Are You Having a Midlife Horse Crisis?

I got an email from a reader last week. She had a hard question. She acknowledges she was naive, but she adopted an Off-the-track Thoroughbred. He was a bit complicated, as I remember him, but she’s done an excellent job. He’s a solid citizen in the barn and on the ground. He’s been to professional trainers for a few years, but at 53, she knows he’s just too much for her to ride. I congratulated her honesty and didn’t think of talking her out of it. The problem is that he’s eight and she struggles with the idea that he is too young to retire for no other reason than being not the right riding horse for her. The family loves him, but is she being unfair? And by the way, she has three horses: her Appaloosa who was a perfect riding horse has retired due to EPM and there is a companion pony who is older than originally stated.

I wish this were an uncommon situation. Without a smile, I ponder the familiar question, “How many horses do you have to own to have one to ride?”

I heard about a group of seventy-something women who ride together. Who doesn’t want that? They probably get written up in the local paper. Do we confess a bit of envy? We would all choose it if all it took was passion and arduous work, things we are used to. Am I the only one who wants to congratulate them on their wild luck? It is luck if you’re seventy-something and riding, you have beaten the odds, and good for you! Sure, Queen Elizabeth is riding at ninety-six, but let’s be honest. She has staff. 

Especially bless their luck at having older horses sound enough to ride, ones that they have most likely been riding a decade or so already. Cheers for old campaigners, sane and mostly predictable. How fortunate to have a horse to grow old riding with. How many of those lucky riders have made the decision that this will be their last horse?

We want to think we’ll ride into our dotage but it isn’t always a choice we have. Life happens, and to get to that age without fear overtaking us or having a chronic physically-limiting condition, or without the support of a group of supportive friends, continuing to ride is almost a miracle. If we do make it, there’s a huge challenge when we have to make the change to a younger horse who is strange to us, assuming we could find one. Changing horses is always tough, and it seems the older we get, the harder it is to find the right horses. How many of us (of any age) purchased the wrong horse and don’t want to send it off to an uncertain future?

No one wants to talk about money, but around this time we age out of our highest income years while prices on all things horse-related continue to go up every year. Basic care costs soar. Some of us move because the climate is hampering our riding. We might begin to board our horse when we are down to a singleton, or we might move our horses to our own property thinking it will be cheaper. Nothing about horses gets cheaper.

How many of us fell for a kill pen scam because our hearts are filled with good intentions? Maybe our horses didn’t die in chronological order, according to our plan. Now the youngster is gone and the elder is, well, too old. We keep injury survivors and horses with chronic conditions who need a safe place. How many of us want a riding horse but instead take impeccable care of a small herd of unrideable horses? Shouldn’t there be an award for that? 

Let the seventy-somethings take another arthritic victory lap while the rest of us, those who fell short through no fault of their own, cheer them on, bearing no grudge, but feeling a bit unlucky, even as we cheer louder. Some of us truly never wanted to ride and yay for them. Some of us say we don’t but keep a secret. Some of us are painfully honest. We planned to ride until we have a peaceful death on the exact same day as our horse. We wanted it when we were thirty and nothing has changed.

The future gets a bit more uncertain every year. Are you over 50 and under 96? Let’s call it an awkward age. Others having a midlife crisis might buy a hot red convertible or start an affair with someone younger. We have never been like others because we have horses. Some are lucky and still riding like the Queen, but the exception proves the rule. To beat the odds, others have to be the odds.

So, now what? We stare our vulnerabilities (and our horse’s frailty) squarely in the eye and look for opportunity. My email box is as full of health reports, unhappy decisions, and unforeseen outcomes. And we know we should be grateful but we still want more. Are we doing a good enough job fighting the inescapable forces of life?

I warn you, it’s a lousy list and I don’t think it will help, but since you asked, here is my advice: 

  • Sell all your horses. Unrideable horses aren’t in demand, so lie about them. 
  • Buy a new horse.
  • Sell any new horse that doesn’t work out in the first week.
  • Buy other new horses. 
  • Sell those horses down the road when they don’t work out either.  
  • WAKE UP!  You’re dreaming a horrible nightmare.
  • Remember that horses need homes more than saddles.
  • Notice that for all your angst, you didn’t change your will, still leaving it all for the care of any surviving unrideable horses.
  • Recognize your own particular version of wild luck. 
  • Go out and muck. Adjust the fly mask and clean some hooves.
  • Smell the bittersweet elixir of the mane of an unrideable horse and let it be okay.

Anna Blake, Relaxed & Forward. Scheduling clinics for the fall in the Midwest and Eastern states.

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Affirmative training is the fine art of saying yes.

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50 thoughts on “Are You Having a Midlife Horse Crisis?”

  1. Mine are all trained to drive but most days I’m lucky to get the horse chores done. I can ride but need a spotter to get on. I am looking at a hip replacement sometime soon. But my horses don’t care if I get on or don’t, if we show or don’t, if we take the cart out or don’t. They get me up and outside and right now that is enough.

    • Getting you up & outside AND being able to be near them & SMELL them & hearing them chewing (such a wonderful sound). I admit I do miss riding but most of all, I just miss the horses – my own boy & any others around.
      Being near and around them is more important than anything else, Mary. Keep up the good “work” & good luck with your future hip replacement.

  2. You nailed it once again, Anna! I am like that 53 year old woman, except that I am close to 70… Having a 12 year old PRE (who was my last horse I was going to start) with arthritic hocks (just like my knees 😉) who has been doing ground work for the past 2 years, and a now 7 year old …. He was ‘lightly broken’ when I bought him at 3 1/2. When he came to me at age 4, he had an injured pelvis…. More rehab work but I think he will remain unridden – he has told me that he is not particularly keen to become a riding horse. I am gradually coming to accept that I will ride my PRE every now and then, when it feels right and we are ready.

  3. This email is brilliant Anna, I get sick and tired of being told that horses are a waste of money. Why do you bother keeping them. He’s my therapist, friend and expensive hobby. If I’m away he is constantly on my mind, is he being looked after like I would, does he have enough fly spray on!! But, there is nothing I would change, except my partner but common sense prevents me from telling him that. Such a great article

  4. I loved this post so very much! It’s wonderful and honest and true and this type of sentiment isn’t expressed enough. I spent 40+ years not understanding this and making a lot of mistakes I regret. I have two horses now. One perfect and amazing 25 year old Morgan named Stormy who isn’t rideable anymore but is Zen and a balm for the heart and soul. The other, my grey mare Dala, is a very strong and sovereign friend who is finally ok with being ridden. Who knows how long this will last? She had a rough start (kill pen and has a lot of physical and mental scars) and has some physical and conformation issues that make being ridden even harde. Every ride is a gift. I say thank you. And when she is unrideable, she has a home still with me for life. Boarding two is stupidly expensive and when I retire in the next 10 years I know that long term I can only afford one board. But these two are with me for their lives and kissing their noses and being entrusted with their care and companionship is really enough. Though I understand your post completely in that I’ve ALWAYS loved to ride best.

  5. ..and add to that list the horse who is not only un-rideable, but happily reverted back to his feral days as a BLM mustang after a horrific experience as a makeover contestant. Going on 12 years now with nothing more than 5 or 6 carefully placed halters through the years. Thank the stars he has solid mustang feet and knows how to keep them trim. thanks for being this club president.

    • You have made a sanctuary for him. That is a different life, the one your feral mustang has earned. Well done, and I never wanted to be president… but having a plan doesn’t make it happen. There are always blessings to count. Thanks, my friend.

  6. I can identify with some of these words. I’m in my 70’s, have 2 wonderful ‘oldsters’ in my barn who will live out their lives with me or be well-taken of should I pass before them. My riding horse hasn’t been ridden in almost a year and will need to be worked by a younger person before I feel comfortable being on his back. At this stage, I may or may not ride again but I’ve gotten to the place where I am OK with either decision.

  7. I bred my final (old lady) horse, out of a super sweet 15.1 hand mare and a gorgeous 14.3 hand stallion that I also raised. My now 16 hand 3 yr old is boarded at a small farm near me, I am 5’4″ with super short legs, a rather large bottom and a left side rotator cuff tear. Luckily he is the best boy, he will side up to a mounting block or tree stump to let me wiggle my way on to him.
    I adore him but have a kind of fear that I never knew in my younger years. Even though he outgrew my plans and it is a long way to the ground, I am taking him places and showing him the spooky things in the world so hopefully he will continue to get better as I continue to get worse. If I am lucky I will continue to ride him into my 70s, if I can’t ride then, hopefully he will still be around to brush and share watermelon.
    If I don’t last that long, he will have a soft landing with my daughter who now owns his dam and his half sister.
    I often think of the things we could do if I were 30 years younger…but he doesn’t know we are missing out on anything and thinks a slow walk around the yard is just fine…and he is right.

  8. Every last word resonates. I have two 20-year-old horses, and I am developing a bum knee. I see the writing on the wall. I do think it will be enough to pick feet and stand at their shoulder to listen to them graze. Currently, we are wildly lucky to have a pair of sandhill cranes sharing their pasture. As for buying and selling horses – I remember my North Dakota rancher father-in-law. Horses were bought at auction for a few hundred bucks; then sent back to auction if they had a bad habit. (They all did.) I’m gratefully off to feed my elders this morning. (Meanwhile, I’m writing with one hand, fending off 11-week-old Rosie with the other.)

    • I guess that’s what I was taking a stab at; that writing on the wall. If everyone read my emails, but like you, I want my choices to find a resting place. (Hi Rosie. Mister agrees that writing is for saps.)

  9. This blog landed at the right time. I’ve had to spend the last couple of years dealing with some nagging health issues that I’ve been pushing off for far too long. That means my talented OTSTB Beaux has been updating his resume with ‘lawn maintenance’. He and I both have gained a couple of extra pounds and I’ve been wrangling with a few decisions about what if anything Beaux and I will do go going forward. Our days of racking up hundreds of miles on the trail are probably over. He is 20 and while sound he does have 124 races under his belt.

    My biggest concern is that Beaux has fun and enjoys our time together. He’s never been keen about riding as he is way more comfortable driving than riding. I’m looking for a cart we can enjoy both on and off road but until then I’m going to do a lot of ground work with R+ training and just enjoying being around a horse that has been my partner now for over 10 years.

    He owes me nothing while I owe him everything.

  10. Sandy’s got the right idea, in my opinion. Though the sanctuary I have provided for my now 29-year-old Dover is a bit on the small side, he seems perfectly content to be able to come and go as he pleases with the company of his much younger pasture mates who have the same living conditions.

    With your permission, Anna, I thought I’d share this news story aired yesterday on CBS Mornings. It’s about equestrian Lissa Bachner and her horse Milo. You may have heard of her, but others maybe would enjoy listening to her inspirational story.

    • Saw that, Lynell – its a great story & boy does she have courage beyond belief – plus much faith in her horse – both Milo AND now a “new” partner. Really teared up (of course) hearing Milo was sold & gone for 3+ years but came back to her for one last successful show. I hope to read the book AND hear more about Lissa herself.

  11. Thank you, Anna, for putting so many of our stories into words here. I sure am trying to let it be ok, but not there yet and maybe I never will be.

    There is indeed so much luck involved in the world of horses. After the flood here in which so many horses perished, it was surprising the ones who died & those who survived. Some of the elder horses for whom euthanasia had been considered just the prior week survived. Young, fit horses, including mine, drowned. I was glad the gray mare survived, found after 2 days missing, but her owner had never had a kind word for or about her horse, only criticisms & complaints. Why should that ungrateful woman get to keep her horse while mine was a very cold corpse ?? Gee, I do digress here.

    Just thanks again for understanding the plight of us who are grounded. ..Yes, where is the award, the ribbon for keeping a small herd healthy & happy ? Maybe we could start a movement to do just thatv!!

    • Oh, Sarah. Yes. We do keep hoping for fairness, don’t we? Argh. We have to call ourselves winners and heroes! And it sounds hollow even as I type…

  12. 14 year old Jamaali is a rideable and calm, responsive and communicative horse. I adore him and am hoping to rise to this lucky occasion by learning your affirmative training viewpoint. If I get stung by a bee he is curious. We spend super moons together after a ride he might not have chosen to process and roll in the sand. And so it goes. Love the writing you share with us and the place it takes us to full wonderment.

  13. This hits too close to home right now. I definitely thought when I bought my unstarted 4 year old at the age of 57 that she and I would be partners in the wilderness together until we died on the same day. Now she has hock arthritis at the age of 13, and I’m not ready at all to hang up my stirrups. I try to imagine finding a new, younger, fitter partner, and wonder how that would compromise my partnership and commitment to my girl, who loves me fiercely, and jealously! She is no more ready to quit than I am. She adores our adventurous rides, loves to be out in the mountains, just the two of us. She is not a horse that will settle happily into being a pasture pal. If I could hike longer distances, I would lead her into camp. How much of what matters to me is being with her? How much is riding, getting out there, feeling a big animal move through my body? When you have a deep mutual bond, it isn’t so simple as moving on to the next horse.

  14. I am pushing 79 and have two unrideable horses so a few weeks ago I leased another oldie for the long term who is rideable and an absolute gentleman. I have had nearly a year off riding regularly so getting back on again is challenging but if the Queen is still riding at 96 then there are more years for me!

  15. Hi Anna:

    I indeed just bought a new horse. She’s 6, (red mare of course) a delight, and I’m learning new stuff and remembering old stuff again. I’m 73. Yay for all us old farts!

  16. As a 73 year old dressage rider these words are bittersweet. Yes, I moved to a 30 acre piece of ground and built a farm when I was 69 and my husband (very non-horsey) was 72. Then I brought my 8 yr old Oldenburg with me and she became insanely allergic to the BUGS on my farm. So I stopped competing and only took weekly lessons learning the biomechanics of riding. But I still need a trail horse so I bought a 6 year old sassy pony who doesn’t trot or canter. Ahhh well. At least I’m going out with a bang!!

  17. Anna, your writing ALWAYS spurs self reflection, but this piece made me want to hide from such a pursuit. I haven’t ridden in 8months. First it was 2 broken vertebrae (yes, a fall from a horse), and then the angry arrival of an autoimmune condition that has plagued me on and off through adulthood. But the real story about not riding like I “used to” started in 2015 when I lost my best buddy and riding partner to suicide. I AM devoted out of the saddle and find joy and inspiration in all that horses are and do, but I am missing that feeling of partnership, of moving together, of rhythm and exhilaration. Being of a certain age, I hope I can find a balance that adds contentment to the list of positives. Thanks as always for leading me in a helpful direction, Anna.

    • Luck, like I said. You can work hard and have the best intentions but some of us have to find a new path that wasn’t the first choice. Laurie, you’ve got this. Even when you wonder.

  18. I am one of those lucky over 70’s (75 actually) who rides regularly with a bunch of ladies around my age. We are all VERY aware of our luck and our privilege, and are a bit proud of ourselves for keeping at it. We all still jump, ride cross country, and take lessons.
    Riding keeps me lively and healthy (tho sometimes sore). I am ever grateful!

  19. Thank-you for this awesome essay! I operate a nonprofit horse rescue and sanctuary, Horse Play, in Rhode Island. We take in the abused, neglected, unwanted, unridable, ugly, crippled, beautiful, and sound – all life is sacred here. Some are adopted and others live her for the rest of their lives. We love and cherish them all!

  20. I’m so lucky ……. For now
    Luck can change at any moment x I’m 56 my girl 23 x she is a steady girl with only a few issues that I try to keep on top of like clipping off her feathers and oiling her legs to prevent mites and discomfort x she makes a big effort to supervise me putting on her saddle and boots me gently to remind me every time to put up her girth slowly and gently x I always wait for the boop and say ‘ok Chloe’ before I do it one hole at a time with breaks to put on my hat, gloves and hi viz x she takes me to the mounting block and walks sensibly along the roads with our companions, my daughter and Ruby her younger field buddy x when we get to the orchards she gets excited and has a fair few trots and canters , sometimes a little race with ruby and a few picnic stops as the grass and dandelions are delicious x I treasure every moment as I know my luck might run out at any moment x


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