When Should You Retire A Horse?

Any horse owner, especially owners of older horses, will have wondered at some point when is the right time to retire a horse and whether or not they should retire the horse completely or just reduce its workload. Of course, we all want to carry on riding but, as always, the welfare of our beloved horses is always at the forefront of our minds.

In an ideal world there would be a simple ‘you should stop riding your horse at X years of age’ but this is by no means an ideal world so there is no one answer that fits all. Instead, there is a range of factors that need to be taken into consideration before deciding if now is the right to retire your horse.

What does it mean to retire a horse?

To us, the word retire simply means to stop working and in theory enjoy the rest of our lives but when it comes to horses the word retire can have a variety of different interpretations depending on what sort of work you and your horse are (or were) doing. If, for example, you compete at a top-level, retirement simply means that your horse is no longer competing, if, on the other hand, you ride purely for pleasure then retirement is likely to mean that you stop riding your horse altogether, or at least drastically cut back.

What age should you retire a horse at?

It might seem like I’m trying to avoid answering the question but the simple fact is that there is no set age at which you must retire a horse by. The most important factor to consider when deciding if it’s in your horse’s best interest is their overall health. If a 30-year-old horse is in good shape and doesn’t have any issues with the workload then there’s absolutely no reason why you would even consider retiring him. On the other hand, if a 15-year-old horse is starting to regularly struggle with their workload, and takes longer and longer to recover then it should definitely be something you should think about.

There's no set age when a horse should retire

How do you know when to retire a horse?

There are plenty of cases when an injury has made the decision for you, or at least helped to steer you in that direction but if this isn’t the case then it can be difficult to know when to make that choice, after all, there are no hard and fast rules about when a horse should be retired.

Just like us, a horse’s decline can be a very gradual one and can often be difficult to spot, especially if you see the horse every day so its often advisable to talk to people who don’t see your horse as often as you, people such as your veterinarian or even your farrier.

While it can sometimes be difficult to spot the signs yourself it’s important to ask yourself a few questions.

Is your horse tiring more than normal?

Of course, horses have good days and bad days but is he taking longer to recover from exercise? As the body ages, it finds it harder to provide muscles with all of the protein and energy they need which is why older horses not only tire much sooner than they used to but also take longer to recover.

Is your horse tripping more than normal?

Tripping can be caused by a wide range of things, many of which I talked about in this article, but it can also be a sign that your horse is ready for retirement. As horses get older they can suffer from joint pain such as arthritis which can make it much harder for them to walk properly. The eyesight of some horses may deteriorate with age too and this can also be a factor in why an older horse may trip more often.

Has your horse’s mood changed?

As with so many other things, a horse’s mood can change for a multitude of reasons but you know your horse better than anybody so you are more likely to notice if he doesn’t appear to enjoy being ridden as much. It may be as subtle as his ears have dropped a little more than normal, or as obvious as he starts ‘playing up’ when you come to ride him. 

What are your goals?

This might sound like a strange thing to consider when deciding if your horse is too old to be ridden anymore but it actually makes a lot more sense than you might think. After all, going back to the competition analogy earlier if your goal is to be the fastest barrel racer and your horse is heading towards retirement he’s not going to be able to meet those goals so gently retirement may be the best solution for him. On the other hand, if your goal is to enjoy quiet trail rides then, providing your horse is sound, there’s no need to retire him.

Is your horse being honest with you?

Some horses are so eager to please they’ll pretend they’re okay and are more than capable of being ridden when in fact they’re not. If your horse is displaying signs that he might be struggling, but his behavior is saying otherwise it would be a good idea to speak to your veterinarian. He won’t know your horse’s personality but will be able to assess him from a purely physical point of view. He will then be able to advise whether or not you should begin to retire your horse.

What’s the best for your horse?

This can be a very difficult question to answer because we all want to do the best for our horses and nobody likes to think they’re not, but at the same time, we also love riding them so it’s important to not let that cloud our judgment when deciding what’s in their best interest. If your horse is prone to unsoundness but you’re lucky enough to have the finances to manage this is it really in your horse’s best interests? As I say it’s a difficult question to ask yourself, especially if you’re not going to like the answer, but for your horse’s sake you need to be honest.

Is is suffering from Cushing’s disease?

Pituitary Pars Intermedia Dysfunction (or PPID) to give it its proper name is a condition that is common in older horses. It affects the pituitary gland and increases the level of hormones produced by the gland. This is often characterized by a longer coat (which isn’t shed during the summer) but horses suffering from Cushing’s disease tire much easier and are more prone to laminitis which is why it can prematurely put a horse into retirement.

Your veterinarian may advise you to retire your horse or at least reduce their workload

Easing your horse into retirement

Retiring a horse has to be done gradually and sensitively, suddenly stopping your horse from working can actually do more harm than good because it can affect both their physical and mental wellbeing. The key is to find the level between cutting back enough so that your horse’s body isn’t under any stress but not cutting back so much that his inactivity causes new issues or problems.

To start with you can either reduce the length of a ride or reduce how hard your horse has to work. For example, if you’re doing a lot of jumping maybe lower the height of the jumps or don’t jump as many. The same can be said for the speed with which you ride, if you spend a lot of the ride going as fast as you can, consider reducing the amount of time you do this for.

Take each day as it comes and be sensitive to how your horse is feeling, if, after warming him up, your horse appears to be looser then there’s no reason why you shouldn’t ride him. If he just doesn’t seem to shake his stiffness then you’d be unwise to ride.

Should you still exercise a retired horse?

Evidence has shown that light to moderate work can help to keep your horse’s joints more supple and less prone to stiffening up so it’s important to continue exercising your horse. If your horse is no longer able to be ridden it doesn’t mean to say you can exercise him still. Gentle pole work, a short lunge, or even leading your horse on a walk will all help to keep his joints healthy. If you’re still able to ride your horse then you could alternate brief rides with some light groundwork into to keep those joints working.

Each horse is different and the level to which you can exercise him will differ from other horses so it’s important to listen to what he’s telling you. If he’s full of every then there’s no reason why you shouldn’t have a short canter, but if he’s dragging his heels so to speak, keep the exercise light.

Conclusion 

In short, there’s no right or wrong age to retire a horse, instead, the horse’s physical health (and his ability), as well as veterinarian advice, should be taken into account. The single most important thing to remember though is don’t suddenly retire your horse, this is likely to cause joint stiffness but can also affect your horse’s mood and lead to depression.

Further reading

Recommended products 

Over the years I use have tried hundreds of different horsey products, from various blankets and halters to different treats. Some I’ve loved, others I’ve hated but I thought I’d share with you my top all-time favorite products, the ones I never leave the yard without. I’ve included links to the products (which are in no particular order) that I really think are great.

  • Mane ’n Tail Detangler – Even if you never show your horse you’ll need to detangle his tail from time to time (and possibly his mane too) which is always a challenging chore! I’ve found that if I run a little bit of detangler through my horse’s tails every few days it stops them getting matted up and makes combing them easy, even if they’re coated in mud. I don’t know if I should admit to this or not but it also works wonders on my hair.
  • TAKEKIT Pro clippers – Over the years I’ve tried a lot of different clippers and while some were obviously better than others I found these to be by far the best. They are heavier than a lot of other clippers but for me, that’s a good thing, it makes them feel more sturdy and hardwearing. On top of that they have a range of speeds so are just as good for clipping your horse’s back as they are his face. I also like the fact that they come in a handy carry case but that’s not for everybody. The company that makes them is super good and incredibly helpful too, a real bonus these days. The only thing I wasn’t keen on was the fact that it doesn’t come with any oil, but that’s not a major problem as it’s not difficult to buy lubricant.
  • Shire’s ball feeder – There are so many boredom buster toys out there but I like to use these every day, regardless of whether or not my horses are bored. I find that it helps to encourage my horses to problem solve by rewarding them with treats (or pieces of fruit) but it also mimics their natural grazing behavior which helps to keep them calm and de-stressed.
  • Horse safe mirror – This is a strange one that many people are surprised about but I like to put horse safe mirrors in the trailers as well as in the quarantine stalls. It helps to prevent the feeling of isolation by giving the impression of other horses being around. Being herd animals horses can get extremely stressed when they feel that they’re on their own but with these stick-on mirrors, they believe that at least one other horse is with them.

I hope you found this article helpful. If you did I’d be grateful if you could share it please as it would really help me.

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