When horses grow old
People, as they age, hope to have family and friends living nearby. We also have options of living in a smaller and easier-to-care-for space, moving to a retirement village with options for housekeeping, meals, entertainment and even medical care.
So what happens as horses age? They get old long before humans, with life spans often ending between 20 to 30 years of age. The expense of maintaining a horse has increased dramatically in recent years. Most people with horses either have to board them out or supply supplementary feed if they have relatively small acreage.
Fortunately for numerous race horses, when they no longer can earn their keep on the track, they find new careers as saddle or show horses. Or, in the case of mares, they have a new opportunity as broodmares. Only the stallions with the best pedigrees and race records are recommended to stand at stud. Successful show horses frequently are given an easier job as they age, jumping at lower heights with less experienced riders.
Horses in other disciplines such as dressage, eventing, Western division classes and endurance can slow down, too, and become “schoolmasters” for amateurs and young riders. Some of these horses command prices in five figures at a relatively advanced age because of their high level of training and what they have to give back and teach an aspiring rider. Rather than early retirement, the older horse benefits from continued light exercise and staying in good condition, as well as continuing the daily human contact they are accustomed to. This is far preferable for their welfare than simply turning them out to pasture to fend for themselves.
The fact remains that many older horses must have the level of their use reduced in accordance with their physical ability to perform.
As with humans, arthritis is common, pulled ligaments and tendons take their toll, sore backs can be very painful, foot problems such as chronic laminitis (founder), navicular disease and calcium deposits from old injuries or poor leg conformation can eventually render a horse pretty useless for riding.
Even eyesight is a critical problem, as horses can have cataracts and various eye injuries and problems that lead to blindness. We can’t just give them a white cane or wheelchair.
Until recently, when a horse outlived its usefulness, owners had a choice to foot the expense of retirement or sell them – often for
recycling for pet food. What they would receive in payment a few years ago was less than what it costs to put down, bury, or cremate a 1,000 pound-plus animal today.
Legislation regarding the transportation of horses to slaughter has become both a state and national issue, and as all issues, it has its pros and cons.
Animal rights organizations have been vigilant in fighting for an end to horse slaughter in this country. They are joined by thousands of horse lovers. On the other hand, in the March 2007 issue of Covertside magazine, readers are told: “The Horse Slaughter bill, which would make it unlawful to transport horses to slaughter in the U.S., has been reintroduced in Congress this year. While no horseman wants to see healthy horses slaughtered, the MFHA (Masters of Fox Hounds Association of America), the American Association of Equine Practitioners and other respected equine organizations (including the American Quarter Horse Association) remain opposed to this bill in the conviction that it will create more misery for horses than it will alleviate.”
Marvin Beeman, vice president of the MFHA, writes that, “If the 90,000 unwanted horses per year cannot be transported to slaughter humanely under USDA regulations in this country, many will be shipped to Mexico and Canada, where facilities are already gearing up to take them.” He predicts that “in Mexico, where USDA protections do not apply, every able horse will be removed and put into harsh service rather than be euthanized.”
To cope with the fact that many horses are poorly cared for when no longer used, there are a growing a number of horse retirement and rescue farms and ranches, most of them nonprofit organizations who depend on donations. Local horsewoman Linda Taylor has supported the Redwings Horse Sanctuary in Monterey County for years. Redwings has a wonderful educational program on horse handling and care to help the less initiated horse owner become better informed, thus preventing neglect. Their Web site is http://www.redwings.org. Some boarding establishments cater to retired horses, whereby the owner pays for the care. Our Nevada County Animal Shelter is our local contact for abused animals. An average minimum cost to maintain a horse runs about $2,500 per year. Using Marvin Beeman’s numbers, that totals more than $22 million a year for the care of mostly unwanted or physically disabled horses. Is our society and country so wealthy that we close options for personal property choices and recycling? This does not include the whole issue and numbers of wild horses and burros up for adoption and needing care by taxpayers and private donors that the Bureau of Land Management supervises.
The Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation is a leader in finding care of ex-racehorses, mostly geldings. Old Friends in Midway, Ky., accepts stallions and is perhaps the only such retirement facility. Old Friends does a remarkable job, giving tours and citing the achievements of each horse. Some famous horses have even been sent to this nonprofit home in Kentucky from Europe and Asia when they were no longer able to be used for breeding purposes. Among their famous newcomers is the Seabiscuit equine actor, “Rich in Dallas,” retired by three Thoroughbred retirement groups – the Exceller Fund, ReRun and Old Friends. In California, the Pegasus Foundation is a leader in equine retirement care and retraining.
With the rise in concern, the American Association of Equine Practitioners has published “Care Guidelines for Equine Rescue and Retirement Facilities.” This excellent guide was developed by their Equine Welfare Committee. It covers everything from basic health management and record systems; nutrition, including emergency care of the starved horse; hoof care; shelter; pastures and fencing; caring for the geriatric horse and the “Bottom Line: Welfare of the Horse.” If one is looking for a facility to donate a horse or to help support or adopt, these guidelines would be invaluable in making a judgment as to quality standards for horse welfare.
Felicia Schaps Tracy is the owner of Emigrant Springs Horsemanship, co-founding instructor of Northern Mines Pony Club, member of the Certified Horsemanship Association and the American Riding Instructors Association. Write her in care of The Union, 464 Sutton Way, Grass Valley 95945.
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