It’s been more than a year since Freedom stepped onto the cruise-ship-on-wheels and was whisked away to his retirement home in Virginia. While I was reluctant to send him so far away, I had just broken my ankle so couldn’t do my share in a co-op barn, and he is not a horse that tolerates living in a stall, so most full care barns were not an option.
While lying at the bottom of the hill in the rain, knowing I’d probably broken my left ankle for the second time in four years, I realized I had to make a change. And I remembered that two people I knew had sent their horses into retirement at the same facility in Virginia. I called the woman who runs it that night.
Boy, did I make the right decision. Freedom is thriving in his new environment — one where he lives out 24/7 as part of a herd of geldings. He’s a gentle horse, who gets along with everyone and hates being alone. Life is good right now.
So, how did I choose the right place for him? I’ve heard horror stories of people who sent their horses off to retirement only to find they’ve become emaciated, or their feet were never done, or they got sick. If you’re not close enough to go and check on your horse (it’s on my bucket list for 2023), you have to trust that your horse is going to be well taken care of, and verify it with regular updates and photos.
I love seeing Freedom (closest to the camera) looking so calm and relaxed. He’s always been a gentle horse and I think it comes through clearly in this photo.
Criteria for choosing the right retirement facility
- Start by asking people you know for recommendations. Online reviews can be mostly AstroTurf, but if you know the people involved, their opinions will — at least — be real. You also probably have a good idea of what they think is “good care” and whether it aligns with your own views. If the facility is close enough, visit it to see if the horses look healthy and in good weight, if the reality matches the photos, and if the staff is knowledgeable and approachable. Freedom is at Shadowfax Farm in Virginia. It was too far away for me to visit (especially with a broken ankle), but I knew three people who had retired horses there. I spoke at length with the owner and felt comfortable with her approach, her knowledge and her experience running a retirement farm.
- Consider the type of care and match it to your horse. Freedom needs to live out 24/7 as he has some stall-related OCD behaviors. He also is a hard keeper, so would not thrive at a facility where grazing is the primary (and maybe only) source of calories. In Virginia, Freedom lives in a large field (with run in sheds) with a herd of geldings. He is fed grain year round. The photos show him to look relaxed, happy and in decent weight. If he were being ridden, I’d like to see him with a few more pounds, but he’s not ribby and the field is large enough that there’s no chance it will become overgrazed. The facility wants your horses to be barefoot (Freedom was already) and they get trimmed on a regular schedule, are blanketed as needed, and get spring and fall shots. When Freedom arrived, the owner gave him Gastroguard for several days to prevent ulcers from the stress of the trip, and when ended up with a small scrape, a vet saw him immediately.
- Select a suitable location. I liked the idea of moving Freedom to Virginia because the climate is more temperate than here (less aggressive winters) but not so different that it would cause problems. Moving a horse to a totally different climate can cause health issues — for example, a friend who wanted to move her horse from Western Massachusetts to Florida was told the mare was a poor candidate because of existing allergies. Another person I know sent her horse to Florida for retirement. After a few months there, he’d lost so much weight (the cost of hay is very high and there wasn’t enough pasture), so she shipped him back to Massachusetts. I also liked the idea of being close enough to be able to visit him. I haven’t managed that yet, but plan to drive there this spring.
- Consider costs. While it’s typically less expensive to have your horse in a retirement situation, you do not want to end up in a situation where the board is so low that the owners cut corners to make a profit. My monthly board for Freedom is $425 (it went up since he moved there when gas prices went through the roof). Since I’ve done co-op care for the past 20 years, I know how much it costs to feed and care for horses and this seemed reasonable. Depending on where you live, this might seem high or low. This is why location plays a big role in your overall decision. I met someone recently who retired their horse to Florida (not the person who brought their horse back). She pays more than $1K per month, influenced by the rising price of hay and gas, and the fact that her horse needs shoes to be comfortable. That’s more than I could afford to pay for retirement. In fact it’s more than I paid when Zelda was in a full-care barn with an indoor! However, each horse-human situation is different.
- Accommodating special needs. Freedom is a cribber. While I knew that many boarding barns don’t accept cribbers, I didn’t appreciate that would also hold true for retirement. It makes sense. Cribbers can be brutal to fencing and cause problems pulling down rails (Freedom has never had any health issues related to cribbing). I was lucky that this facility had room for him in field used for cribbers! In fact, given the size of the field and the lack of materials to latch onto, he no longer needs to wear his cribbing collar.
- Get regular updates. I get photos of Freedom on a regular basis and the owner of the farm always responds promptly when I ask questions about his health and happiness. You do not want to be in a situation where you’re wondering if your horse is struggling. I have two friends who sent their horses to the same place after Freedom moved down there, and they both are happy with the care and the communications.
I am glad that I have the resources to retire Freedom to a place where I am confident about the care he’s getting and his quality of life. I know that for many horses, that is not a given. It’s a financial strain to have a horse that is retired and still have a horse that you can ride. However, that’s a topic that probably deserves its own blog post. For me, there’s a huge comfort knowing that Freedom is living out his senior years with friends, in an environment that is suited to his needs and with the oversight of an experienced professional.