their workload down. Ponies are often ridden well into their thirties, whereas bigger breeds often start to slow down in their teenage years. Therefore, it’s complicated to define a horse as old by using just a number.
There isn’t a hard and fast answer for everyone. Every horse is different, and only you can know when it is time to transition your equine partner towards a more low-key lifestyle.
The easiest way to know when it is time to gradually decrease his workload is to watch out for clues that show he isn’t as happy working as he used to be, or he isn’t as able to do his job safely. Physical signs of old age can include a lacklustre coat, a loss of body condition, multiplying grey hairs, a floppy bottom lip, stiff joints and a swayback.
Our horses almost always show signs they can no longer handle the same pace of work as before, but it’s up to us to notice them.
- Happiness. Your horse always used to greet you at the gate, or he would throw a huge tantrum if you went out on a ride without him. But now, even with a bag of carrots, catching him isn’t easy, and he seems unfazed about missing out on the action. If your horse demonstrates obvious personality changes over a determined time period, he may be trying to tell you he needs a break.
- Slowing down. Is your buddy still able to keep up with the others on long trail rides? Can he put in a full hour of training and bounce back the next day as good as new? If not, try to understand the reason he’s struggling. Is it ill health, pain, or just the onset of old age?
- Health issues. Arthritis, metabolic syndromes, laminitis, heaves, kidney problems, joint/back pain or any of the other maladies of age are cause for retirement. It’s not fair to keep your horse working through illness or pain.
- Safety. If your horse is stumbling more than usual or struggling with his balance, he may have something else going on (like vision or hearing loss). If your horse, who was “always careful and surefooted,” suddenly starts banging into things, missing jumps, or faltering on hills, then it probably isn’t a behavior problem, but age related. Consider his safety (and yours) and discuss with your vet whether it is still safe to ride.
These days, horses have every chance of leading an animated and rewarding life well into their thirties.
Some horses will stay fit and happy until the end, while for others, the physical and mental manifestations of age will clearly indicate that retirement is the only option. And then there are those horses that fall somewhere in between. As caregivers, it’s up to us to decide the right time to retire our horses from work, and to keep our horses entertained and stimulated when they retire.
While one horse owner can make a strong argument that even in old age, a fit and sound horse should keep working until illness or pain symptoms present themselves or worsen, an equally rational person could argue that the same horse should be retired in the abundance of caution.
Aside from the above indications, and, of course, veterinary advice, it’s always a good idea to follow your gut and listen to your heart – because if you’re beginning to think it may be time, you’re probably right.