Humans have defined retirement goals. For some, it’s age 55 or 62. For others, it’s a milestone—typically 20 or 30 years. It isn’t as cut and dry with horses. Neither age nor years under saddle are good predictors of an ideal retirement age, according to veterinarian Reynolds Cowles, founder of Blue Ridge Equine Clinic in Earlysville, Virginia.
“The primary factor is the condition of the animal for the purpose it is being used for,” he says. “There are horses that are useful well into their 20s and other younger horses with musculoskeletal or other health issues that can’t be used.”
Lameness is the most common reason horses are retired. Lingering soreness from an injury or a condition that develops from wear or tear may necessitate a lighter workload. Rather than targeting an achievement, Dr. Cowles suggests watching for indications a horse is struggling at his current level of performance.
A show ring hunter who repeatedly swaps leads before a jump, or who misses lead changes, or is sore on a landing, may be showing signs that his current job is too strenuous. Barrel horses reluctant to lay down around a barrel or cutting horses not as eager to work as hard as they once did may be candidates for a change.
Dr. Cowles advises that when something isn’t right, call your veterinarian and ask for a thorough evaluation. A full workup may show that a horse simply needs to have proper treatment for a health issue, dropped back in intensity rather than turned out on pasture.
“Consider what the horse can do. Keeping a horse in light work is often better for joint issues. Some horses struggle more with complete turnout than staying in light work,” he explains. “Rest is always an important factor in treatment. Whether that rest is temporary or long term, it can help a horse recover.”
A physical examination may also reveal health conditions such as metabolic syndrome or Pituitary Pars Intermedia Dysfunction, also known as Equine Cushings disease, that may be the underlying cause of the change in performance. These conditions and others don’t have to mean the end of a horse’s career. Proper treatment and long-term management changes can mean the horse is still able to perform. Unlike lameness or injury, a horse won’t limp or appear sore in these cases. But it may be difficult to maintain weight and there may be a change in the horse’s hair texture and length.
When the time comes that your horse can no longer perform at the same level, your goals and finances will determine what happens next. Using non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDS) often allow a horse to stay at the same level of competition when dosage levels comply with the rules of the event. Therapeutic shoeing is also an option.
Lesson programs and families with less experienced riders in their ranks may be able to successfully continue riding the horse at a slower pace. Seasoned horses can also make good babysitters for young colts settling in at home or on the road. Leases are also viable alternatives. Even if you’re able to keep a horse and he’s unable to work, don’t neglect the basics. Even retired horses need dental care, good nutrition and regular visits from both the farrier and veterinarian.
For horse owners who don’t have these options, Dr. Cowles encourages riders to leverage their network to find a suitable new home.
“Someone may simply be looking for a companion horse. Veterinarians, farriers, local extension agents and folks at the feed store are all great resources,” he says. “Therapeutic programs are always looking for quiet horses. Those horses just walk around and the programs are often very suitable for retired horses.”
A retirement farm might be a great option for some horse owners. Many of these farms provide horses with shelter and turnout at a lower price than typical boarding facilities. Some breed and competitive organizations have affiliated non-profit organizations designed to help rehome horses. The Standardbred Retirement Foundation, The Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation and the USHJA Equine Retirement Facilities List and the are just a few examples or organizations designed to help horses transition out of a previous career. "Care Guidelines for Equine Retirement Facilities” is a helpful resource for finding the right fit.
“In searching for a retirement facility, check carefully for their history,” he concludes. “Many groups begin with good intentions but run into financial difficulties and horse care may not be adequate.”
Retiring a horse is not always an easy decision. Communicating with your horse’s health care team—veterinarians, farriers and others—can help keep your horse working longer and more comfortably, even at a lower level. And when the time comes when your horse has earned full retirement, remember it’s important to keep up with routine hoof and health care.