An ode to the the mature horse

… or the folly of buying youngsters.

Growing up in equestrian sports stables, I took it as a given – almost an unwritten rule – that less experienced riders, leisure riders and especially beginners start out on a mature horse, a so-called “school master”, and only very good riders who were naturally calm leadership personalities would start and train a young horse.
It was unthinkable even for a passable rider to buy a young horse…

Nowadays I’ve noticed a lot of okay leisure riders and even beginners are buying young, sometimes even green horses. Sure, sometimes a horse just comes along, they are rescued or inherited or somehow fall into their owner’s lap – that’s not the ones I’m talking about, I’m talking about the conscious decision to buy a green 3-year old.

In my new world of open-paddock herd stables and trail riding I meet many riders who would probably be a lot happier in their hobby with a mature horse, rather than the youngster they are often struggling with.

Training a young horse requires not only skill, but also infinite patience, true and natural calmness and quite a bit of fearlessness at times.

Should you be thinking of buying a young horse, ask yourself:

  • Am I really skilled enough for the job? Can I gymnasticise a horse enough in hand, on the lunge and later under saddle so it will be strong enough to carry me for many years to come?
  • Am I a patient and calm person? Can I explain the same point over and over again without getting angry? Will I lose my temper at inexplicable jumpiness or lack of concentration?
  • Am I brave enough? Can I handle the occasional bucking, dashing and jumping?

I know I talk about Wesley a lot, my apologies should I bore you with it, but even my human partner knows that this horse is the love of my life, as it had been for my mother before me. People around me know I can’t help and (to be perfectly honest) love to brag about him.
He is such a good boy, so motivated and he’s managed to rekindle the little flame I was hardly aware of over the 6 years I hadn’t sat on horseback, in fact he turned it into a raging fire.
The fire of passion, a fiercely burning love for these graceful, proud and sensitive animals.

After breaking Wesley out of retirement and having him like my own horse (I can hear my mum protesting here: “but he’s MY precious!”) for the past two years, it now burns inside again with an almost child-like intensity.

I have this old boy to thank for that.

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He makes me laugh when he starts completely overacting because I seemingly don’t get the hint that he would much prefer to munch on that patch of grass before we start doing anything, as if I were not only dumb but also deaf and blind.

He actually figured out to get the entire stable to work for him.
There’s Gundi, our stable’s good soul, he directs her to whatever location he’d like to take this morning’s hay, preferably away from the others so he can eat in peace and quiet.
Then there’s Gaby, his best buddy’s human, who he swindles whenever she looks his way, complaining he hasn’t had any oats at all for ages – so long until she gives in and feeds him, too.

This one works with almost anyone. Why?

Because he’s such a good communicator! In his long life with humans he’s figured us out and knows how to get his point across, even to us insensitive and obviously slightly challenged beings on two legs. He simply shouts a bit louder at us.

And that’s my point exactly. An older horse can bridge the communication gap human and horse inevitably encounter and will do so, because it has worked in his favour in the past.

A young horse still isn’t sure what to think of us and all these things we ask of him, he has no idea, why we don’t seem to understand if he’s trying to say, “I can’t concentrate any more.”, “I miss my herd.”, “I am tired.” or “My teeth are growing and my mouth hurts.” – and of course, there is the famous “Oh look, a butterfly!”.

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That same butterfly will be serenely ignored by an older horse who is currently on the job with his human.

Now, let me define what I mean by “young” and “older” for you:
When I say “young” horse I am talking about anything up to 6 or 7 years old, a mature horse would be between 8 and 14years old – that’s when horses are usually the most expensive because they are fully trained and have usually quieted down enough to make for easy companions.

In the sports world, a 10 – 12year old horse would probably be at the peak of its performance years and therefore the most valuable.

An older horse, and this depends heavily on size, breed and work load, will be around 17 – 20+. Many horses can be ridden well into their twenties, we share our stable with a 34year old Icelandic pony who is still happy to go on trail rides.

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Our oldest senior Bangsi at 34 (Happy Birthday!) still enjoys going on rides.

A well cared-for horse will live up to 25 – 35 years, usually the smaller – the longer they live.

Sure, old horses get some common health issues such as arthritis in the legs rather often, but that’s not a “no riding” diagnosis at all (unless your horse shows arthritis in the back). In fact, an arthritic horse needs regular exercise to keep him from pain. They do need a little longer for their warm-up phase, however, 20 – 30 minutes of walking will loosen them up and then they’ll be as fresh as they used to be.

Another common issue in an older horse – usually north of 20 – is that their hearts aren’t as strong any more and that they dehydrate easily. Both issues show themselves on hot days, which means to let them rest that day and not ride or taking them on a round in the cool of the early morning hours instead. For the weakened heart there’s herbs that can help, for example hawthorn or rose hip and your vet has ways to supplement your older buddy.

An older horse needs to get its teeth checked (and with some also filed) each year and with some oldies digestion gets less efficient and they might need to eat more hay simply because they also eat slower. You might need to start feeding fatteners, such as corn.

And what can definitely be said is that there’s a lot of brushing with an oldie in winter! Their coats get thick and shaggy and they take longer to shed it in spring.

After the warning, here come the benefits of an older horse:

What’s probably the biggest advantage is that older horses are more gentle and sensitive towards others, especially us humans and they know how to figure us out.
A horse with some grey showing around their eyes will be calmer and much more reliable out in the country. This makes them predestined for beginners, fearful riders or junior riders.
All oldies I know are great with children, they watch out for them when the little ones groom them, they are patient under saddle with their light-weight riders and they don’t mind the noise and general hubbub that comes with kids.

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With some, like Wesley, I suspect they really love all the attention they get from children.

Out of their prime ex-athletes come cheap and superbly trained. It is a privilege to sit on a well-ridden horse, even if you mostly go out on trail rides. You will notice how much easier it is to manoeuvre them, change gaits and speed or stop them when necessary. And for the rider who is looking to improve his/her riding skills, those old schoolmasters will make you better at giving your aids at the right time and with the right dosage.

An older horse will give its all just to show he still wants to be picked up for a ride, I notice this often, not only with my oldie, but with all of them. The ones that don’t get picked any more would still try to smuggle themselves out with us or volunteer to do stretching exercises when I do them with Wesley in the paddock. They actually queue up!

A horse is made to move and even when they’re older and stiffer, they still want to stretch their legs, get some exercise and most importantly some intellectual stimuli. The joy of movement, pride in work and a sense of being important doesn’t go away.
It is a shame that so many ex-competition horses just get put away on some meadow when they could have a fun second career as a leisure horse with someone who gives them the attention they deserve.

A horse that has passed their 20th birthday isn’t necessarily “old” yet, in fact, a horse that has been kept and exercised well all its life will still be strong and athletic.

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At Vienna riding school they start their horses at 4 or 5 years old, then slowly but systematically train them to become the top-performers we see showing the famous “airs above the ground”.
Their Lippizaner stallions are only fully trained at 10 years old – the starting point of their pro career and do not reach retirement age before they are 25 – 28.
After they move back to their birthplace in the Austrian Alps, many still get ridden then.

I can only recommend an older horse, spending time with an animal that has been trained superbly, can communicate effortlessly with you and is absolutely bullet-proof is an absolute joy and a privilege every single day.

There’s so much older horses can teach us, they become so-called schoolmasters and subtely train us to be better riders and better horse-people in general. They have the grace and understanding to forgive mistakes their riders make, something a young horse simply can’t – it doesn’t even know you just made a mistake.

An older horse is not only wise, but also confident and patient with their human – and in the end, isn’t that what we all want from our equestrian companions?

To recap: For most beginners and many pleasure riders (the ones I’ve met anyway) the best buying age of their companion would be 15 years of age. Don’t listen to people that tell you a horse is only worth anything under the age of 15, in fact that’s when they get really good!

 

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