by Laura Crum
They say “old age is not for sissies.” I would add that keeping a very old horse is not for the faint-hearted. It sounds easy enough. Just retire your old friend and let him be a pasture pet until he dies. Simple, right? Well, in theory simple, in practice not quite that simple.
I have taken care of two of my much-loved retired horses into their mid-thirties. My first forever horse, Burt, died at 35, and my current old boy, Gunner, is 34 this spring. And I am here to tell you that somewhere past 30 both of these horses became quite a bit more challenging to care for. Right now Gunner is doing pretty well, but it’s been a real roller coaster ride for the last year.
About a year ago, Gunner got down and cast—I think he was down pretty much all night. I found him in the morning at feeding time, trapped in a low spot with his back against the fence. It took us several hours and four strong guys to get him out of the hole and on his feet. He was shocky and in deep distress when we finally got him up, but the vet convinced me he would be fine. It took a month—a month in which Gunner’s appetite slowly returned, and he eventually quit pacing, and I hand walked and grazed him every day-- and yes, about a month later he seemed back to normal. But a month or so after that, he slipped and fell when running around his corral, and limped off. It became clear that he’d tweaked his left knee, and since then that knee has been giving him trouble.
I had the vet out to look at the knee, we settled on a regime of painkillers, and all seemed well enough. Gunner was no longer sound, he was harder to keep weight on than he had been in past years, but still, he seemed to be doing OK. Here’s a photo from September. Pretty good looking 33 year old horse, yes?
But a few months ago I came down one morning to feed to find Gunner pacing and uninterested in breakfast. It took me awhile to sort it out, but I concluded that something traumatic had happened—Gunner wasn’t colicked, and he wasn’t obviously injured, and he wasn’t significantly lamer than he had been. But he was in a lot of distress. I thought/think he must have gotten “stuck” down for some part of the night and had managed to get up before I came down to feed.
I had the vet out, and I was very close to putting Gunner down. But I gave the horse some bute instead, and he looked pretty bright, and I just couldn’t do it. Since then, well, it’s been a challenge.
Gunner is lame. He has a big left front knee that hurts him. I give him painkillers, and it helps, but he’s still lame. He’s lost weight through this, and though his appetite has improved quite a bit since the last setback, he is still thinner than I would like. His vision and hearing are lousy, he’s hard to handle due both to this and a sort of old horse dementia that I’ve observed in other 30 plus horses, and he’s incredibly spoiled. This is my fault, I know, but I cannot bring myself to reprimand the old guy, so he tugs on the leadrope to let me know where he wants to go, and makes gentle but obvious attempts to push past me when I come to his gate to catch him. I cannot blanket him without a helper to hold him, because as soon as I go round to the back leg straps, he just walks off. He is a spoiled old pet of a horse, for sure. And this has begun to cause a problem.
I can handle Gunner all right. I know him and he knows me, and though he will push on me because he knows I’m unlikely to reprimand him, he also won’t defy me. His training goes too deep. But his “spoiled” behavior is causing a new and real problem. For the last few months I’ve been getting Gunner out to graze him, and he now thinks it’s his due. He is very resentful if I catch another horse for grazing, rather than him. The last time I got a different horse out to graze, Gunner ran around screaming and bucking (yes, he’ll still run despite being lame) in a temper tantrum fueled by jealousy until he slipped and fell down. I will admit that I screamed “Gunner!” in a panic as my old horse hit the ground. Gunner got up, thank God, and limped off—no lamer than before, I don’t think. But I definitely had enough stress for one day. And I put the other horse away. It’s just not worth it.
As it so happens, it hasn’t rained this winter—virtually at all. So Gunner is leading a relatively comfortable mud-free life in his big corral. There’s also almost no grass to graze on, so I’m not bothering to get horses out very often—thus no need for Gunner to pitch a fit and fall down again. But it is still a difficult situation. I walk down the hill to feed every day hoping that Gunner will be on his feet and looking OK, and worried that he won’t. I am actually afraid to get another horse out to graze without grazing Gunner first—I don’t need a repeat of the temper tantrum and crash. I have nightmares about the old horse going down and breaking a leg or his neck.
Gunner is still bright eyed and interested in everything I do, he’s cleaning up his senior feed, he can still eat hay, he hangs out with his favorite buddy horse in the sunshine and looks content. He lies down and rolls pretty much every day—and gets back up again—a little staggery, but successfully (so far). When he feels like it he trots and gallops and spins and bucks. He meets me at his gate every time he sees me coming towards him with a halter, and grazes on what little green grass we have with enthusiasm. But that left knee hurts him despite all the painkillers and it’s slowly getting worse. He shifts uncomfortably from foot to foot sometimes. It kills me to watch him do this.
I love Gunner from the bottom of my heart, and I will stay the course. He’s going to let me know when he’s ready to let go of his life—I believe this. It is still very hard for me to watch him get stiffer and lamer. I had the vet out to see him just a couple of weeks ago—simply because I wanted to be sure that I wasn’t deceiving myself—that Gunner’s weight really was OK, that he wasn’t so lame that I really ought to put him down. The vet said that he thought Gunner looked great for 34. He told me to up the dose of painkiller past the recommended amount—if it gave the horse ulcers, well, that would be that. So I upped the dose. But Gunner is still lame.
And I have to say that the endless fussing with diet and meds and the worry and the setbacks, well, it’s not the “fun” part of horsekeeping. At the same time, every time I look into Gunner’s eyes, all the many adventures we’ve had together are brought back to me and present in the moment. I’ve owned this horse since I was 25 and he was 3. We have seen a lot together.
But I will repeat that keeping a very old horse is not for the faint-hearted. It’s worrisome and time consuming and frustrating and emotionally draining. Even though you love that horse with a whole heart. You agonize over what the best course of action is, you wonder if you are doing right by keeping your old friend going despite the fact that he’s lame. It can also be some of the sweetest moments you have ever spent with a horse—as you rub his neck in the sunshine and he leans his head gently on your shoulder, or rests his muzzle against your cheek. At some deep level you know that the two of you are both—equally and mutually—acknowledging the long bond between you. But its also hard, folks, it’s very hard. Those who want to argue with me must have kept a horse well into his/her thirties. I have mostly had very good luck with horses in their twenties, and my 25 and 26 year old horses are no trouble at all. Somewhere past thirty it gets much more difficult. Or so I’ve found. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.