Why It’s Really Hard To Retire Your Horse

Retirement is like your best friend telling you that you can no longer share an activity that you love doing together.

I received quite a few comments from readers on my Horse Journal blog “Why I Decided To Stop Competing Alba,” so I thought I’d share some additional thoughts with you on the topic of retiring horses from competition or riding.

Pat Robinson of Elk Creek, Mo., is a reader who sent me a lovely letter. In it, she described her recent decision to retire her trail horse after 13 years of traveling the countryside with him.

Pat wrote: “We have traveled many, many trails and done our share of trail-blazing due to trails being blocked by falling trees, or just plain exploring. I do still get to ride him around the farm, but I will miss seeing the bluebells each spring and the bald eagles each winter, and all the other special things we shared.”

I understand what Pat means by her touching words. Until the time came to stop competing my first intermediate horse, Merlin, and then to stop with Alba, I couldn’t fathom why so many elite eventing and dressage riders I knew were usually so reticent about saying publicly that they were retiring their longtime mounts from competition. Well, I do understand it now.

The reason is that you can’t bear the thought of not training and competing them, of not experiencing the daily thrill of improvement, of not conquering the challenges of a cross-country course or of a dressage test. You don’t want to face that you’ll never again feel the adrenaline rush of your successful partnership surmounting these tests. Honestly, you don’t want to face that a part of your life has passed by, a dear part of your life, especially if you were the one who developed the horse up the levels, especially if it was something the two of you did together.

Even if the horse is still alive and healthy, and even if you look at him every day in the stall or the pasture, it’s as if your best friend has told you that he or she can no longer do with you some activity that was central to your friendship.

I spent eight years competing Merlin, and he was a central part of our lives for a total of 12 years before we had to put him down five years ago next month. I competed Alba, who’s now 12, for six years, and I hope she lives for another 12 years (at least). So that’s 14 years of my life, so far, that have largely revolved around competing these two horses—which probably explains why our house is filled with photos of them!

Now I really hope that someday my son Wesley, who’s almost 5, will want to ride and compete Alba.

But in the meantime I will always cherish all the tough courses both horses and I conquered together, all the great days I had foxhunting Merlin when we lived in Virginia, and the fun of riding Alba across the country. (I know she’d love foxhunting too, and I hope in the future I’ll somehow have the time to take her out.)

Above all, though, I’ll be forever thankful for all the things that Merlin and Alba taught me and for the way, for all those years, their eager and inquisitive eyes have met me in the morning, always seeming to ask, “What are we going to do today?” 

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