The Tough Conversations We Need to Have: Reflections of an Old Horse Caretaker

The Tough Conversations We Need to Have: Reflections of an Old Horse Caretaker

My old horse was born in 1977. He turned 43 years old in the spring of 2020. 

When I bought Pal in 2008 for $1, he was in a dire situation, in need of help. The plan was to give him “one last summer with the sun on his back”. Apparently, he had a very different plan. 

Pal weighed 450lbs when I purchased him and as I’ve done many other old or underweight horses, a nutritionist and I devised a slow and gradual feed plan to build him back up again. He steadily put on the pounds and within 4 months weighed 1,100lbs and looked super! Too good, really. I was aware that his natural weight should be closer to around 950lbs so although I still fed him daily, the amounts decreased somewhat and he settled at the weight which was right for him. At that time, he was able to eat anything and everything and he went from strength to strength.

Pal had spent most of his younger life as a successful gaming pony. Many local friends of mine knew him way back when they were children as they had competed against, and very often lost to him. He had not been passed from pillar to post, and had enjoyed a fairly stable and comfortable life in only a few homes, and mostly for long periods of time. I give credit to his previous owners - in my opinion, the life he lived was most definitely a contributing factor to giving him that boost required to recover and survive his temporary setback.

Me and Pal. 

As for the home he was in immediately prior to coming to me, I wouldn’t say it was a situation whereby, like so many horses, he had “fallen through the cracks”.  It was more that he lived in a situation where his owner wasn’t knowledgeable enough to accommodate his elderly needs so he slipped into a gradual decline.

Fast forward to that “last summer with the sun on his back”; while he was in excellent condition physically, something was missing in his life. Upon watching him say goodbye to his herdmates when they left to be ridden, I saw a hint of disappointment in his eyes that he was not going out too. I decided to start taking him out for easy and slow trail rides, just to see how he did. He loved it! So I thought I would fitten him up gently so that he, too, could be ridden out regularly.

Related: Ride the Horse, Not the X-Rays. This 'Unsellable' Horse Went to the Olympics 

Riding out was not only good for his physique, but also for him psychologically. It kept his mind active, and I often feel this is an underrated part of the overall health and well-being of these old horses. Most horses have spent their lives being active and then their jobs come to a sudden halt - at whatever age is deemed by their humans to be 'old'.  Some horses thrive on full retirement, while others need that bit more to occupy their days. It was clear to me that Pal fell into the latter category and that he had no intention of just wandering around a paddock for the rest of his days.

Once he was up to peak performance, I could so easily see flashbacks of how he must have been to ride as a younger horse. He was a bomb! Walking was unheard of; Pal jogged constantly when out on rides, and wow if I allowed him to canter, he was off! His jogging was noted and mentioned by others riding out with me. I thought about it for a short while and then dismissed the idea of making him walk. Heck, at his age, I felt that he could do pretty much whatever made him happy, so much to the chagrin of others, I allowed him to jog to his heart's content.

I enjoyed many fun years of riding Pal and we only “hung up our spurs” in the summer of 2018. The last ride was a typical one, which included some trails through the forested hills. We happened to be on a particularly beautiful trail that day, well off the beaten path from the vehicular trails, when Pal started to show some signs of distress. It was a hot day and the effort he put in to climb the hill took the wind out of his sails. I decided to stop in the shade for about half an hour to allow him to relax and cool down. When we eventually continued on our way to home, I considered what might have happened out there on that trail. I realized that had he gone into further distress, there would have been no way for any vehicle to get in to help. That next day, full paddock retirement became Pal’s new norm. 

Pal at 43 years old. 

Surprisingly, after 10 years of being the first to the gate to be taken out riding, he slipped into retirement with ease. He’d call briefly when we left, but then wander off quite happily with his other herdmates. He was content. He was ready. 

Pal has lived many years longer than I ever expected. I stopped having him vaccinated around 10 years ago. He is still regularly wormed and has his hooves trimmed by my farrier on a regular basis. He no longer has any working teeth and he stopped being able to eat hay 6 years ago. Four years ago, it progressed further and he became unable to eat grass, so finding a food source that was suitable for him became the next part of our journey.

I devised a fairly nutritious soaked feed plan for him and that worked well for a while - until he became bored with it, so I my quest began to find a feed he liked.  It was trial and error as often what I felt was good for him, he didn’t, and he would turn his nose up at it. Being a very old horse, weight loss can happen incredibly quickly, and during my search to find a suitable feed for him, his weight would fluctuate, sometimes down to worrying levels. At his lowest, which was by no means poor condition on the Henneke scale but was still very concerning to me, I decided to throw out the nutritionally valuable part of his feeding regime. I knew what he liked and even though the mushy mix I formulated was not nutritionally balanced, to me it no longer mattered. My thinking was, so long as he eats, he lives. 

"It’s not just about piling your life savings into keeping old Dobbin alive for a few more years to give you your peace of mind."

Having cared for a good number of old retired horses during my many years of owning horse businesses, I am fully aware of the moral and ethical dilemmas that old horse owners experience. It’s something that everyone needs to consider when they choose to keep their old horses. For some owners, once a horse gets to a certain age and is showing signs of needing that bit more help, euthanasia is an option. It has to be seen and accepted as a valid option because to keep a very old horse looking in tip-top condition is not only expensive financially, but it can also be incredibly emotionally taxing. As I touched on previously, some old horses do just fine with retirement, others struggle with the lack of routine and consistency that they’ve had their whole lives. It’s not just about piling your life savings into keeping old Dobbin alive for a few more years to give you your peace of mind. As a responsible old horse owner, we do need to realize that each old horse is an individual and we should do what we feel is right, for not only the horse, but also for ourselves.

There’s a saying, “Better a month too early than a day too late”. I’ve never really been a proponent of this in my own situation because I live with these old horses all day, every day, so I’m able to act immediately should the need arise. However for others who don’t have this luxury, then I feel it’s perfectly acceptable to put this theory into practice.

Pal living the life at Meadowlands.

One point I’d like to make is this: don’t ever accept the excuse that old horses normally look like bone-racks. They don’t, and shouldn’t. If a horse presents as skin and bone then something is terribly wrong and needs investigation. Sure, an old horse may not look spritely or muscled up as it did in it’s younger days but if it looks skeletal, that is a real cause for concern. Be aware that old horses can, and frequently do, lose condition and body weight at an alarming rate so we need to be fully mindful of this. An old horse who is nearing the end of it’s days and who has been ticking along in good condition for years can deteriorate within, quite literally, a few days.

Old horses require vigilance and very often need more tweaking of feed, care and veterinary attention than their younger counterparts. If or when we are unable to offer this to our oldies, for whatever reason, then the kindest final gift we can give him is an easy passing at home in familiar surroundings with equine friends nearby.

Death of the old horse comes in many forms; some look lovely until their last day. Others show quick decline. Having helped many pass over the Rainbow Bridge.  I’ve noticed that a week or two prior to them dying, they often look the best they’ve looked for many a year. The seem revilatised and will even play and run around with their fieldmates as if they are youngsters. Many people view this as a pleasure to watch, but for me, it’s a red flag that makes me pay very close attention to that horse over the coming days. Unfortunately, more often than not, I find the horse lying down, unable to get up. I gather up as many helpers as I can and we lift the horse back onto his feet. Some recover, and it’s just a minor setback, and they’ll continue on for another year or so. For others, it’s the slippery slope they are now heading down. 

This is when, if you haven’t already done so, you need to make a plan for what you will do when or if it happens again. You need to consider your options if the old horse were to colic or be badly injured. You still have choices to make; to pay a veterinary surgeon to do all that can be done to keep the horse alive, or to decide that the time has come, or to opt for somewhere in between if that is possible. It’s prudent to have your plan ready in advance.

For me, I will continue to share my daily life with Pal and cherish him until his time on this earth is no more. I have my plan of action in place for when anything out of the ordinary happens and I am at ease with making whatever decision needs to be made. Pal won’t be rushed out of the door, he will always be given a chance, however when it becomes apparent that his body is finally giving up on him, he will be let go. I will cry, but I will sleep well knowing I’ve done the very best I can for my old horse.

Read this next: Is Buying an Older Horse Asking for Trouble?

Feature photo by Agne Bekeraityte for Inset photos provided by the author. 

Written by Debbie Barker

Debbie Barker is a breeder of German Oldenburg horses and has owned boarding stables for 25 years in England and in Canada, where she has cared for everything from newborn foals to retired horses. She particularly enjoys helping older horses who have fallen through the cracks or those who simply require that little bit of extra TLC. Debbie has recently sold her equestrian facility and now spends her days chilling out with her 9 horses every day at her new home near Kingston, Ontario.