We recently wrote about what to look for in a retirement farm for your horse, but the flip side is should you retire your horse, or just give them a career change?

Dr. Kate Robinson of McKee Pownall Veterinary Services says there is no set rule for when to retire your equine. “I think certainly we need to be listening to the horse and be realistic and honest in our assessment of their abilities and what we are asking of them,” she says. “There was one 42-year-old Arab we actually tried to retire; he was very unhappy in retirement and so he was put back into just a really easy walking program as a school board and was much happier,” she explains. “We need to treat them as individuals. And their work schedules may need to be adjusted as they age, but age alone does not define whether a horse needs to be retired or not.”

One person who agrees with that sentiment is Marion Cunningham, who owns MarBill Hill Farm in Schomberg, Ontario, which specializes in long-term care for elderly horses. “There are several different views out there about how and when true show horses should or should not retire,” Cunningham says. “Many people look for retirement when what they really need to look for is a change in occupation or a lightening of the horse’s workload. Many older show horses are very happy to drop down to an easier level or to take on riding school duties rather than retire to a field.”

We asked Cunningham for her thoughts on when to know it’s time to retire or switch your horse’s job.

Horse Canada: What factors should an owner use to decide it’s time to retire their horse?

Marion Cunningham: I think one of the things that most people do when the horse reaches a certain age is, like with people, “Oh, I’m almost sixty-five, I must need to retire.” In fact, there’s a big discussion going on right now about how the baby boomers are all going to be retiring – and do they really need to? But really, what people need to do is look at the condition of their horse, the mental state of their horse. Are they happy? Are they sad? Are they injured? Are they chronically ill? Are they still able to do the job that you want them to do?

HC: Let’s discuss the idea you mentioned of changing a horse’s job.

MC: I think the higher up in the show world you are, the more you understand the whole gearing down process. If you own a grand prix jumper sometime around 12-14 or older, it probably doesn’t want to jump the 1.60 anymore. But jumping a 1.30 with a decent amateur on its back is fun. That’s not so much retiring as it is changing their job. I think people have to understand that their horse maybe isn’t ready to continue on being a hunter or reining horse or a high-level dressage horse, but they might be perfectly happy with being leased out to some kid wanting to learn, being a school master, or maybe they want to be a school horse. My son’s ex-1.20 jumper is teaching up-down lessons and cross poles classes. He’s 21 this year, and happy as anything. He’s not ready to retire to a field.

HC: What signs should an owner look for to determine if their horse is ready to retire or change jobs?

MC: There are a few signs. For example, if you’ve campaigned your horse, you’ve done what you want to do with it, and it was easy and effective with little support, but now you’re finding that instead of having to do maintenance on the horse, such as doing injections once or twice a year, you’re now doing it every three months, or having to add Previcox, or they’re unhappy so they’re having stomach issues. You investigate to see what’s going on and if there’s nothing really obvious but just wear and tear, that’s when you start thinking that the horse isn’t able to do, or no longer wants to do, what it used to.

HC: Then the question for a lot of owners is “What am I going to do now?”

MC: Some people are happy to downgrade with their horses. I know people who’ve had 3’6” hunters and Derby horses who in their late teens and early 20s retire to the 3’foot or 2’9” ring and they do that for a few years until their arthritis gets to the point where they really don’t want to do that. A horse will let you know when they don’t want to participate anymore. And that’s when you start having all the behavioural issues such as stopping, or they’re sour and don’t want to get on a trailer, or they try to leave the ring. They let you know.

Marion Cunningham’s husband Bill Tilford with some of the farm’s residents; the retired horses still get plenty of the grooming and attention they were accustomed to during their show careers. (Cara Grimshaw photo)


HC: When it comes to full retirement, there is an adage that you just need to let a horse be a horse. What do you say to that?

MC: I don’t ultimately believe that. It will work for some horses but not for others. Especially with a high-level horse, no matter what the discipline, they are working athletes who have been handled most of their life, they’ve got grooms, they’ve traveled and all that stuff. Standing out in a 40-acre field with a couple of run-in sheds and ten other horses with a round bale is probably not something they’ve done since they left their mother. Horses coming from the pleasure world or trail world, or horses who have spent time outside in the summer, those horses can definitely be out in the field. They will be comfortable and know how to defend themselves from their peer groups. They know how to get fed, things like that. But higher-level show horses? Food comes in a bowl from the really nice lady that also gives you hay. It comes three to five times a day. There’s always water. Someone cleans your bed for you. You’re never cold. If you get too much hair, someone takes it off. Someone takes the stone out of your foot. Your toes are never too long. Being put out in a field to “just be a horse” 24/7 can be a huge system shock for a show horse.

HC: When we talk about our horse’s mental state, we can look at a horse and say it seems sad or unhappy and use that as an indicator on lifestyle. Have you seen horses fall into a depression?

MC: Horses will get depressed for sure because their circumstances have changed. Just like there are happy people, more cynical people, and unhappy people, you get the same thing in in horses. Depression or sadness in a horse is also very individualistic. But you can also tell the difference between your horse ‘as usual’ and your horse not acting or reacting as you would expect. If they’re really comfortable, they like what they’re doing, they like where they’re living, then they’re happy. They come out of their stall. They’re happy to work.

I have a gelding whose goal in life seems to be to see how much he can annoy me or the grooms. He thinks it’s a game. And he will come out and pretend that he hates the world, make faces and knock everything over, but as soon as you start working, he’s like “let’s do this.” He loves to jump and he’s always very happy and very willing. When he’s actually unhappy, he’s very nappy. He’s hard to get to do things. Any unhappy horse will let you know with their behaviours. A sad and unhappy horses doesn’t eat well, they will lose weight, they will lose condition they no longer do the things you know they enjoy. Just like unhappy people.

HC: Regular grooming is included in MarBill Hill’s board for the senior horses. Why is that so important to their mental and physical state?

MC: For starters, because they’re used to it. One thing that you can do to prolong your older horse’s life is to make their life as consistent as possible. Do the simple things that they are used to and enjoy. We groom our seniors two to three times a week so they’re getting that comfort of being looked after and that interaction that these horses are used to. They’re not getting it as much as when they were in a show barn, but they’re still getting attention. And it also gives the owners that peace of mind that they’re being cared for.

HC: Any final thoughts for senior horse owners wondering about retirement?

MC: It’s very individualistic. You have to let the horse tell you what it wants to do. Some horses will retire at 14 or 15, and other horses won’t do it until they’re in their mid-20s. And if it’s a pony, 50!