Being put out to pasture is jargon for retirement. In the horse world, it is becoming less so, as more and more people realize the benefits of giving horses time off to just be horses. Like the fountain of youth, a pasture can relieve a number of intractable ailments, from ulcers to joint problems to stress disorders.
I don’t know what the numbers for people are, but it seems to me that the earlier our horses get out to pasture, the longer they live. Most of our horses live most of their lives at pasture. For many, it is the same pasture they ran in at their mothers’ sides. For others, it is the pasture they grew up in after being weaned. For all of them (except the stallions), it is with the same horses, the same herd they that they spend years getting to know. It is a very soothing environment for a horse.
I remember watching a documentary narrated by John Cleese. He may have had more to do with it than just narrating it but in any case I am sure he was the person talking. It was a documentary about faces. The part that stuck in my memory had to do with the need people have to be surrounded by familiar faces. We evolved in fairly small communities. We became the animal we are knowing all the faces that made up “us”, suspicious of unfamiliar faces that we classified as “them.”
We have come a ways since then. Most of us do not expect to recognize every face we see as we walk down the street. We expect to recognize only a few of the faces we see, and are often surprised when we do. So what? So we exist in a state of almost constant, if low-level, social stress. It isn’t that our eyes need to be protected from unfamiliar faces. It is that we spend most of our time just a little on edge because we are away from the herd/pack/clan so to speak. We are just a little bit worried and lonely. Most days, we walk beyond the pale of our support group.
The documentary suggested that one of the things we do to compensate has to do with celebrity culture. We plaster faces of people we recognize everywhere, even if we never met them. We buy magazines with interviews, we choose tv shows and movies based on the cast, we watch singers interviewed, we watch athletes compete, and talk to reporters afterwards. We want to know little personal things about these people, though most fans acknowledge that they will never encounter that person face to face. But still we gather the information like props for the village in our minds’eye, a place full of familiar faces attached to some story we know by heart. That way, when we walk down the street or go to the market, we are not outside our village any more. We carry our village with us, and it is reinforced by pictures of these people everywhere.
Horses can’t do that. They have very small brains probably lacking the capacity to juggle alternate realities. They do not have printing presses to make pictures of their old friends and family. But like us they feel safer surrounded by familiar things. When I put a new horse in the herd, I expect them to struggle for up to a year, sometimes longer. They will lose weight, though they eat well. They have to move more than the rest of the herd, being chased regularly by the veterans and the bullies. They tend to stand out in the weather because being in the confines of shelter is perilous. And they worry, they worry constantly.
The horses who grow up with us do the same when they are sent away to training. To varying degrees they lose weight, though often they get fed large quantities of very high-quality feed. Sometimes they refuse to eat it all, sometimes it just gets burned off. Most trainers tell me this is because they are getting more exercise. I don’t think so. Once they have been to training, come home, gone away again, and come home again, they stop getting skinny. It isn’t the exercise, it is the stress of not knowing where they are or how to get home.
This is the essence of why I think our horses live long and thrive. It certainly isn’t because of anything I feed them or do to keep them healthy. I do very little.
In the mare pasture, there is a big hill. We call it a mountain but I suspect that a surveyor would call it a hill. A few weeks before she died, the old grey mare from previous posts galloped up that hill. I remember worrying that she might give herself a heart attack, being overweight and 36 years old. But I also remember thinking it was worth the risk.
I do a lot of things my vets feel obligated to tell me not to do. When a horse starts losing teeth, I am told to stop feeding that horse hay and grass, and give them only soft mash. The concern is choking. If horses can’t chew their food, they are more likely to choke on it. Also, if horses cannot chew their food properly, they don’t digest it well, or at all. So, even if they don’t choke, they will lose weight. I don’t simply ignore this advice. But many old horses have convinced me that it is sort of pointless to try and keep a habitual grazer from eating things they find on the ground. Since our horses do not live in stalls, I cannot completely control what is on the ground. After finding several acorns wedged where missing teeth used to be, I gave up entirely trying to keep old horses from grazing.
Ideally, you put the aged and toothless on new short grass. That is like pre-chopped grass, easy to swallow and tender. I don’t know if they can digest it or not, but they really like it, and that is what’s important. Doing things you like is important for everyone. I am sure there’s a study out there that says happy lives longer than unhappy.
Eating isn’t the only challenge that awaits a horse if they reach advanced age. Almost all of them will develop some sore or stiff parts, and lose agility and strength. The mountain helps with that. When the old grey mare passed away, she was not only fat but still had a good deal of muscle tone. She looked great, in fact. Is to look good to feel good? For horses it is, so long as the looking good is not artificially enhanced.
Her death was one of the most traumatic events in my life. At my age, you don’t have a lot of friends that you have known for 36 years. So I know that my observations are rich with anthropomorphism, a habit so natural to me that I hardly realize I am doing it.
Still, the herd was not oblivious to her passing. When the old gray mare went down, the herd began to move. First, a ripple of snorts and tail swishing went through them. Then a few began to trot around. Gradually the activity built to a frenzy of galloping around the field, snorting and spooking. I have no idea what that meant, but they were worked up about something. Yet in the midst of all that, the mare’s daughter stood still, a little ways up a hill, looking in the direction of her mother. She was soon to be the “old gray mare.” I won’t say she was frightened, but she knew something was wrong or new, and something now divided her from the herd. She did not follow them. She just stood there, ears alert, ignoring the stampede whirling around her. Perhaps she was already assuming her role as leader. Perhaps she had done so before and I had not noticed.
Our horses have seen many of their number die. That is part of herd life. Most die within sight of their herd. Hardly any get a send off like the old gray mare did. I am inclined to think that it would be preferable to not hear a stampede while you are dying, that a little respectful peace and quiet is appreciated. Maybe it was just a little windy, maybe the old gray mare had nothing to do with what went on.
The old gray mare did not die within sound of the stampede. I managed to get her to her feet and haul her to the vet because I was completely incapable of handling this on my own. Of course I do not euthanize horses myself. But in these cases, there is always a long wait, a period of hope, while you treat the horse and see if they will pull through. It means a long sleepless night of checking and medicating and waiting, at least the way I do it.
I don’t feel badly that she passed at the vet clinic instead of at home. She was not one to fret much about being in a strange place, and she liked the vets. She would have been comforted by them. Also, she felt so awful from the colic that I doubt she cared where she was just then. So she did not die with the herd. But something tells me they all knew she was dying.
I also don’t feel too badly that I was not with her in the end. I was such a wreck that I would have been little comfort. And that is not anthropomorphism. A person freaking out is not comforting to anyone, human or not. Profound unhappiness is never reassuring.
I kind of hate that mountain. I wish I could put a fence along the top of it so that the horses could never go over to the other side, where I can’t see them. That they might at any time get into trouble, out of sight, gives me fits. It contributes somewhat to my fitness, being driven to walk over it by compulsive anxiety about the horses that I cannot see. But I am not sure that exercise in a panic is all good.
I know that is crazy too. I am not always looking at them, I am not always aware of what they are doing. They live most of their days outside my supervision. Over the hill, or down by the trough, or rummaging around in the creek bed, they go about their days the way horses are meant to do, with room to run, terrain to learn, and a herd to follow.
The mountain tests them. Sometimes a horse reaches an age where they cannot get up and down that mountain any more and have to be kept off of it. The climb is too much for their arthritis, or the herd is picking on them too much, or they need mash so often that there is no point in putting them out. The lucky few never have to “retire” that way. Some get to keep climbing right up to the end.