Creaky Old Horses, and the Women Who Love Them.

WMSpiritSkyI have a Grandfather Horse. People say he looks good, all things considered. I notice the standard for looking good drops a little more every year, just like his back. The same is probably true for me…

He has his very own veal pen at night; a private place he can enjoy his special mush, chew hay and spit it back out, and stay warm. Last week, I found him with his sheath terribly swollen, and surrounded a large area of edema. His run was dry, with no recent urine. OH NO. This is it, this is the end. Gasp!

Two years ago, a veterinarian told me that if gray geldings live long enough, they all end up with a tumor in their sheath area, and I’ve known a couple with that ailment myself. It was a death sentence, I couldn’t breathe.

Disclaimer: I am a decent amateur veterinarian myself; fearless about blood or injury, I give shots easily, and I can keep a colic horse on his feet until the real vet gets there. I’m strong and dependable in an emergency. It’s different with the Grandfather Horse. I notice I get a little teary when he gets his teeth checked, and sometimes my voice cracks when I say his name. What a ninny.

So, we had our first emergency vet call of the icy, miserable season. It’s a tradition with the Grandfather Horse to take the change of season hard. At his age, any vet visit might be his last. The office asked if I needed a same day appointment, or if tomorrow was soon enough. I don’t know, I don’t have advance-hindsight. If I knew how it was going to turn out, I would know how soon I needed them. The situation looked serious enough, so I asked for same day and doubled my farm call.

The newest, youngest vet in the practice arrived, she’s three years older than the Grandfather Horse. I had the horrible fear that I was going tell her maudlin stories about him. I can feel my throat start to close, and at times like this, I even make myself tired. I am an equine professional, for crying out loud! Horses are my business, and I give sage advice to other people acting like ninnies about their horses. And then my voice cracks again. After all these years, the Grandfather Horse still enjoys my embarrassment. He likes to have an unfailingly sweet and pathetic look on his face while I humiliate myself. It was worse when he was still under-saddle.

He clearly enjoys the sweet talk and attention from the vet tech and vet, not to mention the happy injection.  The check goes slowly, it’s swollen and totally raw on the inside. There is an external rash that bleeds when irritated. The vet checks everything thoroughly, cleans the area, and finds no palpable tumor.

Okay, it was an emergency sheath cleaning. I am just going to pause here and wait for the laughter and jeering to die down. I deserve it. Thank you.

It’s pretty predictable at this point. He stands all day on bowed legs and an arthritic hip, resting his eyes. He stands just the same way in turnout. The only exercise he actually takes is walking back and forth from his stall, and then we both take baby steps. It’s the reason an old horse’s sheath ends up in this disgusting smegma situation. He does not even feign awkwardness or apology.

It occurs to me as I am writing that the non-horse owners might be recoiling in disgust, reading about this topic. Us horse folks are fine with it. We constantly redefine polite conversation.

The vet left us with meds and directions to cold hose him a few times a day, followed by an application of an aloe vera vet salve. This is the best part for the Grandfather Horse; he plans a very slow recovery. It’s okay, my reputation with this horse is shot anyway.

The vet also added one more ailment to his chronic list. Now he has a moderate heart murmur. Oddly, I don’t panic at this. After all, he has a tumor on his colon, the most likely the cause of three years of incurable diarrhea, and so much arthritis that from some angles, he has a decidedly bovine appearance. His eyesight is bad and he gets disoriented. Old age is not for the vain, and someday this list will defeat him, but not today.

I’ve never been even remotely passive about this horse. I remember the first time it occurred to me that he would eventually die. I owned this wild colt all of 24 hours, I couldn’t catch him in his 12′ x12′ stall, and the thought that he was mortal crossed my mind. I clutched my throat, in tearful fear of losing him. He was 7 months old.

I don’t know, maybe I could find other women like me and start a support group. I hear the first step is admitting you have a problem. I don’t see any of us doing that.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.


Anna Blake

57 thoughts on “Creaky Old Horses, and the Women Who Love Them.”

  1. Oh Anna, I love your blog and your latest entry popped up in my inbox after I drove to work all choked up about the fact that it looks like my 32 year old mare is going to make it through another Thanksgiving. I’ve known her since she was 6 weeks old. I’ll join the support group and donate a box of kleenex.

  2. I don’t have a problem (rolls eyes). If you start a support group then be sure to let me know. I’m definitely in … even though I don’t have a problem. (Cough, sniffle, cough)

  3. oh heck I’m not even in the horse world and when it comes to Spirit, I easily fit in the Cowgirl Ninnies club. I think I was in tears at your house this summer when the vet was arriving for a call on him and this blog sends me into tears as well…I love that big guy!

  4. Beautiful boy – somehow age makes them seem so saintly and their forbearance so touching. Just a year since I lost my oldie so no point trying to make a sensible comment 🙁 One thing’s for sure he’ll always be a part of you ….

  5. I’ve only known that old spotted (well maybe a bit unspotted) horse since he was two. I love that he pushes your buttons. That’s the first emergency sheath cleaning I’ve heard of, but the old paint could be next so. . . I’ll keep you posted.

    • Thanks, Susan. It was my intention to be funny with this post, so I am thrilled that you will now be on the look out for the dreaded Emergency Sheath Cleaning! Frosty and Spirit share a high five!

  6. Why is it always a bit of a shock to actually admit and face our own and our companion animals’ mortality? Finally, our own aging bodies force us to accept the inevitable, but somehow we know that the humiliations of these elderly years aren’t who we or our pets truly are. I don’t want to remember my loved ones — human or animal — in their debilitated just-before-dying stage of life. So I squint my eyes and see them as I remember them, as they were in their prime — how they will look for all eternity — “at play in the fields of the Lord”.
    In the meantime, we forge on with diminishing abilities, we and our beloved equine and canine partners, comforting and loving each other. Constricted throats and tears come with the territory.

  7. Hello, I’m Jane, and I don’t have a problem, no sireeee, nope, not me. But if anyone wants to talk over coffee, donuts and carrots about…about…see my horse has a giant knee…and he’s getting older…and I’m kind of totally in love with him…do you know these words actually came out of my mouth during a vet call? “oh, I’m so sorry, my horse NEVER does that.” Even I had to roll my eyes at that one! Glad grandfather horse needed only an ER sheath cleaning. 🙂

  8. I love, Anna, that you love and treasure your old horse (and likely an old dog as well). That horse has been through a lot of life changes with you I am sure, and i know he is grateful to have you love him at this stage as well. There is much to be said for old love.

  9. I read your funny and sweet and poignant entry over coffee this morning. Then went back out and buried my nose in Damien’s shoulder and soaked up his smell for a very long time. I am grateful for days I can look at him and know he is having a good horsey day. Old Horses Rule.

  10. I’m with the club! My first horse (many years ago) lived to be in his 40’s. The last few years we had many vet visits which were always the last. I can truly and totally understand every emotion you talked about. Your blog is a delight too! Thanks

  11. I’m a charter member of the Old Horse Lovers Club. My worst day has come and gone. I go out to his pasture and talk to his ghost all the time. I hope for at least a handful of years before the next one “graduates”.
    Beautifully written, as always. -Kris

  12. Sister-in-heart!!! Oh my gosh! My old guy is 23, aged white, liver failing (with symptom of chronic diarrhea) and the most personable horse in the barn. I came in tonight fussing that he didn’t look good …. earlier I’d stood in the stall and talked to him a long time, his head lined up with me so that his ear was next to my mouth. I reminded him about that wonderful trail ride last summer and told him he’s the greatest. He licked my hand.

    BTW, I’ve been ordering BioSponge from Platinum Performance and up until recently it’s stopped the drippiness. One 21 lb. tub had lasted 3 months, then 2, now barely one.

  13. We don’t have a problem other than that we care. Lots. And painful as that is, I’m sure it makes the world a slightly better place. It’s coming up close to the first anniversary of the loss of my mare, after 25 years together. Yesterday I was in conversation with some other horsey women, a couple now horseless like me, and how we need a ‘fix’ every now and then, of simply smelling a horse, up close, long and slow….. No, it’s not tears rolling down my cheeks, must just be the wind…

  14. What a fantastic post. I have a lifetime keeper. He’s only eleven now, but every time the thought of him dying flicks through my head I get a flash of spine chilling terror. Not so much with my other boy, but this one horse I don’t ever want to let go of him. I don’t know why he’s different. He’s not even all that. Grumpy, unwilling, hard to keep fed and has myriad minor health problems, but he’s in my heart so deep I can’t even contemplate life without him.

  15. Thanks for your story. I have a 34 year old that’s blind in one eye and deaf but he is doing good for now,walks the fence line for miles every day. He’s getting a little slower in the mornings but really walks out going back to the barn, Iv’e had him for 28 years and have done every thing with him. Love him so much!!! He’s my buddy.

  16. Tearing up, and it has been fifteen years since my last two oldies left for greener pastures together. And my little dog had to join them last week. Gulp.

  17. Our first foal is now 32. We sold him years ago but he’s always remained boarded with us. In January this year we told his owner to stop riding him. It was only occasionally but he wasn’t looking too good. Today he looks great! The biggest hint he is so old is how slowly he walks. But sometimes he canters like a kid. I’m sure we have many more years with him. Of course, every morning I expect to find him lying in the field…. no worries here….

  18. Sign me up. For the support group, if you start one. Not that I need one, either. OBVIOUSLY we are all very strong, capable and together women who do not “need” support…..but, sign me up….
    I have a Standardbred named Marcus who is in his 40’s, yep, not a typo, 40’s. I have only been graced to know him for the last 6 years, but, his glory and beauty always rise above his weakening state. I also have my “lifetime horse” who is in his 20’s that is teetering due to an old fractured hip that did not heal well. My grandfather horses are the loves of my life, like the rest of you. I laughed because they do have a way of humbling us and reminding us of their strength despite their challenges. A great lesson to be taught by them.
    Grateful for the good days that help sustain through the bad. Great post.

  19. Count me in for the support group!….I have a 19..& a half (very important that bit!!)…….which, I know is not THAT old, but the vets said he would not get to 14….this bought a tear to my eye and a lump in my throat……need to go hug my ‘boy’…..!!….

  20. Must’ve gotten some shaving in my eyes…tearing up. My mare is not a senior yet, but sign me up. I almost lost her a month after she came into my life five years ago. Worse case of pigeon fever the vet had ever seen. Touch and go for months and months and months. During what should have been our getting to know each other phase on the ground and in the saddle, we took a different route. We slept out under the stars (I camped out in her quarantine paddock for nearly half a year) and learned to trust each other. So hell yeah, sign me up.

  21. Wow, I don’t need the support group and didn’t shed any tears while reading your blog (sniff, sniff). But sign me up anyway because my 35-year old Appaloosa causes me heart failure at the drop of a hat. Blind, arthritic, opinionated, and constantly needing his sheath cleaned, he is still a force to be reckoned with. I was stupid enough to get him (when he was 27) as my first horse. I felt too old to jump anymore so who needed a horse that could see? Within a year, he had foundered and gotten a mysterious head tilt. But he has taught me a lifetime of knowledge and I love him dearly! When is the first meeting?

      • My old man just turned 36 yesterday! I keep coming back to your article and sharing it on facebook.. It sums up my relationship with him so well. I hope that I was a good enough rider for him, he always made sure that I did my job riding correctly before he would bother to do what I asked,,, but then he could be magic! These old Appaloosas just grab our hearts! And they know that they have us!

  22. I have a grandfather horse, although I never thought to call him that-LOL. He has always been my buddy, friend, kid, partner…but the truth is at 30 years old he totally qualifies for the title Grandfather. Chick has been a part of my life since 1986. I can thank him for soo many things.
    He too has sheath things going on, this blog was right on the money for me- I had to do a thorough cleaning last Monday because he had a swollen dirty mess in there. Thank goodness it was very warm that day. This summer we moved the run in shed really close to the house and I can look out the window to make sure he is OK. Nope I am not paranoid. There will come a day when we will part, just not yet.
    loved your blog :O)

  23. Love your blog. I feel guilty that I didn’t give my grandfather horse enough time. He was 28 (had him for 24 of those years), not eating, looked like a skeleton, and would barely move. Decided it was time to put him out of his misery. When the vet (a new one) came to put him down I couldn’t be there. I heard that he gave the vet a fight over getting the shot. Should have been there. Just feel so guilty. 🙁

    • I have had a euthanizing go bad, and it is horrible. More than that, I always know that it does not erase what came before. He does not hold a grudge, they are better than that. He is free and it doesn’t hurt anymore. The 24 years stand.

      • Bless you, Anna. Your words mean more than I can say. Had never told anyone about the guilt before and have been fixated on the end, not the 24 years. We had a wonderful 24 years. I once had an animal communicator speak to him (Cochise). She said he was insulted that I had brought another person in because he thought our communication was great.

  24. (Raising my hand from my computer desk) “Me! Pick me for your support group.” My 23-year old TB gelding was not technically a grandfather, but colic got the best of him three years ago. I’m getting better/past crying when I speak of him and am currently on a quest to find another horse. However, I’m concerned I won’t find another horse I loved like I did him. That’s not something my non-horse friends or spouse can even “get.” And P.S., the emergency sheath comment was quite hilarious.

  25. Great post for so many reasons. And timely as we just said goodbye to our 13.5 year old German Shepherd yesterday. He is buried next to my own Grandfather Horse, who died at 33. So many times I thought “this is IT. this is the end” only for both dog and horse to bounce back. And then one time it really was. Thank you for sharing your stories.

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