Photographer Jessica Sanders started the Senior Horse Project to showcase the special, long-standing relationships between riders and their senior horses. Featuring seniors over 25 years old, she shares the photos of the partnership. These stories share some of the highs and lows they’ve experienced together as well as the challenges (and rewards!) that come with caring for a senior horse.
Carly & Hercules | Winward Equestrian, Colts Neck, NJ
Horse: Hercules, 29-ish years old, grey pony photographed at Winward Equestrian in Colts Neck, NJ
Carly and Hercules grew up together – that’s how she describes it. I think it’s a beautiful way to look at their 25 year long relationship. Carly is the trainer at Winward Equestrian, and Hercules is lucky enough to live out his golden years with Carly and her students on a gorgeous farm in Colts Neck, New Jersey. Through the years he’s taught many children to ride, and now enjoys an amazing retirement with his loving family. They’re a beautiful representation of The Senior Horse Project and have the longest relationship of all the horse & rider pairs!
How It All Started
My parents bought [Hercules] for me. He was some auction pony – green as grass. [He was] 3 or 4 years old, no papers, no passport. He was my first [horse]…I had no idea what I was doing. He was purchased with the goal for me to grow and learn with him, and we always competed locally. There wasn’t an exact discipline or goal per se, just a pony for a little girl to ride on and love. I have pictures of him and us when he was 3…I was so young I don’t think I understood what a big deal it was. The first time I met him, the woman who became my trainer showed me and my mom that he would hold onto the hose with his teeth and drink from it-and we both thought it was hysterical.
I was such a young kid I really had no idea what I was getting myself into, nor my mother! A young pony and a young kid is a bad combination – I think it’s [with] a lot of luck that Hercules and I worked out so well…he’s a one in a million kind of pony. My trainer had a really good eye, and she was very hands on and helpful when I was younger…and I remember a handful of “older girls” always helping me. It was definitely an “it takes a village” kind of vibe at the barn.
When we bought Hercules the times were different – I remember my parents paying $250 for board and lessons cost $25. Over the years I see how much the care has improved for horses, and…proper and good care is expensive. It’s so much more than just board. I’m so thankful that my parents were so supportive and helpful. Me taking on the financial burden of Hercules kind of happened over time. It wasn’t something I was prepared for – it just happened. With Hercules, or any of my other horses, whatever their needs are it’s just like, okay, they need something, we’ll figure it out and make it work.
The mindset growing up was that we bought a horse, you grow and enjoy the horse, and try to find something that you both can enjoy together. It was more “find what works for both of you”, not “have your horse do what you want”. I don’t see anything wrong with purchasing a horse with a specific goal in mind, but personally I always looked at them as pets first, and pets are a lifelong commitment, regardless of if they can do [a specific] job or not. [I would never sell him]. He’s been leased out, used in lesson programs…but he’s family.
Highs and Lows
[The] highest point was watching Hercules teaching other kids and keeping them safe. I love watching all of my horses do their jobs well and happily. I think I’ve been very fortunate, I haven’t had any low points. He had a small choke episode a year ago, and seeing him so helpless even for a few moments put me in a panic.
Where We Are Now
I’m lucky with my lifestyle that Hercules lives at the barn that I work at, and it’s definitely more feasible than full boarding somewhere [else]. I’ve thought about moving him to a retirement farm but the idea of him being away from me and [me] not being there on hot days to hose him off or on cold days to put his jammies on…I’d just rather have him close to me. Seeing him age (even if it’s gracefully) gets me teary. I just try to take an extra moment to smush him when I can.
Jessica Sanders is an equine photographer based in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Originally from California, she now lives in central NJ with her husband Gus and senior Arabian gelding Ollie. Specializing solely in equine and equestrian portraits, her pictures tell the stories of riders and their horses and capture the beauty of each perfectly imperfect horse. You can follow her work and the senior horse project on Facebook and @jessicasandersphotography