Planning for the Next Act

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Is your horse starting to struggle with movements that used to be easy? Here’s help considering whether and how to step him down a couple of levels, find him a different job, or seek out a quality retirement setup. 

Reprinted from the June 2014 Issue of USDF Connection

By D.J. Carey Lyons

I always wanted to retire my good horses while they were still at their peak,” says Lendon Gray, the New York-based two-time Olympian who’s helped countless youth riders through her Dressage4Kids foundation’s educational and competition initiatives. “I didn’t like the thought of any horse going downhill in public. So I always tried to quit while the horse was ahead.”

The stronger your partnership with your horse, the more you might share that feeling. But can you act on it? A few owners, says Gray, have the resources to “let a horse down totally and have a nice life of being groomed, cared for, and maybe hacked around” once he’s no longer performing at his best. For far more, though, “stabling and caring for a horse that isn’t ‘earning his keep’—meaning he isn’t being useful in some way—just isn’t an efficient choice.”

Instead, Gray advocates “a different way to do it,” based on her firm belief that “there’s a niche for every horse. You just have to find it. And as a horse grows older, his niche may change.”

Rethinking and Repositioning

Probably the best-known new niche for experienced dressage horses is that of schoolmaster—a four-legged teacher that passes on the understanding and feel of correct aids and movements to human students. (For one Olympic-caliber example, see “Second Act for a Superstar” on page 34.) Less high-profile but no less high-value: the niche of school horse, patiently carrying beginner and intermediate students through lessons and building their love of riding.

One successful schoolmaster/student matchup is Embrujado XI and Gray’s student Rachel Chowanec, the 2013 USEF Young Rider reserve national champions. When the 1998 PRE gelding (Juicioso XI – Embrujo IX) first caught Gray’s attention in 2010, “he’d been ridden by a professional, and he was terribly spooky. His owner at the time, Kim Boyer of Michigan’s Hampton Green Farm, said, ‘Well, maybe he’d like a little girl.’ She was exactly right.” Gray sent Chowanec, then 14, to try him out; they clicked, Gray bought him, and Chowanec brought him back East. The next year, the pair were 2011 USEF reserve national champions in the Junior division; at last fall’s USEF Dressage Festival of Champions, they claimed the Young Rider reserve title.

THRIVING: Schoolmaster Embrujado XI has blossomed in his new partnership with young rider Rachel Chowanec (pictured at the Adequan Global Dressage Festival in Florida, March 2014). Photo by SusanJStickle.com

The key to their success, Gray thinks: “Rachel has spent so much time with the horse and made a wonderful partnership with him on the ground, in a way that a professional doesn’t have time to do.”

Before Gray retired her Connemara/Thoroughbred gelding, Last Scene, five years ago (he died just last fall), “he’d gone from many years as a wonderful Grand Prix horse for me to partnering a working student who showed him at Fourth Level and Young Riders.” “Scenic’s” last partner was “an older lady who was a little bit timid; she’d ride him and they’d do what they could. Sometimes she’d come in from a ride and say, ‘He just didn’t feel like trotting today, so we didn’t trot.’ But he gave her such confidence, and she had a fabulous time on him.” Similarly, an amateur student’s horse—after competing at Grand Prix with a professional, showing through Prix St. Georges with the owner and then to Fourth Level with another of Gray’s students and to Second with a third rider— “stayed in my stable, leased by students for various lengths of time, until he was about twenty-eight. He was the horse that taught everybody one-time changes.”

Wisconsin-based trainer and FEI dressage judge Jayne Ayers—who’s also guided many horses from a performance to a teaching role—points out that not every horse fills this new job equally easily, and that not every rider suits every horse. Even among Young Rider competitors, “some have a lot more experience than others with difficult horses. Some have very light hands; some never achieve that lightness. You have to match the horse and the rider to make a good partnership.”

Reorienting even an upper-level horse to a school role isn’t challenging, Ayers says: “He’ll just be working on things he learned a while back.” Where a challenge might arise is in reorienting the horse to aids that feel different from what he’s accustomed to. “Some horses are like ‘whatever; I kind of get it,’ but others need more time. Basically, you just have to see how the horse reacts.”

Ayers’s favorite “reorienting” story involves a mare (now 24) that “went from competing at Third and Fourth Level to being a school horse when her first rider moved on to a younger, more talented partner. She started out very cranky about the students riding her, pinning her ears and crabbing and tossing her head; I think she just felt their aids weren’t refined enough. Then one day I almost literally saw the light bulb go on in her brain: She paused; her eyes got really big; then she relaxed. I could almost hear her thinking, ‘Wait a minute! With these guys riding me, I can be above the bit, be lazy, trot at half-speed—do all those things I was never allowed to do. If I can just tolerate some bouncing hands and unsteady legs, I don’t have to work half as hard!’ She’s been happy ever since. And she’s a wonderful school horse: When a rider gets the aids right, she steps right up and performs as precisely as ever. But she also knows how to back it down, depending on the rider’s level.”

There can even be a niche for a horse with some soundness issues. A year after Ayers “retired my last Grand Prix horse to the pasture with lameness problems that prevented him from doing a lot,” she had several young horses to break. “My helper knew about ponying an unbroken horse with a ridden horse, and my retiree turned out to be the perfect pony horse. I rode him and led the other horse; within a few rides, he figured out that the youngster was supposed to stay with its nose at his shoulder—and he’d help! If the young horse started moving up too much or otherwise getting out of line, he’d look around with his ears back. All he had to do was walk or slow-jog around, but he thought he was the king of the ring: He loved it!”

DRESSAGE AMBASSADOR: Two years ago, Ravel was preparing to contest the London Olympics with Steffen Peters. Today he’s enjoying clinics, trail rides, and appearances with owner Akiko Yamazaki (center). They’re pictured at a June 2013 open house at the National Center for Equine Facilitated Therapy in Woodside, CA, where they gave a dressage demo and posed for photos with fans. Photo courtesy of Akiko Yamazaki

Niche Knack

Don’t have the room or the time or the resources in your barn to reposition a horse who’s a little creaky for you but who might be the right teacher for someone else? Ask around. Your own or another trainer might have a student at the right stage to lease your horse, be looking for a good school horse, or be able to recommend other barns to talk to.

If your finances let you consider giving your horse away, Gray’s Dressage4Kids is one example of a 501(c)(3) corporation that can accept tax-deductible donations of horses.

“Many are no longer useful to their owners because of age or soundness,” Gray says. “For example, an Arabian mare that I’d actually showed years ago came to us when Fourth Level was becoming a little too much for her. Now what she can do is take the timid child who’s barely Training Level and give her good success at First Level.”

There have also been surprises, like a horse donated “because his rider just couldn’t sit his trot. A glitch in an elbow joint made his vetting a bit questionable, but he’s been absolutely fi ne. He came to us at Second Level; he’s now doing FEI Young Riders. So it’s not necessarily an age thing; some horses and people just don’t match. But when you find the match, it works,” says Gray.

Retirement That Suits You Both

 Like people, horses don’t all enjoy the same kind of retirement setup. Ayers thinks the key is “to be sensitive to the individual horse. For example, a lot of upper-level horses have never had turnout because they’re valuable and people don’t want to risk turning them out. Taking a horse from that to a mostly-turnout retirement situation needs to be gradual, monitored, and controlled.”

“Just being out on pasture can be a good life,” Gray says, “but it would be a big adjustment for a horse that’s had a life of love and attention, with somebody bringing him treats and grooming him. I think he’ll be happier with at least a little personal interaction every day.”

Ayers thinks that “the key for any horse is to provide a lot of opportunity to move; that’s the way horses were made.” For one with no history of turnout, “a stall with its own little turnout paddock might be all he can handle.” Her own horses can go out in a larger pasture; “that’s what I tend to do with them all along, so they’re used to it. They have friends, and there’s a run-in shed. Some of them stay out, but some want to come in at night. My last Grand Prix horse absolutely demanded to go out most of the day, and then demanded to come in at night; he’d be at the gate pawing to remind us to bring him in.”

According to Gray, equine retirement facilities “can be a very good option; there are some wonderful ones.” To her, the ideal facility is “one where the horse is brought in every day, groomed a little, and checked over. At the very least, be sure he’s checked on daily. Ask how the horses are fed; in a group, the ‘low man on the totem pole’ can get pushed aside. If there’s a lovely pasture for grazing, ask what happens in the winter and whether it ever gets overgrazed.

“You can’t just pay your board every month, walk away, and forget about your horse,” Gray continues. “You need to check in regularly and make sure everything’s being done as it should be—including that he’s getting regular vet checks, that he’s on a vet-approved de-worming schedule, and that his feet are getting trimmed.” The facility’s contract should spell out the care schedule; make sure it’s adequate and that it’s being followed.

A Final Thought

Whether an older horse is in his owner’s barn, boarded out, or in a retirement facility, Gray says, “I feel very strongly that the owner must be willing to make the decision to have the animal put down when his life is no longer a pleasure to him. We’re not all as lucky as I was with my horse Scenic, who one morning jogged happily out to the pasture, rolled, ate some grass, lay down, and died.

 “Scenic was healthy to the end, but that’s not often the case. Be clear that it’s you, not your horse, who will suffer if he’s put down. I think the horse deserves to be on the top of the list and not be kept alive because you’ll be unhappy if he dies.” ▲ D. J. Carey Lyons is a freelance writer based in West Chester, PA.

 Second Act for a Superstar

THEN: Winning Grand Prix Special individual bronze with Steffen Peters at the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in Kentucky


Fans of the two-time Olympian Ravel might be surprised to learn that his owner, Californian Akiko Yamazaki, first considered the question of when and how to retire her horse not long after the 2008 Games in Hong Kong—at which the Dutch Warmblood gelding (Contango – Hautain) was only 10 years old.

With rider/trainer Steffen Peters, Ravel had just won “his fi rst major victory,” the Grand Prix at the 2009 World Dressage Masters Palm Beach (FL), topping a fi eld that included 2008 Olympic gold and silver medalists Anky van Grunsven and Isabell Werth. That’s when Yamazaki vowed “to make sure this great horse would have a retirement that befitted him.”

Ravel went on to win the 2009 World Cup in Las Vegas, then became the first-ever US horse to sweep all three Grand Prix classes at the CHIO Aachen, Germany. Further milestones included two individual bronze medals at the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, a GP Freestyle silver at Aachen 2011, three consecutive USDF Horse of the Year titles (2009 to ’11), and the 2012 London Olympics—which owner and trainer agreed beforehand would be Ravel’s last competition.

In April 2013, at the CDI Del Mar (CA), Yamazaki made good on her vow. Before a full house, Ravel and Peters performed their Avatar freestyle one last time, beginning a celebration that saluted the horse’s achievements, acknowledged each member of “Team Ravel,” and left few eyes dry.

But Ravel’s new life had actually begun months earlier, when he moved from Peters’s San Diego barn to Yamazaki’s Four Winds Farm in Woodside. “He arrived, about two weeks after flying back from London, fresh and ready to work! Steffen, who’d come to help me that day, also rode him. The two of them looked as if they could show the next week.”

NOW: With owner (and now rider) Akiko Yamazaki in a 2014 clinic with Peters

Yamazaki was a bit apprehensive about taking Ravel’s reins. Up to then, she’d ridden him “only once, for my birthday.” Besides not wanting to risk a mistake or a misstep, “I didn’t possess the skills to ride him,” she says. But she, too, had been learning from Peters over the years. And she soon found that her dressage superstar is “a generous schoolmaster.”

Today, well over a year later, “Ravel still has the work ethic of a professional athlete. When I pick up the reins, he’s ready.” He also has “extremely high standards for what work means,” for which Yamazaki credits Peters: “He’s a master at keeping things black and white—which keeps a horse fresh and willing to work.”

 So what is work for Ravel these days? Yamazaki rides him in the arena “three or four days a week; we do a few things from the Grand Prix test each time.” And one day a week, exploring trails on a neighboring hundred-acre farm, he demonstrates that he’s “my best trail horse. He can pass a coyote or herds of deer without batting an eye.”

The one management difference: “He’s now barefoot. When he works, he wears EasyCare boots only on the front feet. His hind feet have worn nothing since the day we took his shoes off. We battled with quarter cracks through his career; now his front feet look beautiful and healthy.”

A Different Role for “the Diva”

THEN: Winning at Dressage at Devon under George Williams in 2003. Photo by Terri Miller

Five months after Ravel’s formal retirement (page 34), another dressage legend was similarly feted. Rocher—the famously lopeared black Westfalen mare (Rolls Royce – Fraenzi, Frulingstern) that took European dressage by surprise in 2001, placed fifth at the FEI Dressage World Cup Final in 2003, and earned the nickname “the Diva of Devon” with her record-setting third sweep of the Dressage at Devon (PA) Grand Prix and the GP Freestyle in 2005—was reunited with longtime rider/trainer George Williams for the ceremony. It concluded with the pair doing an in-hand circuit of Devon’s Dixon Oval arena to Rocher’s signature Madonna freestyle music (see “Heads Up,” December 2013/January 2014).

 Owners Joann and Chuck Smith had retired Rocher from competition in 2009 at the age of 18, wanting her career to “end on a good note,” says Joann. But Joann continued riding her and even spent time working with trainer Michael Barisone. “I’d had hopes of showing her, but we decided eventually that she didn’t need quite that much work.”

These days, at the Smiths’ Gypsy Woods Farm in Richland, OH, either Joann or friend Elise Elman rides Rocher regularly. “Elise doesn’t own a horse; she says getting to ride Rocher has kind of been her Olympics. And Rocher loves the attention. To me,” Joann says, “the most fun thing is to give back, helping other people do what they want to do. And what better way to do that than with Rocher?”

NOW: With Elise Elman, a friend of co-owner Joann Smith’s. Photo courtesy of Joann Smith

Kept on a “minimal” diet, the mare “looks good, but she doesn’t need to gain any weight,” Joann says. Her veterinarian’s main advice: “Just keep her moving.” Beyond that, Joann says, “We monitor comfort level, and how her legs look—and that’s pretty much it.”

Weather permitting, Rocher “goes out every day—something she really did not do before—in her pasture or one of our dry lots. She absolutely loves it; she’s becoming a normal, regular horse. This winter, she was out rolling in the snow; she obviously thought that was pretty neat.”

Rocher’s barn buddy is Marnix, who was bought by the Smiths in Europe shortly before they found Rocher, and also ridden to many wins by George Williams. With their shared history, Joann says, the two horses enjoy being neighbors in the barn and turned out. “There’s so much special about Rocher. We’re enjoying watching her ‘be a horse.’” BEFORE  

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