Breaking up is hard to do. Is it time?

WMNubeyeIt was lunch break and the clinician came into the lounge to eat. She was an experienced competitor and focused clinician with a reputation for being a bit cantankerous.

A few of us were there eating and after a moment an auditor asked if she might have some advice about her horse situation. With a nod from the clinician, the auditor said she had come into some money and finally imported the horse of her dreams. The gelding arrived and within a few months developed some sort of nebulous lameness that vets had not been able to diagnose. That was 4 years ago, the horse was still not sound. No cost was spared, no opinion ignored. The auditor asked what she should do next.

The clinician barely looked up from her plate. “Dump him,” she said, “You’re not getting any younger.” Stunned silence. I hoped she meant to say retire him. She continued after a bite, “It’s gone on too long, get another horse.” It was like the clinician had pulled out a gun and shot the horse herself. The mid-life auditor had tears streaming down her cheeks. She managed to choke out something in an almost-adult voice. No one was fooled.

I took it personally. I had a horse at home with a layered and obscure health concern that I had not been able to help, even after several vets and thousands of dollars. I wanted to shoot the clinician. Even if she was right.

What if you want to jump and your horse doesn’t? Not now, not ever. What if your horse is hot and spirited, a little more so than you are comfortable riding? Or maybe that quiet horse who taught you how to ride just doesn’t have the energy for advancing your riding goals? Or is it possible that you and your horse have such different personalities that you are just simply a bad match?

If you are unhappy, do you think your horse can tell? Of course. It is never a secret. It’s time for some honesty and hard questions. If you are thinking about making a change, no one can make that decision for you. We all like a challenge or we wouldn’t ride in the first place. Our hearts bond hard and fast and it isn’t easy to give up, even if it’s the right thing to do. Either decision takes vulnerability and courage. Sigh.

Consider contacting a trainer and get a professional opinion. We are bound by ethics (and usually our insurance policies) to tell a client when we think they are in danger. It isn’t true often. Usually taking a few lessons brings inspiration and a good solution. Horses and riders get stuck in miscommunication and there’s no shame in asking for help. The solution might be much simpler than you think.

First honestly ask the hard questions. Is he safe for me? This is huge, so shut up already with the false bravado. This isn’t bull riding. If you doubt your partnership, if you are intimidated, think hard. A bit of nervousness that goes away is normal, but if you feel fear or anxiety around this horse all the time, he feels it, too. This is a dangerous, maybe even cruel path that benefits neither horse nor rider. Loving yourself and your horse might mean making a change.

Second question: Are we having any fun yet? Yes, it’s supposed to be fun. Do you ride every chance you get or are you reluctant to come to the barn? Do you laugh in the saddle or does it feel like pulling teeth? Riding is a challenging, time-consuming passion that is never improved with resentment and frustration. Both you and your horse have a right to enjoy yourselves.

Third: Is this what we both want to do? There is a difference between acquiring the skills for a different riding discipline, and trying to push your horse into becoming someone he isn’t capable of being. We should all get to do the job we’re good at. Instead of trying to shove a square peg of a horse into a round hole, maybe everyone would benefit from finding another rider looking for the qualities that you saw in him in the beginning.

Finally, a horse will cost you everything you have; all your money and time and courage. No matter how much you have to give, the longer you ride, the more you’ll be stretched beyond your limits in every area. Horses have an amazing way of making more of us than we thought possible. But it only works when we are honest first, with our horse and ourselves.

Just because he isn’t right for you, it doesn’t make him wrong. It’s pretty arrogant to think that you are the only good home that horse might ever have. I see it all the time; horses change hands and find a better fit. Do you know the future? What if it was your job to facilitate this horse getting to his right home? Do you love him enough to let him succeed with someone else?

And finally, I have to say a word to those who are dumping, yes, dumping older horses near retirement. Expect a whole world of bad luck. The horse gods frown on people who punish a horse for aging. You aren’t getting any younger either.

Breaking up is hard to do, but living with the mistake is worse. The clinician was right. Life is short. I can’t tell you what the right thing is in your unique case. I just know this one thing: It isn’t about our puny human ego.

Horses depend on us. Do the right thing.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

Anna Blake

0 thoughts on “Breaking up is hard to do. Is it time?”

  1. “Do the right thing.” I won’t dump mine for any reason. If they become old and unsound they will live peacefully in a paddock. I made a lifelong commitment.

    • Wonderful, you have a happy barn. Retired horses are still ggreat company, I have three. I worry about younger horses who aren’t a good match for some of us.

    • I couldn’t let my best friend down. I found a job for him. His knees went and most likely were always bad as he fell on me twice at a canter. His job at the moment is training handicapped children. He hated it at first and would bite the children. I didn’t know what to do as he was my best friend I didn’t want to put him down and couldn’t afford to board him what with the spanish economy being so bad. A Miracle happened. the young man who had the stable discovered that if he took the bit out of his mouth as Romantico is voice trained, he was wonderful with the handicapped kids. He thinks all the attention is for him. It is a happy ending as now he is the best money earner for the stable and is consequently cared for better than any horse anywhere.

      • I love it, another happy ending that didn’t look that way at first. Really, us humans have go get it that bits are very strong cues and some horses are fearful. Sounds like your boy is the big winner. Yay.

  2. Good, wise advice. I’m moving my 31 yr old, blind gelding to a beautiful, quiet 2 horse barn under the care of a retired woman who can take good care of him. He will continue to see me, and will hopefully be happy in his retirement villa. Mine til death.

    • I had purchased a horse that was too much horse for my skill level at the time. I “dumped” him on a teen after giving her very stern warnings about him (I tried to scare her off). She bought him. Three years later he’s a very loved pet that totes kids around. I’m glad I sold him even though it felt like I failed him at the time.

      • Thank you so much for this comment, it is exactly what I know to be true… There is a happy ending, it just might look different than you thought at first. Thank you for doing the right thing, even if it hurt at the time.

  3. With tears in my eyes I read this, and know how well you can reach into our hearts and say what needs to be said. No matter how hard. I will share this blog with a loved one we both know and hope it helps for everyone. Thank you

  4. Do we dump our dogs, parents, will we be dumped? What is a horse, a disposable pet, a puppet, a worker in some cases a money maker. ‘Show me your horses and I will tell you what you are’. English quote. Yes sometimes it is the right thing, for the welfare of the horse for the best possible outcome.’ They are a commitment like Lori says and when things don’t go as we planned and dreams seldom do exactly, it’s not the horses fault, it’s nobody’s fault, but you deal with the circumstances with a stiff upper lip!

    • It is a complicated world, things don’t always look like what they are… Working with a rescue has shown me the worst and the very best. In the end, Humans.

  5. “And finally, I have to say a word to those who are dumping, yes, dumping older horses near retirement. Expect a whole world of bad luck.”
    Love this!!! And then call me because I LOVE the experienced/been around the block horses!!!

  6. I understand what every one of you have said. Yet, I cannot fathom not having an “until death do us part” relationship with my boys.

  7. Thank you for this. I’ve been thinking of working with rescue horses to help them become more adoptable, but am worried about my ability to let them go to a new home (Will they be cared for and loved as they should be?) “What if it’s your job to facilitate getting this horse to his right home?” Holding this belief will help me to be willing to let go and trust that is what is happening.

  8. At our stables we have two sisters who have kept every horse they have out grown and every horse that has out grown them they have over ten horses between them, we where going to sell one of ours but when it came to it we couldn’t do it even though some really good homes came up

  9. I believe that if it is in our power to keep a horse for life if it is lame or just too old to ride any longer it is our duty to provide them with care and comfort as best we can. I could not live with myself if I gave up on them because they are just too old. It means not achieving my dream at this point, but it is the right thing. It is a lifetime commitment.

  10. “Breaking up is hard to do, but living with the mistake is worse”.
    Oh, so very true, Anna! If we want to dump something, let it be the feelings of guilt, of failure, of betrayal. How much happier is the horse with a human who has the skills to match his horsenality and create a true partnership.

  11. Sometimes it really does not work out, and hanging on to the horse is not in the best interest of anyone. Having a horse, a dog, an over priced vehicle as a status symbol is not healthy for animal or owner, any more than being a ‘trophy wife’ is healthy. Letting go BEFORE the situation becomes dire really can be the best solution.
    That said, the only way I could let my horse go was to a better home. Which is why I do not have horses now, only memories

  12. I absolutely agree…we helped the last of our “forever horses” leave us after 25 years. My lovely Suzie I had for 17 years,she was 27 years old…my husband’s wonderful Marty we had for 20 years,he was 30…our daughter’s sweet Rosie we had for 22 years,she was 25.

    My Ziggy just was not right for me…a big strong Haflinger that I was able to take dressage lessons with ( my Sue HATED arena work and we hacked all the time and had great safe adventures…not so with Ziggy..he is a home-boy for sure. After 7 years, I had to admit he was not for me, I found him a lovely home where he will be a pet and just toot around the field at his home, with his 2 new brothers. No more falls and crashes for me and no more trying to be brave and go out hacking for him….I was very sad to see him go..but as the saying goes…if you love them,sometimes you have to set them free. Thank you for the article…it made me sure I had made the right decision. I know where Ziggy is and I can visit him anytime….I was very fortunate to be able to do this…many never know what happened to their horses….that must be so hard to live with.

    • thanks for your comment, you have seen both sides of this question. Keeping a horse forever isn’t always the right answer. I meet horses who wish their riders would let them go…

  13. Anna you always put it so well! Funny how things turn out. We got Butterscotch to be Belleza’s buddy because we didn’t think Leader was going to be able to battle the last founder. Then Leader got well, and we lost the 15 year younger Belleza. Suddenly, Butterscotch has had enough of the Old Guy’s bullying, whacks him one and now they are best buddies. Leader is 28 now, has Cushings and is as obstreperous as ever. Sound except for a little arthritis. Butterscotch has matured into a beautiful girl as well. They are with us for life.

  14. I don’t believe in luck, but I love this quote:

    “And finally, I have to say a word to those who are dumping, yes, dumping older horses near retirement. Expect a whole world of bad luck. The horse gods frown on people who punish a horse for aging. You aren’t getting any younger either.”

    LOL and Bravo, Anna!

    Why do fancy pants clinicians think they can insult people and horses like that? How deflating. I will never forget a certain hunter seat equitation “god” (he thinks he is) teach at a clinic in Chicago decades ago. I was there to watch. He was so condescending and told one of the girls participating she was just a girl in a pretty sweater on a horse but not a rider. And he circled around to the pretty sweater comment a few times to try to motivate her to ride more aggressively. If I had been that girl’s mother I would have had a few words with Mr. M. . .this person.

    • The clinician was blunt, but I am not sure she was wrong. When is it time to acknowledge the horse isn’t improving and transition to riding another? Old horses are easy, these other decisions are so much harder.

  15. I’ve mulled over this conundrum a lot (I’m still into clearing out the barn; hands occupied, brain wandering). At the moment I am finding it very difficult to “dump” inanimate things – such a disparaging expression – but the mind-set of “dumping” partners; human, canine, feline, equine …. is the pits.
    I just hope that clinician blurted it out on an off day … we all mis-say/mis-speak occasionally (trying to quote Ms. Rodham-Clinton correctly), before brain engages with vocal chords.
    I am sure there are horse-owners who are too proud to admit defeat and think no-one could be a better owner, who ought to come to terms with the reality that their active horse deserves a different, not necessarily “better” rider, and another future.
    But there are also new horse-owners who don’t give the relationship a chance to mature and would find it so rewarding to persevere when their horse may be testing if you are the owner they want.
    I agree, Anna. Best to listen to an objective, horse-advocate trainer/relationship counsellor. If only there were more like you to spread around 🙂
    It is marvellous to assure a horse a forever home. But sometimes our circumstances overwhelm us and if we can’t keep them, but do our best to assure their best future with ourselves differently, or belonging to someone else, we shouldn’t feel we’ve failed. Just made a wise, unselfish decision.

    • This comment is great, All of them have been. So many of us use the ‘until death do us part’ analogy, and I have divorced. It was the right thing for both of us. I know others who stay together and are never happy… I think it is easy to agree that dumping an old horse, assuming you have the resources to keep him, is a bad thing. The rest of it so much more complex.

  16. I often find myself looking at a rider or human and thinking “poor horse. If you were with me, you’d be better of.” What an arrogant view (still sometimes true). So I think sometimes we need to let go of the horse, offer them a change for a new, and maybe better home. I’ve just found one for a young horse that cannot be ridden. His owner tried everything she could but in the end she decided she wanted to ride, meaning another horse. If he had been mine, I would have kept him and put up with it. But I fully understand her too.

  17. I’m so thankful I came upon this! I just sold my 10 year old OTTB, and can’t stop the tears and guilt. She was just too much for me and I lost my confidence with her. But she was my beautiful girl and I loved her very much. So difficult. On the upside, my daughter started college, has a job and minimal time for Sticky, her 24 year old Arab. So it’s going to be me and Sticky going forward. The money I save on my horse board can go to keeping him in high end feed as winter approaches. I can totally relax around him, hop on bareback, etc. Now to stop blubbering . . .
    Thank you.

  18. Thank you for an inspiring insightful post and you have provided the answer to my question … When is it time to give up on my horse ? And no I am not going to dump her but think it is time to bring her home and retire her… As an ex riding school horse she had years of being institutionalised and over the past 4 years we have peeled off some layers but tbh she will never be able to do the things I want to do with her . I love to hack out but if we are alone she spooks and spins and bolts so badly it’s downright dangerous . I now feel fearful doing this on her for obvious reasons – I want to live ! and it’s clearly very stressful for her . It’s making me miserable and unmotivated. I love her to bits and have just nursed her back to health after a bad bout of laminitis but your words about square peg and round hole ring true for me . She’s nearly 20 now and I want to get a horse I can have some fun with in the next few years … Feel bad even saying this as am very loyal to her and it feels like failure to give up . I have a field at home where she can live out her days without me asking too much of her . Wouldn’t even know where to start to get another one as she has been my first horse but maybe I have to do the right thing by her and attach my hopes and dreams for adventures to a new partner .

    • Sometimes they carry us and sometimes we carry them. It might be time to switch jobs and that pasture sounds nice. See what she has to say about it, and then trust her. Thank you for listening.

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