As we’ve discussed in this ongoing senior horse series, our equine partners are living longer and are healthier than ever. How long you keep your horse working is dependent on each individual animal; there is no cut-and-dried rule for when to retire a horse. Owners need to listen to the horse and be realistic and honest in their assessment of the horse’s abilities and what is being asked of them.

There are plenty of stories out there where an owner attempted to retire a horse only to find the animal was very unhappy. Even an easy walking under tack program can be enough to put the joy back into their stride. And certainly work schedules may need to be adjusted as your horse ages, but age alone does not define whether a horse needs to be retired or not.

Having said that, perhaps you’ve considered all of the above and it is time to retire your horse. Maybe it was a show jumper, or a reining horse, or you competed in the dressage ring or evented, but now it’s time to let the horse enjoy its golden years.

So how do you decide what makes a suitable retirement plan? We spoke with Christyn Hendrick from Trinity Sky Farms in Tennessee, a retirement facility. Hendrick said that when she decided to run a horse farm she didn’t want to deal with boarders and the mix of personalities that can be a challenge, so she opted for retired animals only. “Also, I was frustrated by the lack of good options for retirement, especially for our show horses,” Hendrick explains. “I couldn’t understand why the horses couldn’t have all the things they did as a show horse, but just spend their days in a pasture. That’s what I wanted to offer.”

Horse Canada: What are the main issues facing show horses entering retirement?

Christyn Hendrick: There are three areas that we focus on in our transition: grass, social skills, and wide-open spaces.

Introducing grass to a horse’s diet can be dangerous if not done correctly and slowly, so this is the primary thing we focus on. We start with 15 minutes the first day on the grass and then we add an additional 15 minutes on the grass every day until we’ve reached the three-hour marker. This means the horse has to be kept in a dry lot during this transition time (we have a round pen we set up in one of the pastures that has a dirt area).

One of the biggest issues is that most show horses have never been in a herd and have zero social skills. This can be extremely stressful for some of them. So while we’re working on the dietary transition, we start the introduction process through the round pen so no one gets hurt.

Finally, being turned out in a huge open space can be overwhelming. They start off in a large round pen, big enough to play in but not big enough to get any speed going. We then let them out with a buddy into our small pasture (where the round pen is located) and let them get a feel for things before we turn them out into our 30-acre pasture. We typically lead them around the 30-acre pasture with the herd before letting them loose.

HC: Can all horses retire and live in turn-out 24/7? If not, why not?

CH: A lot depends on the climate they are turned out in (Florida vs. Canada, say) and their age and body condition. Horses are a lot sturdier than we give them credit for, especially our show horses that we bubble wrap! While most horses would survive just fine turned out (provided they always have access to food and shelter – and trees do not count as “shelter”) we find there are far more benefits to them being brought in at night. This is especially true for the show horse who has been handled daily his whole life. To go from the hands-on show life to just being tossed outside with a herd can be a complete shock to their system, so coming in every night gives them a bit of that routine that they have known. We have found that it also offers us a chance to feed meds and supplements and thoroughly go over the horse and treat any ailments. It also offers some of the lower horses a respite from the herd dynamics and an opportunity to lay down somewhere soft.

Make sure changes are made slowly … taking them off feeds or supplements, taking off shoes, transitioning to grass, etc.

HC: What should owners consider when looking for a retirement farm for their horse?

CH: Hands-on care would be the biggest thing! Typically, being brought in every night means there’s a higher chance of the care being better. While pretty pictures are nice, they mean nothing. I’ve heard horror stories about some retirement farms. Here’s a list of things I would be looking at:

  • Location’s climate – Every location has its pros and cons. If it’s hot, what is done for the horses? If it’s cold, what is done for the horses?
  • Herd or facility size – The bigger the herd or facility the less attention your individual horse is going to get.
  • Pasture size – If it’s just a small (couple of acres) square pasture then your horse will most likely spend its day just standing in one place as there’s no reason for them to move around.
  • Shelter – Does every pasture have sufficient shelter to accommodate all the horses?
  • Fencing – Is there barbed wire? If it’s wood, is it well maintained?
  • Hay – Do they grow their own? If not, where do they buy their hay? Do they feed round bales? I highly recommend against this due to potential for botulism from dead animals that might be caught up in the haying process. Where do they store it? Hay should never be stored in the barn with the horses because it’s a fire hazard.
  • Hooves – Look at the resident horses’ feet. Are they well maintained?
  • Farm Tour – Always visit the location in person, or at least ask for a virtual tour (we do this via Facetime on occasion for those who can’t make the trip).
  • Price – I know that no one wants to pay a ton every month for their retired horse… but you get what you pay for. If a place is only charging $350/month and says they do a whole list of things, I promise you they aren’t.
  • The Horses – Look at the other horses. This is what your horse will look like. Are you okay with that?
  • Facility – Don’t retire at a boarding facility that “also” offers retirement – you run the risk of your horse being an afterthought or worse, being used as a lesson horse.


A gang of retirees grazing at Trinity Sky.


HC: How important are herd dynamics and how should it be maintained?

CH: Thankfully, once the herd is established you really don’t have to maintain them. From our experience if a horse is going to be a “problem” horse you’ll know it during the herd introduction process. While we try everything possible to make things work, we have had three horses now that we’ve had to tell the owner to come and pick up. I know it sound harsh, but we can’t risk the health, safety or mental well-being of the rest of the herd for one horse.

Learning to say no is important. I will tell you this though: whatever an owner thinks they know about their horse’s personality, take it with a grain of salt (unless they’ve been turned out with a herd before). Because we’ve taken in big bully horses that end up at the bottom of the herd and one that we were told was “horse aggressive” and he turned out to be the friendliest horse ever!