After our final event of the 2012 spring season, I noticed that my 16-year-old Thoroughbred, Coltrane, was a little off. I figured it was just time for his yearly hock injections. Then our veterinarian noticed a new issue with Cole’s left front. X-rays revealed some significant arthritic changes in his pastern and fetlock. He treated them along with the hocks, and I began looking forward to my boy returning to normal.
For a couple of weeks he felt like a brand-new horse. We started to get back in competition shape, and I began making plans for the fall. In five years, Cole and I had completed a whopping 34 Preliminary level events. Over the previous 12 months, we had been schooling Intermediate, and I had high hopes of finally moving up. Yet three weeks into training, I could tell that something was not quite right with my equine partner of 10 years. Occasionally he would begin work with a slightly short stride. But in the time it would take me to really notice and get concerned, his steps would lengthen and he would feel normal for the rest of the ride. Still, I was bothered enough by my observation to bring it up with our veterinarian. He asked, “Do you think it’s his time?”
I’d considered that Cole might be hinting to me that he was ready to retire; before he’d become mine, he was a racehorse, so he’d had an active, athletic life. But I wasn’t ready to address the possibility. As a Novice rider, before Cole, I had been so paralyzed with fear that I would throw up on cross country. I never dreamed that I’d make it past Training. Cole had carried me far—and not just in terms of miles. He is the most forgiving teacher I have ever had. With confidence I can now look at Intermediate and Advanced cross-country jumps and think they are doable. This horse truly is my best friend. I owe him everything.
To a certain extent I think my indebtedness to him made it difficult to face the issue of retirement. In a sport where a horse’s success often is measured by the level at which he competes, I wanted Cole to achieve his full potential. A very small percentage of horses and riders ever reach eventing’s Intermediate and Advanced levels. I so badly wanted us to make it. We had been schooling Intermediate, but I hadn’t been able to get my nerves together enough to give Cole the ride he deserved. I felt that my shortcomings had diminished his success. I wanted so much more for him.
Then one day I found myself reflecting on what I’d learned in college animal behavior classes. It was a moment of enlightenment. I remembered how people often anthropomorphize when trying to figure out what motivates animal behavior. In other words, we use human characteristics to explain our animals’ actions. For example, “Fluffy chewed my shoes while I was at work because he was mad that I left him alone.”
That’s when I had my epiphany: Cole does not measure his worth or well-being through competition. Yes, he does seem to love to gallop across country, but he doesn’t need to event to be happy. In fact, it’s quite possible that simply by being Cole, he’s the happiest horse in the world. He came to me right off the track. Since then, I am the only one to own and ride him. When my husband and I got married and bought our first house, I made sure that we built a barn that accommodates quirky Cole. Now he’s living with my other retired horses, and they seem content to let him boss them around. They all have a home here for as long as they live and will receive the best care I can afford. Cole has everything he will ever need, and I consider myself lucky to be able to provide it.
The decision to retire my horse involved lots of tears and deeply felt emotion. But I was helped by some advice I received from a trainer I greatly respect. She told me that when she faced retiring her four-star horse, it was time for her to stop being a rider and become more of a horseman. That sentiment really resonated with me and gave me peace of mind. I know I made the right choice for Cole.
The article originally appeared in the August 2013 issue of Practical Horseman.