By George Williams
Our family recently retired a 10-year-old gelding. These are the moments that tend to make us pause to reflect on why we do what we do. As we get older, one of the many questions we grapple with is, when is the appropriate time to retire? For many of us, especially in this business, we never see ourselves as retiring. After all, we do what we love, so why quit?
However, the general advice we always hear is to go out while you’re still at the top of your game. When it comes to the horses, this makes a lot of sense: Retire them from high-level competition while they’re still very competitive. But what happens when you or your horse never achieves that top of the game? For us it’s an individual question, and I’m smart enough not to go there. For horses, it’s also individual and it can be a difficult, heartbreaking decision.
While retiring an old horse is not easy, it follows the rules of nature and so in our minds it seems easier to accept. When it comes to younger horses or horses in their prime, it seems like it’s not meant to be; that’s not how it should work. The question arises: How do you retire a younger horse? What are our options? Fortunately for our family, a retirement farm was an option. We knew of a good, reliable farm where we had retired an older grand prix horse almost a decade ago. Otherwise, there are only so many people on the lookout for pasture buddies. Many of us do not have our own farms on which we can retire our horses. So, thank heaven for retirement farms. For us, it was nice to know that if they can’t be our partner, they can have the luxury of green fields in which to roam and graze. In so many ways it allows them to enjoy being horses.
When we choose a stallion for our mare, or when we assist in the foaling, or when we buy a young horse, or when we first start a horse under saddle, or even every day when we put our foot in the stirrup, we’re filled with so much hope. And if you’re like me, your head is full of dreams of what the future holds and the exciting journey we expect to embark on with our partner. Then one day, something happens that derails our journey. It’s not a slight bump in the road, nor an unplanned detour. The writing may be on the wall, but it can take time for the reality to set in that what has happened is truly career-ending.
Our friends at the retirement farm call the pastures being grazed by these magnificent horses the “Field of Broken Dreams.” For me, this is the tough side of our sport. On the other hand, it’s the risk we take and the price we pay for the enjoyment we receive from our horses. In the end, it makes us fully appreciate when our dreams or a fellow horseman’s dreams come true. It’s a huge part of why it’s so important to celebrate our victories with a certain humbleness.
The horse we had was bred and raised by my sister, and over the past two years he displayed an on-and-off lameness that, though acute, at the onset appeared to be straightforward. After much discussion and extensive diagnostics, it was determined that he had serious physical defects limiting his ability to perform as a riding horse. When finally the extent of his issues was revealed through an MRI, we realized that if we were to continue working him, we basically had a ticking time bomb on our hands.
We’re fortunate to have retirement farms if only for those of us who are dreamers, who take the risk of trying to make our dream a reality only to be tripped up during the process, but who always put the horse first. But what and who would we be without our dreams? Seeing a photo of our horse so happy in his field helps mend our hearts, and makes me feel that dreams with horses are well worth the risk of being broken.