The Beauty of the Golden Years: Celebrating Our Senior Horses

Photo courtesy of Emily Dickson

By Emily Dickson

By some Universal luck, I was present the day my horse was born. 

At the time, I didn’t know that she would become my horse. I was just a 10-year-old kid who had been dropped off at the barn because it was spring break and both of my parents were working. One of those destined days off from school was the day that my horse made her appearance in the world. 

Photo courtesy of Emily Dickson

It was my first experience witnessing a newborn foal and I felt immediately connected to this mare. I played with her as a foal and yearling. I trained her when she was a 3-year-old after coming off cowboy camp. In hindsight, ‘trained’ is a loose word. The more accurate description is that I was a teenager who put some rides on her.

When she was four, she became mine and I became her person.

Named for her attitude, ‘Atti’ is my 17-hand, Thoroughbred/Trakehner mare, who has seen me through some of my most vulnerable seasons of life. Traumas. Chaos. Many moves to new places that were often thousands of miles away from home and sometimes very lonely. New jobs. New relationships. Broken hearts. Chronic health conditions. Healings. Growth and expansion. Personal development. If you can imagine all of the other events that go along with the process of becoming through your teens and twenties, Atti has been there with me.

My mare turned twenty years old this year. She’s still as spunky as ever. I swear she has what I refer to as “pretty mare privilege,” but now her joints creak a little more and she has less muscle. We take each ride at a much slower pace, often just walking and trotting.

I can’t help but miss the days of her prime, when we were jumping multiple times a week, traveling to shows, taking lessons, and attending clinics. When we were constantly training. 

But then I look at my mare and sometimes I find tears in my eyes. Just as Atti has walked next to me on my journey, I have had the privilege of being her person through every stage of her life.

The days of her wild youth, which often involved rearing in the jumper ring when the buzzer went off or attempting to eat the flower box and brush jumps in the warmup hunter rings.  

Photo courtesy of Emily Dickson

The days of rehabbing from injury and what seemed like endless cycles of hand walking.

The days of moving to new barns and explaining her personality, routines, and quirks to new managers, veterinarians, and farriers.

And now her golden years.

I believe that one of our roles as horse owners is to appreciate our horses at every age, no matter the challenges that come along with that life stage. We signed up to own a horse and that is not always glamorous, but it is our responsibility as stewards of these animals.

So, I am celebrating this time in Atti’s life, when I can jump on her for a quick, uneventful hack after not riding for a week or let her roll outside on the end of the lead rope just because she wants to. Small acts that have been twenty years in the making can be just as beautiful as the days spent training in her youth. 

I don’t know at what age I would define a horse as a senior. My nutritionist self wants to say the age at which her dentition is negatively impacted. My editor self wants to say the age of 15 because that’s what all the other popular press articles say. My heart doesn’t want to admit that she’s a senior at all because that somehow implies that she won’t be here forever.

Photo © Jay Goss

I’ve ridden and trained more colts and fillies than I can count, have competed along the West Coast, and participated in the Emerging Athletes Program with Atti back in the day. Even so, I can honestly say that this time with my senior horse is the most rewarding.  Sure, the days are slower and typically less exciting (unless she happens to feel like her young spring-chicken self!). But they’re reliable. They’re relaxing. They are the quiet time that I need at the end of a long day in the life of a young professional.

And they’re always spent with the being who has seen me at every moment of my life: The ups, the downs, the highlights, and the shadows. No judgment, no pretenses, no past regrets or burdens unforgiven.

Simple. Quiet. Reflective. Honest.

I hope every horse person has the opportunity to love a senior horse at least once in their lives.

A horse that you can smile at fondly, remembering all of your shared history. A horse that keeps you on your toes in the safest possible way. A horse that you trust more than most humans. 

I hope you treat your senior horse like royalty for all the miles they have carried and put up with you. I hope you enjoy this sacred time with them and appreciate each stage of their life for what it is: Moments we will never get back. 

Photo courtesy of Emily Dickson

And, to the senior horse:

The one who has walked us through our own personal hardships and growth.

The one who has been extremely patient with our continual process of learning the art of horsemanship.

The one who now knows to just stop and stand still when their person makes a silly mistake instead of spooking or taking off, like they did in their younger years.

The one who allows the toddlers at the barn to feed them their grain and is the gentlest with the kids who crawl on their back for first rides.

To the heart horses, the “once-in-a-lifetime” horses, the irreplaceable souls we are entrusted with …

May we never take them for granted. 

As for Atti, I know that one day, hopefully, many years from now, she will pass to the other side. And all I can hope is that when that happens, we will get to be together again someday in the future. One thing I know for sure: In my vision of heaven, there’s some wide-open space, a few good horses waiting, and my mare is the first to greet me. 

Emily’s life took a turn for the horse industry at age 5 when she started riding thanks to her best friend’s family horse. Since then she has been doing her best to find any excuse to stay at the barn “just a little longer” and has received her MS in Equine Nutrition and Physiology. These days, she owns a creative marketing agency designed to help horse businesses and writes, creates and rides in Northern Colorado.

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