Thursday, January 14, 2010

Retirement Case Study

In other posts I've touched on some of the common questions and concerns people have when it comes to retiring their horse. Many owners have no doubts that their horses will love retirement, but equally as many have concerns. Common concerns include: my horse hates turnout, my horse is miserable without a job, I cannot retire my horse where I can't see him daily because he is so attached to me, etc. These are just a few concerns that we routinely address with owners. I would like to state up front that I think these concerns are valid, and the horse in question may very well demonstrate behavior that validates the owner's worries. I will also state in our experience these issues are fairly easily addressed, although it may take a change in surroundings.

I thought it would be fun to do a series of posts describing the transitions that some of the residents made to retirement. In this post I am going to describe Baby's move to retirement. Baby's owners had more than one issue they were worried about when it came to retiring Baby.

Baby racing through the pasture with Silky last spring

1. Baby did not like turnout, and after an hour or two would pace the fenceline. If you tried to wait him out by leaving him outside he would become more and more aggressive until he was to the point of running the fenceline, along with the requisite sliding stops and spinning turns. However Baby is also a stall walker, so he never seemed to be 100% content whether he was turned out or in a stall. His owners told us to use our best judgement for Baby in regards to pasture or stall board for him.

2. Baby was somewhat of a hard keeper. He had chronic ulcers and was on daily ulcer treatment and was also prone to gas colic, typically having 2-3 gas colics a year. There was concern about if the move and change in lifestyle would further irritate his ulcers and cause digestive upset. Baby is also a cribber.

3, His owners were concerned about pulling his shoes and transitioning him to barefoot. Farrier trims every six weeks are included in our board rates, if a horse needs to remain shod the owners must cover the expense. Baby's owners, who have always been wonderful to work with, left the decision up to us whether or not to pull his shoes.

Baby (farthest back on the right) grazing contentedly with friends this summer

When Baby arrived he was exactly as described. He paced a lot in a stall, regardless of whether the other stalls were full or empty. We could not turn him out much at first because we were having to transition him to grass. Thus, we never saw the fence running initially, and were thinking maybe a change of scenery was going to allow us to completely avoid that problem. However, once his turnout time lengthened to a couple of hours the fence running ensued promptly.

Apollo, Ivan and Baby

At the same time were were acclimating Baby's digestive tract to good grazing, we also needed to make a decision about how to handle his feet. I will say I knew on the front end that I would at least try to transition him to barefoot. Of course, that was before we pulled his shoes and pads for his first trim and I saw how much bruising was hiding under those pads. I still felt the best thing for him was to transition to barefoot. His hoof walls were very thin and shelly, we had already been told he was a chronic shoe thrower, he had thin soles, long toes and of course the sole bruising on both front feet.

His shoes were pulled, he was given a very conservative trim, and Gwen was able to get a good fit for him in a pair of boots with pads. The transition out of shoes was a piece of cake. He never took even the slightest of gimpy steps in his boots and pads. He wore his boots and pads for about six weeks, and has never needed them since. His hooves still are not beautiful but they have come a long way. Much better angles, MUCH healthier hoof walls, he has some concavity in his front feet, his frogs are much more plump and healthy, and the bruising was largely gone by his second trim six weeks later. Would he need shoes if he were in work and jumping? Yes, I think he would. But if he were only in light work and not jumping I think he would still be fine bare.

Baby came to us shod in bar shoes and pads. His feet were very bruised underneath the pads.
Once we realized we were not going to escape Baby's fence running and dislike of turnout we decided to try and address it. I would have been fine keeping him on stall board with limited turnout if he had acted like he was any happier in a stall. Unfortunately he paced and stall walked a lot when he was inside, regardless of whether there was a horse in every stall or the barn was empty. With his history of ulcers and gas colic we wanted to try and find a solution that made Baby happy.

Baby hanging out with his friend Trigger

The obvious solution was to turn him out with a friend. Unfortunately this did not stop the fence running so we decided to try a different friend. We saw more fence running. To top everything off we had been told that Baby could also be spooky, and leading him in and out from the barn to his paddock every day was certainly a challenge at times. He would spook constantly, and he is one that tries to jump in your lap when he spooks, not jump away from you. I wouldn't let anyone else lead him to and from turnout, it could be that exciting at times.

Typically my other fail-proof solution for horses that hate turnout is teaching them that they do not have to be in the barn to be fed. Often it is the strong association of barn = food, whether that be grain, hay, treats, or whatever, that makes a lot of horses desperate to get back in the barn. I started feeding Baby his grain in the paddock with a feedbag. He STILL ran the fence.

Baby and Trigger enjoying a grooming session

After a few weeks of fence running, stall walking, spooking, cribbing, etc. I was coming to the end of my rope. I remember saying to Jason that Baby was giving ME stomach ulcers and I could not take it much longer. I am used to happy and relaxed horses, and Baby was neither of those. I told Jason he was going out with a group of horses, and I prayed that it would go well. We decided to put him out with one of the 'geriatric groups' even though baby is under ten years old. No matter how much drama Baby threw out we knew that he would not be able to lure this group of horses into participating for very long.

Jason and I led him to the pasture together. We each had a leadrope, and one of us walked on either side of him. Baby spooked and leaped his way to the pasture but the three of us made it there in one piece. He had already met the horses in his group as they all served as his 'friend' during his paddock turnout. Baby took off at a mad gallop around the pasture. As we anticipated, the other horses ran along with him for less than half a lap and then went back to grazing. They would lift their heads occasionally to watch him, as if to say "why is that lunatic still racing around?"

Baby galloped, bucked and squealed his way around the pasture a few times. He squealed and snorted over the fence with the horses in the adjoining pasture, and ran the fenceline with them. Eventually everyone went back to grazing. When every single horse on either side of the fence was ignoring him Baby stopped the drama, stopped running, and started grazing. He has never looked back! He loves being part of a group. He has been off his daily ulcer medication for over a year. He gained so much weight he actually went up a blanket size. You can lead him all over the farm with a loop in the leadrope, he walks along quietly and hardly lifts his head.

I found Baby's case to be very interesting. Turnout with a single friend, or a couple of friends, did nothing for him. Teaching him that the barn was not the only place for food did not work either. It was only being part of a group that made him happy. He is with a different group now, running with the younger crowd I call the Big Boys. He is as happy as the proverbial pig in slop and is a very pleasant horse to work with now. Who does not love a happy ending??

On to some pictures of the other retirees . . .

Ogie slightly hidden behind a tree limb

B-Rad and Asterik

Some of the Big Boys going for a run. L-R Thomas, Levendi, Ivan, Tony and Baby(!)

Cuff Links and Harmony



Silky, aka Slinky, aka Slink in Pink

Clay and Lucky munching hay while Teddy grazes

Silky, Lightening, Chili and O'Reilly

Buffy, Lily and MyLight


Unknown said...

What a wonderful ending.

I cured my ponies cribbing with 24/7 turnout, free choice grass/hay and constant contact with a herd.

A lot of the time the "locomotory" stereotypies (weaving, pacing etc) are easily cured by providing that natural environment, not stalling them or keeping with with one buddy.

Jason said...


We're going to do a bunch of posts addressing the topic of real and imaginary problems we have faced with some of our retired guests.

More often than not, whatever the owner said about the horse prior to coming here isn't valid after a very short time at our facility. I'm not for a minute saying the owners don't know their horses, but I AM saying they rarely know how their horse is going to behave in this sort of system because with rare exceptions neither the horse nor the horse owner has experienced this sort of system before.

I'm not going to say never, but after 50 tries we still haven't managed to find a horse that couldn't or wouldn't willingly adapt to our system of management and thrive while doing so. In every case, this involves treating horses individually while maximizing the positives that horses accrue in a semi-natural environment and minimizing or eliminating the negatives of same.

Anonymous said...

I've seen amazing changes in horses that come to our barn - even though we do stall at night, the all-day turnout with herds does seem to make a real difference to many horses. I think so many of those strange behaviors are caused by how horses are managed and are the horse's way of telling us that things aren't right. My Noble was a serious cribber before we brought him here, but he hardly ever cribs now - a bit when we're in dry lot but that's all. Many other horses have become much calmer and healthier. It's fun to see the transitions.

IsobelleGoLightly said...

When I am very old and ready to be retired I'm coming down to live with YOU!

lytha said...

what a great case study story. it kept going through my head today as i went about my day. i thought how he had these issues for so long, and the one thing he needed, he didn't know how to ask for. (a companion was not enough for him.) maybe he himself didn't know what he needed, but when you finally found his "cure" - it apparently brought him back to happier times in his memory. like black beauty as a foal, not a care in the world, just pasture and companions.

i look forward to more case studies!


RuckusButt said...

This is a great idea for post topics! You present a lot of very useful information, not just for retired horses but horse keeping in general. Thanks to Baby's owners for letting you tell his story!

It's great that Baby's owners allowed you the flexibility to find the right situation for him rather than insiting on one approach like stalling. That's key, I bet.

LuLo Designs/Blue Eyed Tango said...

Hi there, well Jason answered the question I had at the end of your interesting post in the comment he made. It you always have a happy ending with every retiree? I think Kate is right about the way horses are handled/managed. I do believe also that our animals are reflective of our behaviors as well and we can actually learn a little about ourselves if we take the time to observe them. People have problems for the most part with their animals (any animal) because of a lack of knowledge in knowing what to do. It does not matter who's fault/or the's focusing on the solution which is what you two do beautifully....and mix that with a little tenacity Melissa! Good for you for not giving up on this horse when it would have been very tempting.

ZionFarm said...

Melissa, What a great post! It is interesting to hear how different horses respond to different situations. Have you ever had any that are aggressive towards other horses in turn out? One of my geldings is currently in turn out by himself because he can't get along with certain horses.

Have a great weekend!

Jason said...


Yes, so far we have always had a happy ending in terms of retirees adjusting to our system. I expect sooner or later we may run across somebody who just doesn't fit, but it hasn't happened yet.

Yes, we have on occasion battled aggression, but we don't really do turn out except to introduce the horse to it's new group. There is ALWAYS some level of aggression within the group until the new horse finds his place in the herd. In our opinion, this sort of aggression is well within the context of normal herd dynamics. In our experience on-going aggression often occurs because the horse in question isn't comfortable in his position within the group. By switching the aggressive horse into another group we usually change up his position within the group and we have (so far) always been able to overcome this issue.

Anonymous said...

This is really interesting. I wonder if a large group would also have worked for a similar horse I used to care for.

The best routine we ended up with for him was to ride him twice a day, turn him out for as long as he would stay out, then take him for long walks whenever he got too antsy in his stall. He sure loved to be on the move.

We tried various buddies, but they never made any difference... perhaps all he wanted was a larger herd.