Retirement Planning: Optimizing Your Horse’s Post-Career Care

How to keep your horse happy and healthy after his athletic career

On a quiet farm in Cazenovia, New York, dozens of horses are living the good life. They have all the hay and grass they can eat, pasturemates galore, and they’re free to get as muddy as possible. Oh … and chances are you’ve seen several of them representing the United States at the Olympics, World Equestrian Games (WEG), and other international competitions.

These horses are living out their retirement at John Madden Sales, the home base for U.S. team show jumper and Olympic and WEG gold medalist Beezie Madden and her husband, John. The Maddens have a long history of providing their horses a safe place to retire, and in 2016 they expanded their facilities to offer the same service to other owners.

Today, the Maddens and their team care for around 60 retirees, mostly in their late teens or 20s, with room for another 10 to 15 more. They live outside 24/7 in small herds, sometimes including broodmares or young horses, with the option to take advantage of shelters as needed.

“The owners we have in our retiree program appreciate that their former show partners get to have a more natural way of life,” John Madden says.

What does retirement at “Madden Mountain” look like? And how can we provide our own horses with appropriate retirement care?

In this article John Madden; Amanda Adams, PhD, an associate professor at the University of Kentucky’s Gluck Equine Research Center, in Lexington, who studies geriatric horses; and Bryan Waldridge, DVM, MS, Dipl. ABVP, ACVIM, of Park Equine Hospital at Woodford, in Versailles, Kentucky, share their tips for keeping retired horses healthy and happy.

Because much of the retired horse population is older, we’ll touch on several aspects of senior horse care. But if you’ve got a younger horse on permanent vacation, don’t stop reading here.

“Younger horses might be more likely to run around, burn some energy, and things like that,” says Waldridge, who has among his patients retired Thoroughbreds at Old Friends, in nearby Georgetown, Kentucky. “But it’s more or less the same deal.”

Preventive Care

Your horse might not be working anymore, but he still needs regular veterinary exams and care.

When new horses arrive at Old Friends, Waldridge says, he conducts a physical exam to be sure they’re in good shape. While some equine residents don’t have far to travel upon retirement—many are from in and around Central Kentucky—others come from across the country or farther. For example, 1997 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner Silver Charm traveled from a Thoroughbred stud in Japan.

“I usually check them within the first two weeks they’re there,” he says. “I let them get over the stress of travel first.”

Be mindful of their paddock partners during this shift. 

“When making the transition from living inside, with shoes, in full care, to living out in a herd, it is best to supervise the transition period,” Madden says. “There are sometimes superficial injuries as they work out the ­hierarchy within the herds. (Even though) they are living out all the time, you still need to be diligent about watching for any changes, issues, or injuries.”

The Maddens keep their retirees up-to-date on preventive care throughout the year: “They get spring and fall vaccines,” says Madden. “They have their teeth done annually, unless a specific issue requires more attention. We pull annual Coggins on all our retirees and obviously treat any injury or issue as it happens. They are also on a regular deworming program.”

Our veterinarian sources say the Maddens are doing retired horse health care right. Here’s why.

Vaccines

The American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) recommends all horses receive annual “core vaccinations”—ones for diseases every horse is at risk of contracting, whether they travel and encounter other horses or not; these include Eastern and Western equine encephalomyelitis, rabies, tetanus, and West Nile virus. The association recommends owners and their veterinarians discuss whether their horses need risk-based vaccines, which protect against diseases horses might be at risk of contracting, depending on their lifestyles and/or locations; these include equine herpesvirus-1, influenza, and strangles, among others.

Adams says many people incorrectly believe older horses have developed immunity to disease over time and don’t need continued vaccination.