Free to a Good Home: What it Means to Own a Horse

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My sister and I bought back our childhood pony, Gemini, for two dollars. Now he sits at our parents’ blue berry farm looking cute amongst the spring blossoms. We often sit in the yard and watch him run across the pasture with our mother’s retired warmblood. With two old dogs, an ancient cat, senior parents, and the two horses in their late twenties, we call it the geriatric farm these days.

I am the youngest, and when I outgrew Gemini, our mother sold him as a school pony to a riding program several towns over. He was well cared for, but as soon as he was no longer useful for lessons they contacted us asking if we would like to retire him. We both answered a resounding, “Yes.”

Although we always hated the fact that our mother had sold him, we could tell the equestrian school had taken excellent care of him. They had honored our first right of refusal. We were lucky, and Gemini was luckier.

Gemini enjoying his retirement. Photo courtesy of the author.

Many horses aren’t given the fairytale retirement that Gemini has been given, and the shame of it leaves me with a heavy heart. Looking at our farm of old animals, we believe every individual deserves a happy end of life. It seems a scathing cruelty to give up a dog in its senior years, and to me it is the same for horses. We would no more kick our old barn cat to the curb because he is too old to catch mice than we would give up our horses just because they aren’t ridable anymore.

We are the ones who have chosen to domesticate and keep these animals. They are truly our responsibility, and after years of service and companionship they deserve a retirement. Yes, we are the lucky ones. We have a pasture to plunk Gemini on so he can live out his days eating grass without costing board, but this was why we are able to own horses. If you cannot support a horse through its life, than you should not own one.

I’ve worked in many barns and seen this play out in a variety of different ways. Sometimes life screws you over, and horses need to be rehomed. That’s a reality, but the times that break my heart are when parents buy their child a horse, the horse faithfully packs around their child, the horse becomes too old or sore to advance any further, and the parents sell the horse to the highest bidder because it is no longer useful to them. It’s natural that children will outgrow horses for a variety of reasons, but if this pattern seems likely to you, I urge you to lease a horse instead of buying. For anyone who is not willing to be a faithful guardian to that horse and make sure it’s cared for through its whole life, leasing is the better option.

We all know the astounding rate at which horses seem to injure themselves. The hours of rehabilitation, the vet bills, and the wear and tear that happens to any living creature add up through the years. Your show goals will suffer through those tough days. You and your horse will get out of shape, and eventually every horse reaches a point where they can’t do anything strenuous. If you own a horse at that point, you should accommodate to the level that your horse is at. If you are not willing to stay by your horse’s side through thick and thin, I urge you to lease and not to buy.

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There is no shame in being practical about your expectations and limitations. I have recently chosen to lease instead of buy, after my beloved horse of 28 years passed away last year. As my current situation as a university student makes my financial situation unstable, I will lease until my situation is solid enough to start the process of finding what I hope to be my new forever horse.

For those riders with ambitious goals who want to develop their skills as quickly as possible, finding appropriate horses to lease with the help of your coach is bar none the best option. Moving from the safety of older school horses to more advanced mounts can be done without buying and selling horses to fit your riding level. Although leasing horses comes with its own set of drawbacks, it’s within the horse’s best interests to have a secure owner.

For a species that has done so much for humankind, horses are still often treated as disposable livestock. It’s time we see horse ownership for what it really is—guardianship for an individual soul. I’ve always wished that the initial cost of many horses was much higher, and the cost of keeping them much lower. Then each life would be seen as a serious purchase that took a degree of saving and financial savviness that suggests being able to properly care for them.

Unfortunately, older, troubled, unsound, and other unwanted horses still appear in ads for rock bottom prices. We’ve all seen the ‘free to a good home’ ad and sent up a prayer for that horse’s well-being. Those situations are precarious for the animal—like launching a kite into the wind.  It’s time we re-evaluate what it means to be a horse owner.

Lumi Callastratus grew up on the back of a flea bitten pony, and has been blessed to live the life of an equestrian ever since. Although she loves to travel, and enjoys her time as a creative writing student, her heart is always in the barn. She hopes to write stories that inspire like-minded horse people.