Apha

Giving Them Golden Years
By Jessica Hein

Horsemen are eternal optimists. Each spring, we hopefully look toward the future, anticipating what spindly legged gifts broodmares might give us after a year of planning and patience. As the newest crop of foals race one another around ver-dant pastures, nuzzle the palm of your hand or nap in the golden, sun-kissed glow of a new dawn, it’s easy to find yourself daydreaming about the po-tential each one might have, conveniently sidestep-ping thoughts about challenges and other “what ifs.” Spring brings new life, and with it, everything seems renewed, possible and hopeful.

Potential and hope make it especially fun to climb alongside a young horse as he ascends the hills of adolescence and into adulthood. You’ve got all the milestones ahead of you, and it’s satisfying to check them off. In the plateau of adulthood, partnerships deepen, dreams are realized and tan-gible plot twists come to life.

What we don’t often spend much time talking about are the closing chapters of our equine part-ner’s life, those quieter years where backs remain unsaddled and steps become slower, more deliberate. Many seniors live their golden years with their faces still turned toward the sun, welcoming each new day with bright eyes and the same vitality they had in their youth. What’s harder are those days where rain-clouds fail to part, and age-related infirmaries seem to hang over the geriatric members of your herd.

I’ve ridden that bell curve of life stages with my own Paint, “Ozzie,” who is 25 this year. He came into my life at age 7, and we’re now on year 18 of a two-year resale plan. Oh well, he’s got a home for life with me.

We’ve built some amazing memories together, though he’s never been an easy horse. I always described Oz as his actual age “going on 3;” it seemed like no matter his actual calendar age, Oz always maintained the youthful spunk that defined his younger years.

This summer was a tough one in Texas, with record-setting heat and 53 days over 100 degrees. Brutal for people, brutal for animals. Especially the old guys. Especially the old guys who don’t sweat and have other issues. By late July, I felt like Oz had aged three years in the span of about six weeks. It was heartbreaking to watch him struggle through the August depths of summer, despite my best ef-forts to keep him comfortable. To me, it was like watching a strong, virile father figure start wither-ing away into old age. Tears flowed on more than one occasion as I pondered what the future held for my beloved partner. I wasn’t ready to let go, but I also promised myself that my own feelings wouldn’t keep me from offering a peaceful transi-tion out of his world for my old horse. Until then, however, I’d do whatever I could to keep him hap-py, healthy and content.

It’s hard work keeping the old guys going in the right direction. It’s counting every calorie and bal-ancing medications and analyzing their body con-dition on an almost daily basis, because you know once the weight starts to slip, it’s so much harder to pack it back on. It’s agonizing through health chal-lenges that seem to unfairly assault the geriatric members of your herd, and sacrificing your time in the saddle to hand walk, to cold hose, to scrutinize the oldies but goodies.

I feel a mixed bag of emotions when I watch Oz shuffle through the golden pastures he once galloped across with ease. But just when I think I know what’s around the corner, the old guy sur-prises me, like when he recently nosed open his stall door as I hung his haybag and took off at a clip down the driveway in pursuit of his best life, or at least the green grass in the front yard. It’s a privilege to walk alongside a four-legged part-ner this long, and I’m extra grateful to spend time with him as we write those final chapters of our love story together.

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