Out To Pasture

Fall Foliage-406(Click on photo for full size)

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We all think about it: What will we do with our horses when they grow old and unable to perform the tasks we got them to do? I didn’t have to think about it for very long. Suddenly that moment had arrived and I knew I had to face the inevitable. But I was lucky, I was able to keep, even ride (lightly) my aged mare until just a week or so before she left for greener pastures. Other people haven’t been so lucky.

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I know there are places where owners can retire their senior horses. A retirement farm will care for the aged equine and provide for their comfort while allowing the owner to move on with a younger mount if desired. Few people have the luxury of being able to stable and ride more than one horse at a time, so unfortunately that means sending your beloved, faithful senior to go live out the remainder of their golden years under the care of someone else. If the owner is lucky, they’ll find a retirement farm close to home, but often that’s not the case. Some owners have to send their horses to live in another state, where they’ll have limited access to them. That means relying on internet updates, photos and phone calls to stay abreast of the weekly or monthly changes.

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I can understand wanting to make room in your heart and barn to move on with a younger horse. After all, most horses don’t live but maybe a third of a human life span. But I can’t imagine missing those last few years of my horse’s life. Tia was engaging and fun right up until the week she passed on. To have missed those last few rides and months with her would have left me feeling sad and …. well, maybe just a bit neglectful. So with that said, if money was no object and I had all the time (and energy) in the world, I would love to have a retirement horse farm. I know caring for some aged horses can be stressful and hard work, but I definitely have a soft spot in my heart for elderly equines. I suppose running an old horse farm doesn’t exactly fall under the heading of a charity but it’s probably about as close as I’m ever going to come.

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Dec 30, 2011

I hoped to get out and ride today, but things didn’t work according to plan. The guys decided to ride around one and not knowing for sure what that might entail, I choose to opt out and go for a ride a bit later on my own. However, an hour later when I went out to get Dharla ready to ride, she had worked herself into a nervous frenzy at Bullet’s absence.

Typically, when the guys go off and ride we put Dharla in the smaller paddock. I feel a bit better knowing she’s in a little tighter confinement where she has everything she needs: food, water, shelter and a small area to walk around freely. The idea is that she still has her freedom to express her angst, but won’t be tempted to do anything foolish. Or so theory has it. When we lost The Bean, we lost our “babysitter” horse, but initially Dharla wasn’t all that disturbed when Bullet left on a ride. However, in the two months since Bean has been gone there has been a shift in energy and Dharla seems a bit more anxious when Bullet rides off.

So an hour or so after the guys left I went out to tack up, only to find Dharla totally unwilling to cooperate. Hm. Could I have pressed the issue? Sure, I could have. But I honestly wasn’t in the mood. I guess it all comes down to how badly you want to ride. It was a very nice day, unseasonably warm, but a lot of people were out and about on foot and bikes. Truth be told, that isn’t my favorite time to ride. So I decided to pick a different track.

I slipped on Dharla’s rope halter (even that was a test of wills) grabbed a fifteen foot lead rope and my training stick and we went out into the (larger) muddy paddock. Dharla was head-up and snorty. We walked. I led her around the muddy paddock for about ten minutes until I saw her head drop and she was licking her lips and beginning to relax. Once she wasn’t feeling quite so large and in charge, I started working on moving her hindquarters. I worked both sides several times until she was taking three good steps in each direction with only very light taps for a prompt. As she began to start using her brains she settled down more, which is typical for this mare.

I wasn’t content to stop there, but the paddock was too slick to do much else. I contemplated walking her down to the arena and lunging her, but I could tell she was still pretty fired up. Did I want to end there, on a good note or risk moving to a bigger area and working on something else that had the potential to deteriorate? Since I was giving up my opportunity to ride I decided my horse was going to work anyway. I led Dharla to the gate and we headed down the road to the arena. It was like waking on pins and needles the whole way. Good grief. You’d think we’d never been down this road before in our life. The whole time I was wondering if my horse is going to be a complete nut case when we get down to the ring. (Note to self: lose the negative thoughts … Ug!)

I started small. VERY small. I led Dharla around the perimeter of the ring three or four times. She was still very spooky and goofy, but I was quietly and gently not having any part of it. She got the hint. Next, I started walking her in circles with a couple of feet of lead line. My thought was, if she can handle walking, then trotting quietly with a couple of feet, then after a few minutes I’ll feed her a few more feet. The plan worked well, and gradually I fed her more line until I finally had Dharla walking and trotting quietly at the end of the fifteen foot lead rope. What I didn’t want was her flaking out at the end of the line or trying to pull any smarty-pants stuff on me. I always strive to avoid issues rather than have to try to fix them after they occur. I don’t know if that’s the right approach to take or not, but it just seems logical to me to try to set her up to succeed.

Once I had Dharla settled down a bit we took a little break and walked around the ring together again. I stopped in each corner and moved her hindquarters on both sides, then we walked some more. I stopped again and worked on backing her a few steps without touching her, then we walked some more. We did this for about fifteen minutes, then I walked her over to the gate and swapped out the lead rope for the lunge line.

We started on the lunge line the same as we did the lead rope; in iddy-biddy circles, fed out a couple of feet at a time with good behavior. We moved all around the arena working on her walk/trot transitions. Overall, she was great; quiet, accepting, listening to my voice and body cues. She spooked once at the far end of the ring, but didn’t go off like a rocket. (Yay!) We worked our way up the arena toward the “big scary spot” and circled there (both directions) until she lost her wide-eyed expression and relaxed. By the time I decided we were finished I had myself a different horse. On walk back up the road to the barn Dharla’s head was level and her breathing calm. When we got back to the barn I decided to leave Dharla in the bigger paddock that has access to the main gate. I stayed out with her for about fifteen minutes and picked the paddock. I wanted to see what she’d do, see if she’d revert back to her previous nervous, pacing, whinnying-for-Bullet state. She did not! (Yay!)

In conclusion, a couple of things:

1. Good on me for using my head (not my emotions) and finding a constructive substitute for riding. I tend to view “not getting my way” as defeat and often use this emotion to draw a line in the sand. I’m learning to do what’s right for my horse and (I’m hoping) we’ll both be better for this in the long run.

2. Along that same note, I’m learning to look down the line more: forgo instant gratification. It’s been a long, long time since I’ve had such a green young horse. It’s easy for me to get frustrated by (what feels like) a lot of endless repetition. I have to learn to believe in my heart that Dharla is making progress, even during those times when it seems like she’s not. It’s all good.

3. Keep setting us (both) up for success! If you don’t have the confidence to take a specific path, choose a path (however small) that you do have the confidence to take. Even small steps can be constructive.

4. When my horse acts out, it’s not about ME. It’s not because I’ve failed her (us). It’s not because she’s a miserable cuss. There’s usually a reason. Try to see the situation through her eyes and find a remedy that fits the circumstance. (In this case, doing some simple, easy ground work to take her mind off missing her buddy and getting her to focus on me for a while.)