Friday, May 15, 2020

Knowing when to quit.

We love our older horses and most of them have enjoyed very long and successful show careers. We make sure we don’t start our horses too early, (3.5 years is the earliest we ever start a horse under saddle) we avoid repetitive exercise like excessive lunging and round penning and we monitor our horses’ knees and hocks and watch for stiffness and movement that is off. Even with all of these considerations some horses just need to retire earlier than others.

It’s ironic that in an industry that considers 3 and 4 year old racehorses being retired the norm, that the other end of the spectrum falls to people trying to wring the last bit of glory and status out of their horses. Call it ego, greed or foolishness, the simple fact is that it happens way more than it should. It’s all well and good to keep an older horse over the age of 15 working, but when they already have an established show career and have retired a champion it’s a bit redundant to keep piling the work on, especially when they’ve had several years off with no work at all.

We’re not talking about taking a horse out for an easy quiet trail ride, or saddling him up to lead the kids around on, or even something fun like a photo or video show. Even use as a beginner level lesson horses isn’t too big a strain. And older horses are the exact ones from which beginners need to be learning. Going to breed expos is also another good use for older retired horses, as it allows them to show off their skills with light riding and to also interact with hordes of horse adoring people. ( We’re looking at you Stonewall Rascal, you attention hound!) However, the work level needs to match not only the age level, but the fitness level. Just like with people, the older you are, the harder it is to get back into shape after a long time off. Not only is it harder, but it can create damage that will then alter a quiet, pain free retirement into a stressful, pain filled, forced retirement when joints and muscle strains flare up, as well as bone damage that results in calcium spurs and osteoarthritis. We’ve also noticed a prevalence of serious ulcer flare ups and fatal colics with horses that are not very carefully brought back up to peak competition fitness.

So how does this happen? It happens when people get greedy or need their ego stroked, or they are so desperate for recognition they want to tag along on their horse’s previous fame. Because after a horse has earned their retirement and deserves to be treated kindly and fairly, or to enjoy their down time with foals or stud services, it’s bonkers to pull them back out of for the sake of a ribbon. No ribbon is worth the health of your horse. Again, we’re not talking about horses that have kept working and maintained a high level of fitness into their teens, we’re talking about horses that have been full on retired and then get pulled out in their late teens and put back into strenuous show training such as dressage, reining or jumping. We’ve seen it happens at all levels, from retired ponies that then get dragged back out so the next generation of grand kids can run the crap out of it at a local play day, or a retired stallion that isn’t attracting the breedings as much as anticipated, so the owner thinks they can create more hype by sending the horse to a trainer to try to get some points in a new discipline. Both are unethical and wrong to do to the horse. It serves no purpose but to make the owner look foolish. The level of physical fitness required to be restarted is immense, and in the case of dressage, with its focus on bending, core work and extension it can be detrimental.

It's a cheap win to take a retired champion out and continue putting them through their paces as well. Why continue milking ribbons out of an older established horse while leaving your young stock and blank record horses to sit? Only showing one horse out of an entire program makes us nervous as prospective buyers. Are the other horses not up to snuff? Or is the owner too ignorant or afraid of bringing up a horse that isn't ready-made?

So who would take on such a horse for training and fitting? It would be someone that is unethical and just wants a check, while they add further damage to an older musculoskeletal system. They have neither a conscience nor an understanding of horse anatomy. We’ve been asked in the past to train horses past their level of ability and the answer is always NO. We would never do it with our own horses and we absolutely will not do it with someone else’s. This is another one of those areas that can send up the red flags as to whether a breeder or trainer is ethical. If they are trying to squeeze a few more ego stroking wins out of a previously retired horse then the answer is that they aren’t. If they are subjecting an older horse to strenuous training to try to sell breedings or market foals then it’s clear the checkbook, not compassion, guides their moral compass. Horses deserve better, we owe it to them.

Tracy Meisenbach
February 2020
Trinity Appaloosa Farm

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