is it time for your horse to retire

When and how to transition your horse from the show ring to a more leisurely lifestyle

Cori Sampson Vokoun has retired her share of competition horses. A construction manager who also owns and operates Buckshot Farms, in Roca, Nebraska, Vokoun competes in AQHA and NRHA reining, along with Arabian-breed amateur events that run the gamut from English and Western to halter and trail.

She says determining the right time and process for reinventing her horses’ careers can be both complicated and challenging. “Retiring a horse isn’t like parking a car in a garage and simply driving the other one,” Vokoun says. Yet, formulating a program that keeps him as healthy and happy as possible can be extremely rewarding.

As each horse reaches a point in his life where soundness or other factors begin to affect his ability to continue at his current level of competition, Vokoun puts a lot of thought into how to meet all of his needs—mental, physical, and social.

Your Ready-Made Management Team

You probably know your horse’s health and soundness baselines better than anyone, simply from caring for him and evaluating his performance daily. And although the decision to retire your horse is highly personal and involves factors unique to your horse’s and your situation, other resources are available to help you make the best decision. You have a care team already in place: your veterinarian, farrier, and, perhaps, trainer, and one or more of them might be able to spot something that you might overlook during your daily routines—the old “forest for the trees” adage. Be sure you take advantage of all the resources available to you.

“I had a case today where a knowledgeable owner noticed their horse was getting stiff in one limb over a two-month period,” says Reynolds Cowles, DVM, of Blue Ridge Equine Clinic, in Earlysville, Virginia. “The horse had fallen two months ago and suffered an injury to the carpus (knee). It was a serious situation; unfortunately, that horse will never go back to even pleasure riding. Sometimes we have to walk that owner through the whole picture. It may require videotaping so we can point out things that may not be obvious to the owner.

“Retiring your competitive horse is a blending process that should involve input from your horse care professionals,” he adds. “It’s an ongoing conversation … a team approach where there’s no one cutoff and no one absolute.”

Now let’s look at some major questions to consider if you’re wondering whether to retire your horse.

Is Your Horse Over the Hill?

Vokoun and Cowles agree that age alone isn’t a determining factor. “It’s more about a horse’s physical condition and ability,” Cowles says. “Some horses will compete into their 20s, yet some have to retire at 7 due to injury or wear and tear. Most are in their late teens before you’d consider retirement, but there’s really no exact time.”

Also, ask yourself, has your horse lost his mental edge or become less willing to compete? If so, a veterinary exam can determine if something physical is causing his reluctance.

“If a horse is busy with his mouth or his tail or unhappy with his ears and expression, those are signs that he may have had enough,” Vokoun says. “Sometimes physical discomfort is to blame, but sometimes it’s burnout—simply doing the same job for too many years. We’ve had some success showing older horses in different events to change it up for them; it keeps your older horse mentally challenged. Try trail with your Western horse or driving with your English horse. My daughter is currently riding an older reiner in hunter equitation, and he loves it.”

Does He Have Physical Limits?

Has your horse developed an obvious physical problem? Of course, you’ll want your veterinarian to take the necessary steps to diagnose the condition and recommend treatment, therapy, retirement, or even that final quality-of-life decision we all dread.

Before that, however, arm yourself with all the information you can to help your veterinarian make a diagnosis. “Keeping records noting when an animal isn’t feeling properly or if the horse is suddenly not competitive or is backing off eating or losing body condition helps us when owners seek our advice,” says Cowles.

Your veterinarian will perform a progressive series of procedures to help diagnose the problem, including:

After an exam, your veterinarian can usually tell you if an injury or illness is temporary or career-ending. “Sometimes a career-ending injury can cause a slow, gradual decline; sometimes it can be a one-time, cataclysmic event,” says Cowles.

“Many of these horses will have a long history of, say, hock or stifle or front foot soreness,” he adds. The type and extent of your horse’s unsoundness will help you determine whether your course of action will be to dial down his activity level or retire him completely.

Can You Manage His Soundness?

Depending on finances, you might want to try treating an issue first to maintain your horse’s level of competitiveness and then drop back if needed. “I think once you get a diagnosis, you and your vet, your trainer, and possibly your farrier will have to lay down a plan of parameters: If you’re achieving this, then (you’ll do) that; you should be able to do this, but not that,” says Cowles. “For certain soft-tissue injuries, such as suspensory and tendon issues, vets may advise a less stressful level of competition to avoid re-injury.

“Non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDS) are often used and are certainly appropriate in many cases (at legal competition doses) to let the horse stay at the same level,” Cowles adds, “but you’ll need to continually re-evaluate to be sure that the horse that’s competing with that type of help isn’t making the injury worse.”

Cowles also says targeted therapy and shoeing changes can help manage many chronic, low-grade arthritic issues, such as hock and heel soreness, as can monitoring (and being judicious about) the surfaces on which the horse is competing.

Nutritional supplements might also be a part of the picture, although Cowles says they’re rarely curative or the entire solution. And, he warns, some supplements aren’t beneficial at all and, rather, are a waste of money. If possible, seek out supplements with evidence of efficacy.  

What are Your Goals for the Horse?

Vokoun says that when a horse is 10 to 13 years old, she starts asking herself if he still fits in with her goals or if someone else might get better use from him. “Once you get to 16, 17, 18 years old, it’s going to become more difficult to find another home for that horse,” she adds.

Vokoun retired her mare, Dun Scootin++/, one of the most accomplished half-Arabian reining horses, on a high note. “She had maintained such a high level of competition, we didn’t want to see her career fizzle,” she says. “She went right from competing at a National Show to a pasture retirement. But we have another horse right now that I won the amateur reining on as a middle-aged adult and now my daughter shows him. He’s gone from open futurity level to amateur level to kid level, and eventually he’ll move to retirement. Different levels of competition allow them to age gracefully. There will come a point when a horse’s happiness or health becomes compromised, but for now we’ll keep going.”

is it time for your horse to retire

What are Your Goals for Yourself?

It’s not being selfish to consider your own needs as well as your horse’s.

Cowles says the horse that’s not able to maintain soundness at the current level might need to be retired or at least eased back to a less stressful division. If you’re unwilling or unable to take your game down a notch, you might consider finding another home for that horse.

Vokoun says she frequently gets requests for experienced mounts for beginning and lower-level competitors. “It’s good for people to get to ride a nice horse when they’re just starting out,” she says.

What’s Best for Your Horse?

If you decide your horse has reached the end of his competition trail, you’ll want to optimize all aspects of his health. To do so, find the level of activity and socialization that suits his abilities and personality—after all, keeping a horse’s body and mind active is still important to his well-being. Some possibilities include:

  • Dialing back from the top levels of competition to less stressful levels or events.
  • Hauling your retiree along as a companion for younger, active horses.
  • Leasing or lending him, if he’s a packer, to a beginning adult or a junior rider or passing him down to a younger member of the family.
  • If he’s suitable, donating or lending him to a therapeutic riding program.
  • Housing him where he’ll get lots of interaction with people and other horses.
  • Providing extra attention. “We have one horse who’s too injured to get around,” Vokoun says, “so she’s the one that gets all the pats when someone brings a child to the barn to pet a horse.”
  • Employing him as a babysitter on the farm. “Our older, retired show geldings teach young colts out in the pasture about life,” Vokoun says. “They’re like preschool teachers; they prevent the younger horses from becoming too dominant out in the field. And, as a bonus, the geldings exercise more when they’re out with those younger horses.”
  • Turning him out with other adult horses. But Vokoun advises caution here: “Older, weak horses can get picked on, so you’ll have to watch for that.”
  • Turning your mare into a broodmare, if she’s sound and has desirable qualities, if it’s practical, and if there’s an intended purpose for her offspring.  

How Should You Alter Management Methods?

You’ll probably need to adjust your recently retired horse’s feed to match his or her new, lower activity level. Excess weight not only puts extra stress on skeletal structures, but, says Cowles, it can also lead to metabolic diseases or foot issues that you then need to manage.

Depending on the environment you place your horse in, you might need to adjust deworming and hoof care schedules. Have your veterinarian perform a fecal egg count reduction test to determine anthelmintic need. Ask your farrier if your horse can and should go barefoot. And when it comes to vaccinations, you and your veterinarian might decide to discontinue those that pertain more to traveling horses and transient populations (such as equine influenza or equine herpesvirus vaccines), but maintain the core regimen that the American Association of Equine Practitioners recommends. “That’s the gold standard,” says Cowles.

Overall, he adds, horses are very adaptive animals, “and most, if put into a good situation with herdmates, good shelter, proper nutrition, good foot, veterinary, and dental care, and appropriate exercise for their condition, will adapt pretty well.”

Take-Home Message

At some point, all competition horses require a degree of retirement. Working with your veterinarian, farrier, and trainer and considering your horse’s physical, mental, and social needs will help you make the best decision for when and how you should reduce his activity level.