Your wonderful competition horse just isn’t what he used to be. Whether he’s showing his age or a little unsoundness has cropped up, maybe he’s stopping at 3-foot jumps he used to sail over. Maybe, just when you thought you were ready for Second level, his hocks are getting too iffy for collected work. Or maybe he’s just jumped around one cross country course too many. You’ve helped him along with a well-planned show schedule, regular shoeing, chiropractic, joint supplements and the judicious use of such monsteroidal and inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) as bute. But in most cases there comes a day when even you have to admit that those efforts aren’t enough.
You wish your pockets were deep enough to let you keep him as a pet, but realistically they probably aren’t. As for selling him… you worry that you won’t get what he’s worth, and you also worry about losing a say in what happens during his “golden years.” A not-so-caring owner might risk injury and burnout by trying to push him beyond his limits. And you have nightmares that he’ll get passed from hand to hand and possibly wind up abused, neglected, in pain or sold at auction.
You may have another alternative that benefits both you and your horse: donating him to a nonprofit riding program such as a therapeutic-riding center for individuals with disabilities, Pony Club, or a school or college with an equestrian curriculum.
If your guy is older or serviceably sound like most horses that go to such programs, he’ll enjoy the lighter, toned down, lower demand work. In fact, the consistency of a well-run riding program may well keep him going and happily useful far longer than almost any other career choice. He will enjoy the affection and energy transfer he gets from daily touching and handling as people from little kids to doting adults groom, fuss over, and love him. He will enjoy the healthy interaction with other horses, the satisfaction of knowing he’s become a schoolmaster who’s comfortably extending his useful life by teaching a new generation of students.
You may possibly receive a tax credit that may actually make more financial sense than selling him for a pittance.
Now is the time to decide if you are ready to let your horse go. You are, if you can shrug your shoulders and say “oh, well” at the prospect of some well-meaning student combing half the hair out of your horse’s beautiful tail. You are, if you can accept that even a normally good-minded and easygoing horse who’s been privately owned may act a bit resistant and uncooperative in the new activity and lifestyle that his career change involves. You are, if you understand the inevitability of at least a few bumps and bite marks after your horse’s first week in pasture, and the possibility that he may temporarily lose a bit of weight — not because he’s being worked too hard or fed too little, but because he’s too busy socializing or just trying to find his place in the pecking order. And you’re really ready, if you can be a “hands off” donor who neither hovers, meddles, nor picks nits, but can stand back, watch, and be proud and happy to see him being useful and well cared for.
You probably aren’t ready to let go, by the way, if you insist on dictating restrictions that in no way improve his health or well-being or making demands that a program with many horses and students may not be able to enforce.
Not every horse is suited to life in the therapeutic or educational world, of course. Attitude and manners are critical: Such a horse must be gentle on the ground — no biting, charging, or kicking. He must be tractable under saddle — no rearing, bucking, or bolting. If he jumps, he shouldn’t stop at doable heights. He must be reasonably easy to shoe and medicate. He needs to accept new experiences calmly. He needs to be able to tolerate group lessons, neither getting fired up by the activity nor becoming defensive about his “space.” He’s ahead of the game if he already fits into herd life peaceably and sociably. And he stands a far better chance of working out if he comes without special needs, activity limitations or vices (such as cribbing).
Serviceable soundness is essential. Nonprofit therapeutic and educational programs typically don’t have the time or money to nurse sick or lame horses, and a head-bobbing schoolie is ab-so-lutely unacceptable. Still, though most programs are understandably cautious about taking on major or advanced cases of navicular, ringbone, or arthritis, many are realistically savvy, willing, and able to manage minor wear and age-related unsoundnesses that don’t limit usefulness or cause discomfort. Once a horse has proven he’s worth his weight in gold, most programs are more than happy to tend to special needs — regular thyroid medication, for example — that they might have refused to assume in the first place.
Therapeutic riding programs have additional requirements. The North American Riding for the Handicapped Association (NARHA) suggests that, for ease of handing, mounting and side-walking, a donated horse stand between 14 and 15 hands high. He should be no younger than five; although some horses have been accepted at 20 or older, prospects for stability, soundness, and longevity are best if he’s between eight and 16. Because his movement gives direct input to a disabled rider’s body, he needs to move forward easily and freely. He must be reasonable indifferent to having strange objects, such as wheelchairs and beach balls, nearby or touching him. And it is a bonus if he responds readily to voice commands.
However, the above is a “wish list” to which there can be as many acceptable exceptions as there are horses; for example, some therapeutic riding programs need horses 16 hands or higher to carry tall or heavy riders, and some horses adapt to program demands more readily than their owners ever would have dreamed.
Just be prepared to disclose forth-rightly your horse’s behavioral, training, and health background, including vet records and x-rays if appropriate. The program director may ask to have her veterinarian check out any “red flags.” And the director or somebody knowledgeable in her barn will probably want to try him under saddle to get a feel for his ability, responsiveness, training, and habits — from tolerable ones (say, cutting corners or hanging on the left rein) to unacceptable ones such as bucking or rearing.
Deciding which facility to select for the new home, involves checking out the operation. Sad to say, not all therapeutic or educational programs offer heaven on earth for horses. Visit the facility you’re considering, preferably several times.
When you’re satisfied with the program and facility, sit down and negotiate a trial-period agreement that includes the following:
– Length of trial period
– A statement that, if your horse proves suitable, he will be accepted into the program at the end of the trial period
– Acknowledgement that it’s okay for you to have a change of heart, call off the deal and take your horse home
– Basic care and living arrangements
– Medications and/or supplements, and who will pay for them
– Identification of who will make decisions about — and be financially responsible for — minor to major veterinary procedures and treatments
It is natural to feel squeamish. If all goes well, your horse is going to be a great schoolmaster. He’ll serve a generation of students well. So take steps now to ensure that he’s treated fairly and doesn’t spend his last days abandoned, in pain, or suffering.