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Hanging up horseshoes?

Oct 19,2013 | Kim Horton

some advice on the best time to retire your horse 

How do you know when it’s time for your horse to hang up his horseshoes?

Retirement is a fact of life. It comes to us all at some stage, humans and horses alike. The difference is, of course, that unlike humans, horses can’t tell us when that time arrives. So how do you know when it’s time for your equine partner to slow down or even stop?

For me, this decision was easy as my eighteen year old mare had had two suspensory injuries. Following the best treatment from my fantastic vet, she’d recovered well from the first two but when the third one occurred in the same spot as the second one, the decision was effectively made for me. In a way I was lucky but it got me thinking, how do you know what the right time is?

What age is the right age?

The simple answer to this frequently asked question is that there’s no such thing as the ‘right age’. Horses are like people, they age at different rates. Some vets have known 12-year-olds who are ready to retire while other 30-year-olds are still carrying! The bottom line is that age should never be the deciding factor when considering retirement.

Tell-tale signs

Ageing is a gradual process that, thankfully, has minimal discomfort. As it occurs a little bit at a time, your horse can adapt to it and continue to do his job. However if the ageing process accelerates or reaches a tipping point, you need to review his workload or you will contribute to the rate at which he ages. Initially you are best placed to spot some of the tell-tale signs.

Look objectively at your horse’s condition for some of the following signs: loss of weight, loss of visual condition or a shortness of breath. If you observe any of these signs, a review of his work and diet maybe required.

You know your horse better than anyone. He will give you subtle clues about whether he's comfortable or not. You may see subtle changes, such as a hesitation in his response to an aid or a cue. This clue could even be a psychological change, such as a change in his attitude. Listen to what he’s trying to tell you.

You may decide to discuss your horse with your vet or even get him checked over by the vet. This is a good idea as the vet may very well identify other, more important clinical conditions, such as degenerative joint disease or heart arrhythmia. These conditions absolutely require a reduction in your horse’s workload and when it comes about the he can only be ridden when medicated, it becomes a moral dilemma. What do you do? For most age-related conditions, the medication is a pain killer, usually an NSAID (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug) such as Bute. Bute may relieve the pain, but it does nothing to relieve the underlying cause which means the problem is going to get worse irrespective of the fact that the horse acts like he feels better. So you need to ask yourself whether your horse’s work needs to be amended to reflect his ability as when he shows signs such as these, your horse can’t adapt as indicated above.

How much retirement?

A complete shutdown of activity may not be necessary as a simple reduction may be sufficient on its own. Instead of a number of schooling a week, change his exercise routine so that it includes more hacking if that’s possible. If it’s not possible, perhaps change the mix of schooling you do, for example don’t do so many small twenty metre circles, do full length arenas ones instead. Try to do something that your horse can do without discomfort.

What’s more you need to be mindful of the fact that you may have to reduce his work a number of times. For example if you go out to the field with the head collar and he turns away from you in the field, it may be time to turn down the workload another notch.

And what, you ask, of my mare? More about that in our next newsletter...

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