Friday, November 5, 2010

Celebrating the older horse!

Dolly, age 25 and Amanda. Pilgrim, age 20 and Amanda

Bubbi and Jane. Age 33

Last weekend I had the opportunity to be a horse management judge at the Sunshine Region Dressage Rally. The last time I was at a rally was in 2007, the year before Jen retired Imp. It was great to be in the barns with these kids, seeing what they know and helping them understand what they should be doing. As I was walking down the aisle at Rocking Horse, I noticed a black horse with a sign on his door stating that he had special dietary needs. The rider, Jane, told me it was Bubbi....and as I looked closer, sure enough, it was Bubbi! I could not believe it and got emotional over seeing him there.

Why? Because Bubbi, a beautiful black Thoroughbred, is 33 years old!

Bubbi and his owner Raechel were Jen's teammates at the USPC Champs in 2004, where they were on the 6th place novice eventing team. Bubbi, who's show name is Janus, was 27 years old at the time, and the oldest horse at the Championships. I remember the region had a bit of a hard time letting him travel the 17 hours, but he made the trip to Lexington and back to Florida just fine, gaining a girlfriend in Imp in the nearly 2 week trip...she became obcessed with him!

Raechel is off to college now, but Bubbi, now retired from eventing, still has a very important job, teaching a new generation of pony clubbers the fine art of dressage at the family farm.

I love the older horse. It breaks my heart to read ads of these noble creatures, having served their owner for so many years, whether in the showring or foxhunting, or on the trails, now being dumped because of their age. Don't people realize that these horses still have so much to give?

If I won the lottery, I would have a farm full of these grand senior citizens!

As the District Commissioner of the local U.S. Pony Club, I frequently get calls from frustrated parents, who were dooped into buying their young child a horse that they can't handle. It is unfortunately, a scam in my opinion. Basically the way it works is the trainer convinces the parents that if they want to win at shows, their darling little Suzy needs a tall, lanky, big moving, 4 year old, usually OTTB (off the track Thoroughbred). Now don't get me wrong, I love Thoroughbreds...they are my favorite breed and I will take one over a warmblood anyday. But they are not for beginners, at least not 4 year old OTTB's, and they are not ideal for children. Why? Because the Thoroughbred, and a lot of young horses, regardless of the breed (yes, there are exceptions, especially with Quarter Horses and draft and draft crosses), have a very high energy level. They can be full of themselves, especially the green ones. So these trainers who have now gotten these ignorant parents into an expensive situation, can now charge to lunge the horse and to ride the horse before the child can get on the horse. Like I said, it is a scam and a black eye to the equestrian community in my opinion.

My advice to these parents is to first, RUN from that barn...find a reputable trainer and then sell that horse and find a schoolmaster. They have no idea what a schoolmaster is.

Bubbi is a schoolmaster. Are all aged horses good for beginners? No. I would not dream of putting a beginner or even an intermediate rider on Imp, who at age 20, acts more like a 2 year old these days. But most of them are.

Yes, a schoolmaster has x amount of years left...but I know of 4 and 6 year olds that colic and die or drop dead from other reasons. Unfortunately, no one knows just how many years any particular horse has left in them. But schoolmasters have so much to offer! They are over the silly stage (most are anyhow!), are usually predictable, and have that been there, seen that attitude that makes them such great teachers!

When I bought my youngest daughter her first horse, Dolly was a 20 something year old Quarter Horse, still with plenty of spunk. She did it all...eventing, stadium jumping, dressage, even games. Today, at nearly 30, she is retired, but only because a kick from another horse last summer, left her with a bad knee and as a result of over-compensating, now a mild case of laminitis.

Amanda's next horse was an 18 year old Thoroughbred, a freebie. Pilgrim was a dream. Another family had passed on him at the last minute because of his age. His age didn't bother me in the least bit. He had evented at the preliminary level and I knew he would teach Amanda so much! And he did! And like Dolly, he too excelled at dressage, show jumping and she even took him to a games rally! Unfortunately our story with Pilgrim did not have a happy ending, as he developed Lyme disease and was eventually euthanized due to neurological complications from the Lyme. We had him only a few short years, but his death could have happened at any age. I, nor do I think Amanda, would have traded the experience and good times she had with him, for anything.

Now adays, horses are living longer, thanks to improvements in feed and health care. A horse in his late 20's is very common, and I know of a pony who recently was euthanized and he was in his 40's! He was doing tadpole level eventing just a few years ago, and up to his death, still being used for lessons. I know of another lesson horse that lived to be in her late 30's, still being utilized up to the time of her death.

Health issues like arthritis and general wear and tear after years of hard mileage may make a horse not fit to continue at the level he once was, but that is no reason to dump them to an uncertain older horses on CraigsList have a very good chance of being slaughtered. What a shame that this is how we thank our best friend after so many years of service. In fact, the worse thing you can do for a horse that has arthritis, is retire him. Arthritic horses need to keep moving. And just like old people, old horses need to be stimulated. They need a job. They like having a job (well, with the exception of our Dolly, who prefers not to have a job, other than eating, but that has been her motto all along!).

Older horses do require a certain level of special management. Horses that are older will have different dietary requirements. Mine get Seminole Wellness Senior, which is softer to chew, and is higher in calories and low in starch. Many older horses, like Imp, who has many miles on her joints, have some degree of arthritis. Joint supplements are needed. Older horses may develop Cushings disease, laminitis, metabolic disorders, or any other number of health issues, that need to be managed with supplements or medications. I really like the SmartPak supplements, and their supplement guide and fast expert help, whether on facebook, email or phone, really makes it easy to figure out which supplements are best. But these disorders do not mean he has to be retired! And their teeth should be checked yearly, possibly twice a year. Older horses, such as Bubbi, may start to lose teeth. Substitute their hay with soaked hay cubes or beet pulp instead.

When I was running a horse rescue, our first rescue was a skinny old horse. The neighbors who drove past this horse every day, attributed her condition to her age. Lady, as we named her, was a 33 year old appendix, who shared a drylot with 3 other younger horses. They were fed once a day, everyone got the same feed, and since they were fed in the open, guess who had her meal stolen from her? The other horses would greedily gobble down their food and then chase her off hers. And, to top it off, the only teeth she had were 4 incisiors. No wonder she looked like she did. Once we rescued her, we put her on a senior diet, which was soaked. We also soaked her hay cubes. She got fed 6 times a day initially. And you know what? She gained weight! No surprise there!
Yes, some old horses do have a hard time keeping weight on them, but that doesn't mean that all older horses do, and with the proper management, you should be able to keep most senior horses looking just as good as one 10 or 15 years their junior.

Older horses are greatly underrated in our society. It is a shame, because they have so much to offer. Please don't dump your old horse because he no longer serves your needs...if you look hard enough, you can find a new job for him. Somewhere there is an older person who wants to just pleasure ride, or a beginner child who needs a horse who will safely teach her to ride. After being your faithful companion for so many years, doesn't he deserve this?

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