Your longtime equine friend has always been there for you. He patiently taught you what you needed to know, and carried you through the ribbons. But times have changed. You have to move on and leave Old Faithful behind. What options do you have for retiring your horse?
Where and how you retire your horse depend a lot upon individual circumstances; health and soundness of the horse; marketability of the horse; your economic, boarding, or pasture situation; foresight; and commitment.
Many "old" campaigners still have a lot of life and usefulness left in them, especially if they come from sports dominated by futurities or young horses. Often, these horses can go into a new career. If they're healthy and serviceably sound for some sort of work-in other words, marketable--you have several options.
If your horse still can work, then you might be able to sell him to a rider who needs to school with an experienced mount. Word-of-mouth, advertising, and notices placed at the boarding barn, local feed store, or sent to local youth riding organizations, might bring you a buyer. Be sure to ask for a price high enough to discourage a middle man from coming around to buy the animal to sell at auction (where the horse could then be resold for slaughter).
A riding camp might be another outlet, but might not serve your horse well in the long run. First of all, your horse probably will be subjected to the various skills--or more likely, lack of skills--of all kinds of riders. Some of these young would-be cowboys and cowgirls might needlessly be thumping on the horse's sides to make him gallop, pulling hard on the bit to steer or stop him, and bouncing all over his back. In addition, camps are seasonal: Where does the horse go after the season is out?
Says Robin Lohnes, executive director of the American Horse Protection Association and lifelong Arabian horse owner and competitor, "A lot of camps bring in a string of horses for the season, then sell them at market come November because they don't want to foot the bill through the off-season." If the horse ends up resold at auction, chances are great his remaining days will consist of being crowded on a trailer with strange horses bound for slaughter.
Similar problems can occur with horses sold to riding schools. "While riding instructors try to match the rider's expertise to the horse," says Lohnes, "there still is less chance of consistent care and riding abilities."
Lohnes also questions, "What if the horse becomes lame or develops a chronic problem? The riding school is going to look at it as a liability because it is in the business of providing horses for people to take lessons on. Very few riding schools have the ability to keep amassing old-timers that can't be used. Those horses would probably be sold to the highest bidders, which would probably be, for an unsound horse, the meat industry."
Auctions, while offering another outlet for selling a horse, can end up being the equivalent of death row for your horse, if the selling price is within the range of slaughterhouse reps who buy cheap horses for their value as meat products. Notes Lohnes, "You could put a minimum bid on it, while still selling it at-large at a reduced price, so the slaughter buyers won't bid on it. But you might not sell the horse."
If you choose to sell your horse for slaughter, then a more humane option would be to transport your own horse to the slaughterhouse, where the animal won't have to suffer the possible discomforts and dangers of a long, crowded trailer ride.
Regardless of where you sell your horse, once he's sold, his future is out of your hands--unless you have written into the sales agreement a right of first refusal to buy the horse back if the owner can no longer keep the horse. Explains Lohnes, "A right of first refusal is a good idea for the horse owner who wants to make sure that his or her companion is placed in a good home for the rest of its life. Even if you sell the horse to a friend or relative, it protects the horse and the two parties from a whole myriad of things that could happen, which is why you have contracts."
Make sure the right of first refusal is in writing, and not just an oral agreement. Otherwise, if something happened to the new owner, you'd have no proof of your agreement to offer to surviving relatives.
This might be a better option than selling, if you're committed to ensuring that your horse remains under your watchful eye and that he will have a good home for the rest of his days.
"I'm a big believer in leases, if they're well-structured and short-term," says Lohnes. "Leases meet two criteria: You never lose track of the horse and the horse always remains your property. Plus, it gives another individual an opportunity to learn what you did on that horse, and may bring another newcomer into the fold."
Sometimes a therapeutic riding program can use a horse which is reasonably sound, healthy, and has a good disposition. For sure, the horse needs to be serviceably sound at a walk, but programs that have more advanced levels or where horses perform at a jog or trot in the cart will be more discriminating about the horses they accept.
"The horse has to be useable and fairly affordable in its upkeep for the program," Lohnes points out. "If the horse is on medication, even if it doesn't cost a lot, it could be a problem, because a therapeutic riding program is spending money elsewhere, not necessarily on medication for a chronically ill horse."
Again, to make sure nothing unacceptable befalls your horse after he's outlived his usefulness here, find out what happens to horses they can no longer use, and/or make arrangements to take the horse back when his service has ended.
Down And Out
Many retirees are too aged or have medical or soundness problems that prevent them from doing anything other than hanging around the pasture or stall and running up feed and veterinary bills for the owner. Options for these old-timers are pretty limited.
Keep Him In Cheaper Facilities.
There's no point in keeping your horse boarded where your boarding fee includes amenities that he's no longer using--things like indoor and outdoor arenas, trails, cross-country courses, etc. A no-frills barn with turnout or pasture board with a run-in shed are cheaper options. However, do plan on paying extra if your horse requires medical treatments.
These places offer care and shelter for aged, abused, or injured equines. The Horse Source (published by The Horse and free each spring with your subscription) lists retirement homes in the Welfare section. Retirement homes might have minimum age requirements and charge some sort of admitting fee for the horse. Some homes only accept horses of a certain breed; others will accept any horse.
Ryerss Farm for Aged Equines
(the country's oldest nonprofit equine retirement home, founded in 1888) accepts equines of any breed. Says Ryerss president Joseph Donahue, "Horses must be 18 years of age or older, free of communicable diseases, have a current Coggin's test, and have their shoes removed."
However, there aren't many of these charitable organizations around, and long waiting lists aren't unusual.
"We average about 75 horses at the farm, and have a two- to three-year waiting list," Donahue says. Ryerss charges a $3,000 one-time admission fee for lifetime care; with the average stay at about seven to eight years, this breaks down to about $35 a month for shelter, medical care, dental care, deworming, vaccinations, special diet (if needed), and pasture.
Because of the waiting list, it pays to investigate retirement homes a few years before retirement is likely.
"You can put your horse on the waiting list at Ryerss at any age," says Donahue. "He doesn't have to be 18."
Sometimes local animal humane agencies and shelters can refer you to someone who takes in older horses, says Donahue. Be sure to investigate conditions there yourself, and find out what sort of plans exist in the event that the caregivers can no longer provide keep.
Free To Good Home, Companion Horse.
Under the best circumstances, serving as a companion to another older horse or to youngsters is a great option. But the reality is, there are few places looking for such a horse. Networking and word-of-mouth might yield prospects in your area.
However, advertising your horse as a "free to good home, companion horse" is extremely risky. Warns Donahue, "There are people who will call on a Saturday, say they'll pick your horse up on Sunday, and by Monday, the horse is on its way to auction."
Adds Lohnes, "We would never recommend advertising a free horse. This is an invitation to those folks who are looking to make money from being a middle man for the slaughterhouse. They'll say, 'Oh yeah, I'll give it a good home,' and two weeks later, the horse is off to market."
Instead, Lohnes suggests placing an ad for "approved homes, only." Then, ask for references, do site checks, and find out what happens to the animal if the prospects can no longer keep it. Consider a contract that requires the horse to come back to you in the event that the owners must get rid of it.
Donate For Animal Science Studies.
"The animal science departments in major universities and colleges are worth looking into," says Lohnes, "because many do research on nutrition or other needs of older horses." These are generally non-invasive studies where the horse receives good care during the study period. "But you need to follow up with the animal science department if the animal becomes unsuitable or the study ends," Lohnes says. "What happens to the horse then? Do they sell them to slaughter? Do they euthanize them?"
If considering this option, be sure to distinguish between veterinary schools and animal science departments. Explains Lohnes, "For most veterinary school research projects, the protocol is to conduct the experiment and euthanize the animal after the experiment. There may be some that exist that don't work like that, so it's important to ask."
"Euthanasia is never anybody's first choice, but it is a choice," states Lohnes. "If you truly have no other avenue and your priority is to ensure that the horse is not abused, then that is a viable, but difficult, alternative. If that's the corner I was in, I would not have any qualms about having my horse put down by a veterinarian. I'd much rather know I was there holding my horse and petting my horse when it was being put to sleep than have to worry the rest of my life where my horse is."
Hopefully, hard choices will not figure into the retiree's picture. Although injuries, illnesses, and changing economic situations suddenly can create a crisis in what to do with an older or non-marketable horse, for others, the process of a horse becoming less useful is more gradual. These owners should not let themselves be caught unaware that they have an aged or non-workable horse that they can't keep. Notes Donahue, "You know that sooner or later you're going to have to provide for that horse, so a little long-range planning will go far in making the horse's life a little bit better, along with your own. Think about what you're going to do with the horse. Make early applications to a retirement home. If you have a couple of horses in the backyard and are planning to move into town the next year, don't wait until you move. If you can anticipate any of those things, begin making your arrangements early."
About the Author
Marcia King is an award-winning freelance writer based in Ohio who specializes in equine, canine, and feline veterinary topics. She's schooled in hunt seat, dressage, and Western pleasure.
POLL: Public or Private Lands: Where Do You Ride?