First, I watched Brentina’s retirement ceremony. Then Secretariat’s last race and Valegro’s final Olympia freestyle. Who doesn’t need to watch Aldrich’s one-tempi victory lap one more time? This part is embarrassing. I searched for a ridiculously sappy scene from that old movie, The Electric Horseman, where Redford sets the stallion free. It’s a kind of retirement, too, and the camera slo-mos his gallop toward a herd of mustangs. He’s got a gallon of baby oil slathered on him (the stallion of course, who cares about Redford) and his muscles ripple and flex as his stride lengthens. Slow motion photography was made for this and they milk it, changing camera angles in a way that doesn’t make sense but shows more skin. You know in the real world, he’ll be muddy, scraped up, and half-lame in a day, if a varmint hole doesn’t kill him sooner, but the music swells…
And then I made myself stop. It’s just that retirement conversations come up a lot these last months and it’s never too soon to start planning.
The thing I like about retirement ceremonies is that the horses are sound and fit and bright, mugging for the crowd, who love them like their own. We celebrate them at the top of their game and wave from our chairs. Real life is more complicated.
How did retirement get such a bad name in our own barns? There’s someone who’ll comment that she’s riding her 35-year-old horse, and another who bites her lip because her horse retired at 19. Can we set our emotions aside for a moment and talk reality? I know it’s impossible.
Comparing horses never works. A lanky long-backed Thoroughbred ages differently than a compact round Arabian because of accident of birth. A performance horse might have more miles on him than a backyard grade horse, but he also might have gotten a higher standard of care. Add in the wild cards: injuries, being a kid horse, your location. And no one denies that horses live longer these days. Long enough to suffer chronic issues even longer.
Comparing people is even harder. Some aren’t the best riders. Some say they “only” trail ride but that means packing in for a week in mountain terrain, while other’s trail ride in their two-acre pasture. Some compete their horses, trying to improve their riding skills to progress farther in their discipline, while making their horses stronger and steadier. Some happily stay at entry levels of jumping or pleasure riding or dressage forever.
One thing riders have in common is that we like to think our horses love being ridden. I’m not going to be popular for saying this, but I doubt it. Not every rider, not forever. Some of us understand and work hard to ride better for the horse. Then some of our horses are stoic and it’s easier think it’s all good than listen to their quiet signals about things we don’t want to hear.
At some point, we need to stop valuing what they do for us and shift to being grateful for what they’ve done.
I don’t know what’s right for your horse. I do know that considering his retirement is good planning. If you have a young horse, know that you have time. Go slow and build a solid foundation for your horse’s future. Train with compassion.
If you have a midlife horse, recognize that these are precious days. His prime is finite and the view from the top is beautiful. Work him with kindness, to keep him strong and supple. Be aware in the moment. Be gobsmacked.
And if you have an elder, listen to him closely. Remind him of his golden days and respect what it must feel like to be a flight animal whose body is losing strength as years pass. Then try to be as generous as he has been.
I want to share two elder stories because my clients inspire me.
There is a gooney-sweet chestnut gelding grazing in a pasture today. I met him and his rider a few years ago. He was as undone a horse as I’ve seen, not quite sound and not quite young. His owner was an accomplished rider but we spent months on a lunge line, letting him find the ground. Convincing him that nothing bad was going to happen until finally his poll relaxed, finally he exhaled. There was a glorious summer when he competed at intro dressage. His tests were not brilliant. Instead he was steady and relaxed, making round circles and gliding across the diagonals. I was in awe that he was capable of a free walk.
These last months have been up and down. No expense was spared, but his back has still dropped some. We worked to make him stronger, but gravity might be winning. With sadness and no fanfare, he went home. We miss him here but he’s been reunited with an old one-eyed mare and the grass is green. Writing about him is my version of a retirement celebration. I imagine thousands cheering him from the stands.
My other story is about a lesson I gave recently to a rider with fine gaited mare of a certain age. It’s taken some time to get started; she’s had the full run of vet help for her stiff body and an ulcer supplement is working. The lesson started at the walk, but the mare stopped from time to time. We didn’t rush her. The rider was generous with wither scratches while I talked about rhythm to relax her topline and leg cues to supple her barrel. Her walk became more fluid. We did a couple of exercises that released her shoulders a fraction and finally, an exercise to ask her stiff hind legs to step under a tiny bit. She tried a tiny bit. She was thoughtful, feeling her old body soften, you know, a tiny bit.
A spectator might not have noticed her effort and left in ten minutes. We noticed. In the end, the rider found a rhythm that helped the mare feel a little better in her body–a mounted massage of sorts. We never did more than a walk. The lesson ended early and the mare licked and chewed. Her eyes were soft, and I might have kissed her nose. Dressage is a gift for older horses if you do it right.
Thinking of retirement takes some getting used to; we’d be smart to start when they’re young. I think the thing we are mad at, the thing we want to control, is time. We are never satisfied in the moment because a good horse will always make us greedy for more. Living in that slo-mo shot of our horses getting old, in front of our own eyes, strangles our hearts even worse than a sappy scene in an old movie.
Sometimes we forget that horses belong to the stars and moon; they were never ours in the first place.