Who’s to say when is the appropriate time to retire a competitive dressage horse? Although some may retire their horses in their early 20’s, and some who retire long before, due to injury, or long after, due to the horses’ health longevity, it’s truly a pretty individualistic choice. Each horse is too unique to put an “age limit” on retirement, with different backgrounds and levels of work, health issues, etc. However, some professionals like world-class rider and trainer Olympian Michael Poulin have found that continuing to work horses into their 20’s (if soundness permits) actually increases their health and longevity. It is quite surprising what an “old” horse, like 25-year-old Herb Commander, can do.
Herb Commander is a thoroughbred by Herb Water, a French race horse, who is out of Bold Commander, and is owned by Michael Poulin’s eldest daughter Kate. Both of Michael’s daughters Kate and Gwen had great success on “Herby” in the NAYRC and the open Grand Prix. In the NAYRC Herby won two gold medals, and one silver medal, also earning Kate her USDF gold medal. He also earned two working students their bronze and silver medals.
At the ripe age of 25, ‘Herby’ can still do all of the Grand Prix with ease and has not lost his spark or his energy. Sure, the older guys like ‘Herby’ may take a longer warm-up, or require more maintenance before and after the ride, but the Poulin’s have found that keeping the old horses moving is the trick to keeping them sound, healthy, and happy.
I was lucky enough to get to ride Herb Commander January 25th, 2010 on my drive back to North Carolina from Wellington, FL. ‘ Herby’ is in fantastic shape! Passaging and piaffing with ease down the long sides of the Poulin’s covered arena at their farm in De Leon Springs, Fl, ‘Herb’ seemed like he could do it all backwards in his sleep. Yes, we had a good and thorough warm-up with lots of walk and rising trot, of course, but it just seems a miracle that the horse, who had much success with both Gwynn and Kate Poulin in the past can still pop out the one time tempis and all of the movements that the Grand Prix requires. Herb is still sensitive and has a fire under him as well (he even did one of his famous bucks for me!), which is also impressive for a horse of his age.
How is this possible? Kate Poulin let us in on the inside scoop.
‘Herb’ is on a very specialized program, and the Poulin’s stay on top of every aspect of his health and fitness. He gets Cosequin daily and Adequan monthly, eats Purina Senior three times per day, and gets Triple Crown Alfalfa Forage 4 time per day in place of regular hay. He also gets turned out for several hours per day and is worked daily.
Which of these is the secret ingredient to ‘Herb’s’ health? Well, actually…
“I think the secret ingredient is being a good horseman and knowing your horse,” Kate said. “Staying on top of all aspects of his life: his diet, his body and his mind” is key, according to Kate. It’s not necessarily one miracle product, but a perfect combination of products and a keen horse person with good horse sense.
To the dismay of some, it’s also important to keep the horse moving and working. However, there are limits and special details when riding an older horse. “It’s important not to drill a horse and have lots of breaks during his work,” Kate said. “The horse must be ridden in a good balance, not on the forehand. Supple and strong muscles keep the body together.”
The Poulin’s have 2 other older horses that are still going strong as well.
Brilliant, a KWPN Stallion, is 27 years old and still being schooled daily. The Poulin’s have owned him since he was 2-years-old and trained him to the Grand Prix. Sharon Poulin had great success with Brilliant. Also, the Poulin’s just put down Kate’s first pony ‘Grey’s Flag’ (or as he was called in the barn Blaze) last year. Kate showed him through fourth level and schooled piaffe on him. “Blaze taught a lot of riders at our farm. He helped several people get their USDF Bronze medals including me.”
The Poulin’s success with older horses should give hope to those riding and competing older horses. However, there is an appropriate time to retire a horse.
According to Kate, when the horse is no longer comfortable working under saddle (he will let you know), a change in attitude (for the worse), or displaying incurable lameness, then it’s the time to stop. However, Kate emphasizes that retiring a horse from work does not mean retiring a horse from human interaction or care. “I wouldn’t recommend turning a horse out to pasture and leaving him there,” she said. Horses need human interaction to stay mentally alert. They get depressed easily.”
So, there you have it-- Advice on older horses from an expert.
I truly enjoyed my ride on Herb Commander, and commend the Poulin’s for their incredible commitment to their older horses. It is truly a gift to be so in tune with your horses health needs, but it’s essential in extending the horses longevity.