Is there any other way to describe old horses besides “the best?” Several years ago, my husband got a phone call from his dad, a cattleman in west Texas, asking if we might consider taking his cowboy’s old ranch horse for retirement at our farm. He said the horse was losing his status in the herd order, getting pushed off his feed and had started losing considerable weight. I am a huge sucker for taking in horses (“What’s one more?”), but I said I wasn’t sure. Having put down a few horses in my tenure as a horse owner, I didn’t know how I felt about bringing home a 27-year-old gelding. It sounded like an emotional undertaking to watch him in essence grow even older and eventually move on to greener pastures. Plus, I have small kids, a career, a household to run. I’m so busy! Life has a funny way of giving you just what you need, doesn’t it?
“... it is my honor and distinct pleasure to keep this magnificent animal healthy, happy and dignified ...”
— Emily Smith, Equine Nutritionist, Platinum Performance
We went out to visit my in-laws for Thanksgiving, and my father-in-law’s cowboy, Joe Mac, stopped by and asked if we wanted to come out to at least see his old horse. OK, sure. As we parked the truck, I noticed a grayed-out, thin Quarter Horse standing by himself basking in the sun, which I surmised must surely be the proposed horse. “Let me saddle him up right quick, and you can take him for a spin.” I questioned how much spinning was left in that sleepy old guy but agreed. I hopped on, walked very slowly down the dirt driveway and back. My son, Colt, 3 years old at the time, said “Me too! I want to ride too!” Having my beloved little baby riding in front of the saddle with me on an unknown horse without my English tack, helmetless was, shall we say, way out of my comfort zone. But, Colt also had never had any interest in horses thus far in his short life, and hoping we might ride horses together one day, I agreed.
Again. We walked a few minutes up and down the same dusty path, and halted just outside of the pen and a short distance away from some kind of a bird coop, which I didn’t notice at the time. We were both still sitting on the horse with a loose rein, shooting the breeze with everyone about the weather, the cattle, the impending Aggies football game (a Thanksgiving win would sure be great this year!). I don’t even really know what happened. But it turns out Joe Mac’s son had huge (huge) show turkeys for his 4-H project, and it also turns out turkeys go berserk when startled. Something set them off, and quite suddenly these enormous birds were everywhere!
Running in every direction and trying to fly but too heavy to actually get it accomplished compounded their spasticity. I could literally feel the wind from their raptor-like wings flapping frenetically. Feathers were going everywhere, and they were making horrendous throaty noises. I have never in my life been so terrified and definitely not of poultry.
It wasn’t so much love at first sight but rather love at first spooky situation. The been-there-done-that gelding that I was sitting on that day might as well have been Traveller; I’m still convinced he’s a direct descendant. He didn’t so much as move a muscle throughout the entire hullaballoo of turkeys flying, grown men running away, followed by the rest of the remuda galloping off. He wasn’t deaf or blind or sleeping. He picked his head up in the midst of the madness, and his ears swiveled around. I’m here to say that he assessed the situation and determined that based on his years of experience, taking care of what was on his back was more important than any situational catastrophe. He stood like a statue. Once the adrenaline stopped coursing through my body, and Colt and I had safely dismounted and were several yards away from the ferocious fowl, I turned to Joe Mac and said the words that up until then I had been so hesitant to say: “Load. Him. Up.”
M.Y. (Mine & Yours) is 31 this year. He is the king of our property and gets babied, not because he requires it, but because it is my honor and distinct pleasure to keep this magnificent animal healthy, happy and dignified until it’s time for him to leave us. He is a ranch horse through and through. He can’t stand being stalled, and I truly think he gets embarrassed when I bathe him or put his fly mask on. It took me months to get him to eat a carrot. Our other horses will understandably get excited when a horse trailers on or off the property, fireworks start going off for the holidays or when people ride down the road right past their pastures. But never M.Y. Just like he did in the turkey debacle, he will always look up to see what’s happening, maybe even walk over to investigate a bit further, and then rely on his deep trove of experiences and always decide there’s just simply nothing to fuss about. Head down, back to grazing. He is the best.
Historically an easy keeper, by the time M.Y. came into my care as a senior horse, he was decidedly a hard keeper. I have worked feverishly over the years to constantly tweak his feeding program. I am an evangelist for a forage-based diet for digestive health. His diet must provide enough energy or calories to keep him in good weight and needs to be balanced for vitamins and minerals. Seasonality affects M.Y., and as the pasture grass starts to brown and becomes less nutritious during the late fall and winter months, he will lose weight if I don’t adjust it accordingly.
M.Y. is fed a little differently than the rest of my horses. Historically an easy keeper, by the time he came into my care as a senior horse, he was decidedly a hard keeper. I have worked feverishly over the years to constantly tweak his feeding program. I am an evangelist for a forage-based diet for digestive health. His diet must provide enough energy or calories to keep him in good weight and needs to be balanced for vitamins and minerals. Seasonality affects M.Y., and as the pasture grass starts to brown and becomes less nutritious during the late fall and winter months, he will lose weight if I don’t adjust it accordingly. As a now self-proclaimed picky horse, I have to adjust what he will readily eat, which changes occasionally! He and our other senior horse, Doc, were pasture-mates for a long time. They were two peas in a pod — ate together (from the same feed pan!), grazed together, slept side by side. Doc had to be put down this past winter, and I have tried to turn M.Y. out with our other horses, but as a consummate gentleman, he will leave his feed when asked by any other horse, (which they all ask), and will then not get the appropriate nutrition that he requires. M.Y. now lives in a private pasture and is the most beautiful horse I have ever seen. I am a born-again believer in the wonders of senior horses and am just thankful that I got to show my kids that unicorns really do exist.
by Emily Smith, MS,