Breaking up is hard to do. Is it time?

It was lunch break and the clinician came into the lounge to eat. She was an experienced competitor and focused clinician with a reputation for being a bit cantankerous.

A few of us were there eating and after a moment an auditor asked if she might have some advice about her horse situation. With a nod from the clinician, the auditor said she had come into some money and finally imported the horse of her dreams. The gelding arrived and within a few months developed some sort of nebulous lameness that vets had not been able to diagnose. That was 4 years ago, the horse was still not sound. No cost was spared, no opinion ignored. The auditor asked what she should do next.

The clinician barely looked up from her plate. “Dump him,” she said, “You’re not getting any younger.” Stunned silence. I hoped she meant to say retire him. She continued after a bite, “It’s gone on too long, get another horse.” It was like the clinician had pulled out a gun and shot the horse herself. The mid-life auditor had tears streaming down her cheeks. She managed to choke out something in an almost-adult voice. No one was fooled.

I took it personally. I had a horse at home with a layered and obscure health concern that I had not been able to help, even after several vets and thousands of dollars. I wanted to shoot the clinician. Even if she was right.

What if you want to jump and your horse doesn’t? Not now, not ever. What if your horse is hot and spirited, a little more so than you are comfortable riding? Or maybe that the quiet horse who taught you how to ride just doesn’t have the energy for advancing your riding goals? Or is it possible that you and your horse have such different personalities that you are just simply a bad match?

If you are unhappy, do you think your horse can tell? Of course. It is never a secret. It’s time for some honesty and hard questions. If you are thinking about making a change, no one can make that decision for you. We all like a challenge or we wouldn’t ride in the first place. Our hearts bond hard and fast and it isn’t easy to give up, even if it’s the right thing to do. Either decision takes vulnerability and courage. Sigh.

Consider contacting a trainer and get a professional opinion. We are bound by ethics (and usually our insurance policies) to tell a client when we think they are in danger. It isn’t true often. Usually taking a few lessons brings inspiration and a good solution. Horses and riders get stuck in miscommunication and there’s no shame in asking for help. The solution might be much simpler than you think.

First honestly ask the hard questions. Is he safe for me? This is huge, so shut up already with the false bravado. This isn’t bull riding. If you doubt your partnership, if you are intimidated, think hard. A bit of nervousness that goes away is normal, but if you feel fear or anxiety around this horse all the time, he feels it, too. This is a dangerous, maybe even cruel path that benefits neither horse nor rider. Loving yourself and your horse might mean making a change.

Second question: Are we having any fun yet? Yes, it’s supposed to be fun. Do you ride every chance you get or are you reluctant to come to the barn? Do you laugh in the saddle or does it feel like pulling teeth? Riding is a challenging, time-consuming passion that is never improved with resentment and frustration. Both you and your horse have a right to enjoy yourselves.

Third: Is this what we both want to do? There is a difference between acquiring the skills for a different riding discipline, and trying to push your horse into becoming someone he isn’t capable of being. We should all get to do the job we’re good at. Instead of trying to shove a square peg of a horse into a round hole, maybe everyone would benefit from finding another rider looking for the qualities that you saw in him in the beginning.

Finally, a horse will cost you everything you have; all your money and time and courage. No matter how much you have to give, the longer you ride, the more you’ll be stretched beyond your limits in every area. Horses have an amazing way of making more of us than we thought possible. But it only works when we are honest first, with our horse and ourselves.

Just because he isn’t right for you, it doesn’t make him wrong. It’s pretty arrogant to think that you are the only good home that horse might ever have. I see it all the time; horses change hands and find a better fit. Do you know the future? What if it was your job to facilitate this horse getting to his right home? Do you love him enough to let him succeed with someone else?

And finally, I have to say a word to those who are dumping, yes, dumping older horses near retirement. Expect a whole world of bad luck. The horse gods frown on people who punish a horse for aging. You aren’t getting any younger either.

Breaking up is hard to do, but living with the mistake is worse. The clinician was right. Life is short. I can’t tell you what the right thing is in your unique case. I just know this one thing: It isn’t about our puny human ego.

Horses depend on us. Do the right thing.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

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Comment by Anna Blake on October 2, 2014 at 5:25pm

Thank you for the compliment, Fiona, and the best luck in this transition! May everyone be in their right place. Where ever that is...

Comment by Fiona Reynolds on October 2, 2014 at 4:17pm

Wow...just rejoined BARNMICE after a few years and the first article I read is your blog...coincidence?? I think not...I am (dare I say) a middle aged woman going through the process of 'retiring' my 17 yr old gelding and I mean it is a process. I like many poor horse owners cannot keep two horses. It is a real balance of being able to live with myself by doing right by the horse that I love and has given more to me than money could buy and my desire to continue 'riding' the way I want to. His shoes are being pulled on Monday...another step. He will stay where he is(high end facility) until I find a life long home that will love him like I do and I will continue to pick up rides when I can. Thank you for validating my decision.

Comment by Anna Blake on July 29, 2014 at 10:29pm

Thanks for this comment. Sounds like you care alot about both of these good horses.

Comment by Darla McKean on July 29, 2014 at 8:43pm

PS I bet in a month's time he'll be a lo happier too, I'll be sad for me but happy for him :)

Comment by Darla McKean on July 29, 2014 at 5:23pm

Going through this right now. Have a lovely gelding I thought would take me to the end of my riding years, I am 62. Couple of years ago when we were trying to move up a level he got stuck behind, not lame just dragging his sorry ... around.  Had vet, chiro, massage, supplements, we tried everything. He wasn't grouchy , just not into the work. I have finally decided to lease him to a very good friend who just wants to have a  couple of trail rides a week and maybe play in the arena occassionally. I think he will be much happier and I will stop feeling guilty that I am doing something wrong. I purchased a young horse last fall who seems quite happy in her work and my coach loves her "try" and I look forward to my rides. Sometimes we just have to face the facts and move on.

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