How do you know when to say when? Erin Kimmer writes about the difficult decision to retire her best friend and competition partner of many years, Coltrane.Top photo: Erin & Cole galloping onwards at VAHT (photo by the lovely Brant Gamma)
I have found myself in a position that all riders face in their riding careers; when to say that it is time to retire a much-loved mount. Fortunately I have been in this position before so I am able to recognize the signals, but it still never makes the decision any easier. This mount and I have been competing at preliminary for 5 years, completed a whopping 34 Prelims and had been schooling Intermediate for the last year with high hopes of moving up.
After our last spring 2012 event I had noticed that he was a little off, but figured it was just time for his yearly hock injections, as any 16-year-old event horse who had also raced for 7 years might require. Our vet noticed a new issue in my horse’s left front; we treated it and his hocks and I was looking forward to my boy returning to his normal self.
The thought had began to creep into the back of my mind, “Is he reaching the end?’ His injection schedule was getting closer and closer and we were adding more injection sites. I knew that dealing with my previously retired horse that had multiple lameness issues; every horse has a peak in their careers.
The first few weeks my boy felt like a brand new horse! He moved with such freedom that I would tear up during our rides. We started to get back in shape and I began making tentative plans for a fall move up. After the third week something did not feel quite right. After 10 years with this horse, I can detect the slightness bit of abnormality in any his gaits. He was not off, but he just didn’t feel like himself. He would begin work with a slightly shorter stride, just enough to make me notice and by the time I would get concerned, he would reach his usual stride and feel normal for the rest of the ride. It wouldn’t be every ride but it happened on enough occasions to make me take notice and ask my vet about it. The vet asked me “Do you think it’s his time?”
I ‘d considered this myself but I did not want to address possibility. This horse had taken me from a novice rider, so paralyzed with fear that I would throw up on cross country and never dreaming of making it past Training, to a rider who was confident enough to look at Intermediate and Advanced cross country jumps and think that they could be do-able. He has been the most forgiving teacher I have ever had in my life. He truly is my best friend. I owe him everything and he owes me nothing.
As event riders, we are so goal driven, and it is very difficult for us to separate our aspirations and goals from those of our horses. I struggled with the idea of not letting my horse reach his full potential. We often measure our horse’s level of success with the level they have competed. A very small percentage of horses and riders ever reach the intermediate and advanced level and I so badly wanted this for my horse and myself. We had been schooling intermediate and I just could never get my nerves together enough that I felt I could give him the ride he deserved. I felt like I had dampened his success with my own shortcomings.
I had a moment of enlightenment one day when I was reflecting on several theories in my college animal behavior classes. We as humans have bad habit when it comes to figuring out our animals’ behavior. We often anthropomorphize, meaning we attach human like emotions or feelings to our animals behavior. Example being, “Fluffy chewed my shoes while I was at work because he was mad I left him alone.” I applied these theories to my situation and had an epiphany; my horse does not measure his worth or well-being through competition. Yes he does love to gallop across country as any OTTB would, but he doesn’t need to event to be happy. I realized he is the happiest horse in the world. He came off the track and came right to me, I am the only one who has owned and ridden him. When my husband and I got married and bought our first house, I made sure that we built a barn that accommodates all of his OTTB quirks. He lives with my other retired horses that happily let him boss them around. They all have a permanent home here for the rest of their life and will receive the best care that I can afford. He has everything he will ever need. I am so lucky to be able to provide him with this and he truly is the luckiest and happiest horse in the world.
Even though the decision involved lots of tearful and hard emotions, I know that it is the best. I had a great discussion with a friend’s trainer, who I greatly respect, about retiring horses. She shared with me piece of advice when she retired her four star horse and that being that it was time for her to stop being a “rider” and be a “horseman.” That really resonated in me and it has given me peace in making a difficult decision a little easier.