In the past few weeks, two older horses I’ve been privileged to meet have hit the headlines. One, Headley Britannia, has officially retired from top level eventing at the age of 20. Sadly, the other – 18-year-old Little Tiger, also from the eventing world – had to be put down last week.
Both mares have had fantastic lives and careers with owners and riders who knew them inside out and gave them the best possible care. Whenever you saw them at the big four star events they were fit and feisty, looked pictures of health and frequently showed much younger horses a clean pair of heels. Part of that may be down to nature, but a lot is due to nurture and proves that older horses, when well looked after, can be a joy to own and ride.
Correct nutrition is as vital for the older horse as for the younger one, whether he’s still at the top of his game or in retirement – qualified independent nutritionist and fellow blogger Clare MacLeod is the one who advises you on that. But keeping an older horse’s quality of life, however high-powered or leisurely it may be, is also down to dedication.
I’ve been lucky enough to watch Lucinda Fredericks work Brit at home and see the bond between the two. It’s an inspiring lesson when you see this workmanlike little 15.3hh mare show her ordinary paces when trotted up in hand and, when warmed up, prove that she can still demonstrate the flying changes and extended trot that have earned her scores of nine and ten from some of the world’s top judges. Over the years, they have developed such a partnership that Brit answers her every question.
Sometimes, Lucinda allows staff and trusted pupils to ride Brit in order to learn how to ask correctly for flying changes. If they ask correctly, they get them; if they don’t, she doesn’t comply. That’s the definition of a true schoolmistress and is the only sort of horse you can truly learn from, as the obliging sort who guesses what you’re trying to ask and helps you out doesn’t actually teach you anything.
The lesson from Brit and Little Tiger, who stood 14.3hh on tiptoes yet treated the huge cross-country fences of Badminton and Burghley as if they were a jaunt round the park, is that we should never underestimate and always appreciate older horses. We must feed them according to their special needs, tailor their work regimes accordingly and make the most of their experience.
And when they no longer have a quality of life, we must do the right thing for them. That may be retirement as a cherished friend – though not every horse will adapt to this – but the time inevitably comes when you have to say thank you, and goodbye. As a very wise person said to me when I was in this position: if you love your horse or pony, it’s the last thing you can do for him.