Oldest Horse Is Living On Love

After a nationwide search by Purina Mills in 1994, Flicka was declared the oldest horse in America. Five years later at age 52, he is still owner Sara Spanial's best friend.

As a rough rule of thumb, horsemen figure one year in a horse's life is equivalent to about three in human terms. That would make Flicka 150 years old, give or take, as humans go. Although arthritis has slowed his steps, his teeth aren't what they once were, and his back sags a tad, Flicka's soft coat still gleams with good health. There's a sparkle in his eye, and, according to his family, he hasn't forgotten how to flirt with the ladies when an opportunity presents itself.

When the Spanials researched Flicka's history for the Purina contest, former owner Albert Brandiff did not recall how old the little 14.3-hand Cracker gelding was when he started wrangling cattle with him on a central Florida ranch. Brandiff did calculate, however, that he rode the horse for 37 years before they both retired to lives of service. Brandiff entered the seminary. Flicka entered a therapeutic riding program where he developed a reputation as a trustworthy, unflappable mount.

When the riding program disbanded 7 years later, the owners called Nancy Spanial. They had heard she was looking for a bombproof horse for then 6-year-old Sara to ride. Though warned that the horse was elderly, Nancy agreed sight unseen that Flicka sounded just like the horse they needed.

Young Sara had been praying for a horse. When you're asking the Lord for favors, her mother advised, it's best to be specific. So Sara prayed for a black horse with a white blaze that was friendly and sweet. As Flicka backed off the trailer at dusk near Christmas that year, Sara was ecstatic. "He's just what I asked for!" she exclaimed. Her parents, however, were immediately worried about whether they had made the right decision. Would this gaunt animal last through the winter or break their daughter's heart?

Nancy, a former veterinary technician, immediately began making mashes for Flicka using rolled oats, sweet feed and vitamins. "He put on a little weight," Nancy says, "but he was still very skinny."

"Within 2 months we saw a huge difference," Nancy says. Flicka eventually regained over 200 pounds. The Spanials mix Flicka's senior feed with water to create a soft mash his geriatric teeth can handle. "He takes a leisurely hour and a half to eat," Nancy reports. And while he dines, Sara grooms and pampers him.

"We have always used animals to teach our children responsibility and maturity," Nancy says. Sara learned to ride on Flicka. "He took me for my first canter, my first jump," she says. "Flicka was so good. So many horses take advantage of a little kid, but he never did." Sara recalls that Flicka always picked up on what she wanted to do, even when she gave him the wrong signal. "He's sort of like your best friend or big brother. He looks after you and takes care of you."

The elderly gelding is on a regular worming program in addition to the careful attention to his diet. "I'm a big believer in preventative maintenance," says Nancy. It helps that Flicka comes from hardy genetic stock. While the vet has stitched and treated the Spaniels' other horses over the years for various accidents and ailments, the Cracker gelding has never needed anything more than routine care.

As Sara grew taller and heavier, she stopped riding Flicka. Now she herds cows on her mom's gelding McCloud or patiently works to gentle the mustang filly that the Spanial's adopted from the Bureau of Land Management. These days, Flicka mostly hangs out. Sometimes he and his buddy McCloud push the cows around the pasture just for old times sake. And he's still Sara's best friend, listening to the teen's dreams and schemes as they lean against one another under his favorite tree out in the pasture.

From the moment he stepped off the trailer, Sara never thought of Flicka as too old or too slow or too plain. As a matter of fact, when she first learned how old he really was, Sara wasn't really impressed. "I didn't grasp how amazing it was," she says. Her advice to other teens wishing for a horse is to look, as she did, below the surface at what's inside. Regardless of their breed or age, she says, the kind of horse an animal will be depends on the love and care they get. "It's not about pedigrees," she says. "It's about what you make of them."

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