This blog post was inspired by a recent post by Kate at A Year With Horses. Kate has a wonderful blog and is always very eloquent in describing her work with her horses and her observations of them.
I don't think anyone who sends a horse here to retire with us has any but the best of intentions for their equine partners. Within reason, we try our best to ensure that the transition from their former facility to ours is as seamless as possible for both the owners and their horses. That said, I don't think it'll come as a surprise to learn that dealing with both age and circumstantial changes is often easier for the horses than for the people who send them to us.
I think we do what we do exceptionally well; the horses here get good, consistent, basic horse care including fresh feed and clean water, close attention every day, plus blanketing, some grooming, and wound/disease treatment as needed. The horses are happy with this; almost without exception they thrive on it. In fact I've yet to meet a horse that couldn't transition to our way of life and be very content about doing so. I think living in a group with other horses effectively addresses their mental health as well as ministering to their physical needs. But we don't bubblewrap the horses, they live in groups on big pastures outside, and that comes with some stuff that owners of stall boarded horses aren't used to seeing. Seeing "reality" can make the transition needlessly dramatic and worrisome for the owner, especially if he or she is being encouraged to reconsider such an "extreme" decision by their trainer or other people with no real understanding of what is normal and expected when a horse transitions from living in a stall to living outside.
Horses that live outside are going to have to deal with weather changes, and I've yet to see a horse react to anything our climate can throw at them with anything other than benign indifference. If it is hot enough they sweat. When it is cold, they eat more hay, stand in their shelters and, as the situation warrants, they wear blankets.
Minor cuts, scratches, ticks and bug bites are de rigeur when your horse lives out of doors. We have bug bites, cuts and scratches ourselves and I promise if we have them, your horse is going to have them too. We check ourselves for ticks (and often find some) every day. If your horse chooses to scratch himself on a low hanging limb, or have a play fest with his best buddy while they are under a tree, he's going to look like he's been shredded for a little while and there isn't very much I can do about that, except to treat the (many) minor cuts he is going to have. Horses in groups are going to kick and bite at one another in their play and when they do they often manage to leave nicks or cuts or bite marks. Sometimes horses snark at each other, even horses that are best buddies ("Move over, I want that patch of grass!" or "I drink from the water trough first and you have to wait!"). When people are here visiting their horse if they happen to see a snarky moment between two horses they always comment on it. On the other hand we would not even think it notable, to us they are just being horses. Don't sweat the small stuff.
We spend a lot of time watching horses and observing their behavior and group dynamics. As such we are fully aware of the fact that horses are not concerned with world peace, solving world hunger (heck they're not even concerned with solving their neighbor's hunger), won't be forming the horsey version of the United Nations, and generally are concerned with themselves and meeting their own needs. If a horse in the wild can no longer keep up with their herd they are left behind by the group. There will be no rushing into the line of fire to save their wounded friend, it simply is not how horse society works. Obviously the horses here are not wild but their behavior is still very similar. I will say that in a small group of 2 two 4 horses the dynamics will be different as there are not enough group members to have a true herd mentality.
Unshod horses often walk around, especially in the summer, with small chips or small cracks in their hoof walls, often because of daily exposure to the morning dew and the resulting wet/dry cycle. Most of these are completely superficial; they don't bother the horses and it doesn't bother us to watch the horses. Some horses always look like they have been freshly trimmed. Others don't. As much as some owners don't wish to hear it, some horses just flat out have bad feet and nothing we can do will improve upon a horse's genetics. We work with some good farriers and we try to help horses with bad feet get to a better place, but frankly as long as they are comfortably keeping up with their friends we fail to see a crisis in the making even if their hooves are not visually perfect.
The horses here came to us to be retired for a reason, and most of the time these reasons encompass some degree of lameness or declining health. We've said many times this is not the place to visit if you want to see what a sound horse looks like trotting around in the pasture. But sometimes they are here not necessarily due to lameness but due to permanent and/or progressive effects from illness, progressive diseases, and other health issues. For example a horse with DSLD is going to have obvious, physical signs of this progressive disease (with drooping of the hind fetlocks typically being the first sign that leads to diagnosis) and there is nothing that can be done about it. This goes back to not sweating the small stuff - worrying over something we cannot change is a senseless use of our time and mental energy.
The other issue that evolves over time is that a horse's appearance isn't static; it changes as they age, and this is an ongoing source of worry for the people that send them here. A horse not in work loses it's topline and musculature. Body condition scores change as horses age. Easy keepers sometimes become harder keepers. Issues that a horse may have lived and coped with all of its life often can become much more difficult to manage and take a greater toll on the horses as they age.
Just like people, some horses age gracefully and look basically the same several years later as they did when they arrived. Like people some horses simply do not age gracefully despite the best feed, the best veterinary care available and the best farrier care available. After years of living with many aging horses, working with some wonderful owners who were willing to spend thousands of dollars on veterinary diagnostics and still coming up empty handed, we've learned that sometimes you just need to love your horse and accept him for what he is today, even if he isn't the "perfect" horse he used to be. If they are eating, drinking and maintaining a healthy and reasonable body condition - and this acceptable score will vary greatly depending on what a horse's issues might be - you learn that you cannot make them all look perfect. As long as they are happy and have a nice quality of life at some point you have to accept that all of the money in the world is not going to reverse the aging clock. Of course some people are lucky and their horses age beautifully and look like they are 10 even when they are in their 30's.
For the number of horses that we have around here, real problems, the kind that require prompt action on our part and that justifiably create real worry for us and the owners, are rare. When they happen, we notice and we do something about it promptly (we're great friends with our vets from years of working together). As for the rest? We've learned the hard way that it doesn't pay to sweat the small stuff.