When he stops being a General… I love that song. White Christmas is my favorite “old school” Christmas movie, the singing and dancing, it’s perfect! I was inspired today, not by a “Christmas in July” concept, but by the retirement of a co-worker, which got me thinking about when we retire our trusted steeds and partners, and the similarities between the two.
I’d read a post on a magazine website, where the person was concerned about the plausibility of retiring their 14 year old show horse. The horse had enjoyed a ten year long showing career, despite being a challenge to ride, and the owner was experiencing some changes in their personal life, that would make showing more challenging as well, so the timing seemed to be a good fit, but they weren’t really sure how to go about it, in a way that best suited the horse’s needs, as well as their own. A problem, I suspect, we’ve all experienced, or will at some point, and a valid one at that.
Retirement doesn’t happen based on a calendar anymore. Long gone are the days of 60 and see ya! Or, in a horse’s case, once their “career” winds down. Looking at the horse racing industry, where a stallion can win a prestigious race at the tender age of three, and be retired to green pastures and the horsey dating scene the following week. In the jumping and dressage world, retirement almost seems to work in reverse, where the horses aren’t really considered “peak” performers, until later in their lives. Compare that to us humans, many of whom knowing, we can look forward to retirement, when the coroner comes to remove us from our cubicles! (hopefully not, but you never really know!)
In my Buddy’s case, retirement came knocking, in the form of arthritis in his hocks. It wasn’t terribly severe, “keep him moving” I was told by the vet, so that’s what I did. We’d already wound down our showing career, he’d served me well for many years, and had more than earned his time in greener pastures. With this diagnosis, we turned our focus to more turn out time with quiet friends, and easy trail rides. Our routine didn’t change much, I still went through the whole process, doing pleasure and hunter under saddle work in the arena, only lighter, depending on how comfortable he was on any given day. He was still kept trimmed and groomed like the show pony he was. Buddy was a handsome guy, he wouldn’t have been one to let his appearance go, just because he wasn’t “going to work” every day.
In his retirement phase, a regular day at turn-out, ended in what I suspected to be a spine injury, that vets weren’t able to accurately diagnose, and it wasn’t safe to transport him for further investigation. I did the best I could, and he seemed to be kept comfortable for a few years after. I say that with confidence, knowing that my darling boy was a bit of a sissy. If he had been in pain or discomfort, it would have been obvious. Eventually though, the injury took it’s toll, and my baby. Even on that fateful day, he went on his journey groomed, tail picked and poofed, with a halter bearing his name, a show cooler and ribbons we’d won, and gummy bears (a snack for the road), just like the Prince among horses that he was. I wanted him to go into the afterlife, recognizable for who he was, and all his accomplishments in his physical life.
It’s my personal belief, whether horse or human, that even if you end one chapter, you need to carry on in the next. It might not be exactly the same, but as long as you don’t come to a grinding halt, you should expect to keep living a full life. For our horses, maybe they leave the race track behind, and find a new career helping war veterans face the challenges of PTSD, like at the Saratoga WarHorse Foundation in Saratoga Springs, NY. Maybe you discover that you discover your former show pony, might not be ridable again, but excels as a cart pony in parades. The day may come when you decide your office days are over, and your photography days are just beginning. Ultimately though, as long as you keep moving, physically and figuratively, you’ll be okay.
Our horses, and all pets really, like to feel like they have a job to do, even if the job is simply to keep you company. While the specifics of each job differ from human to human, and animal to animal, the general idea remains. I watched my grandmother go from busy and vibrant, to sullen and barely mobile, as the friends and family she used to do things with passed away. My boyfriend’s grandfather is over 90, and only started slowing down, from working up to three jobs a day when he finally retired in his 70’s. His body isn’t as cooperative, but his mind is still sharp as a tack. We, and they, all need to feel useful, and know that we have our own purpose in this world. Irving Berlin summed it up in the lyrics to “What do you do with a General,” but I find a particular paragraph in “The Horse’s Prayer,” author unknown, to be most poignant…
Feed me, water and care for me, and when the days work is done, provide me with shelter, a clean dry bed and a stall wide enough for me to lie down in comfort.
Always be kind to me. Talk to me. Your voice often means as much to me as the reins. Pet me sometimes, that I may serve you the more gladly and learn to love you. Do not jerk the reins, and do not whip me when going uphill. Never strike, beat or kick me when I do not understand what you want, but give me a chance to understand you.
Watch me; and if I fail to do your bidding, see if something is wrong with my harness or feet. I cannot tell you when I am thirsty so give me clean, cool water often. I cannot tell you in words when I am sick, so watch me, that by signs you may know my condition.
Give me all possible shelter from the hot sun, and put a blanket on me, not when I am working, but when standing in the cold. Never put a frosty bit in my mouth; first warm it by holding it a moment in your hands. I try to carry you and your burdens without a murmur, and wait patiently for you long hours of the day or night.
Without the power to choose my shoes or path, I sometimes fall on the hard pavements which I have often prayed might be of such a nature as to give me a safe and sure footing. Remember that I must be ready at any moment to lose my life in your service.
And finally, O Master, when my useful strength is gone, do not turn me out to starve or freeze, or sell me to some cruel owner to be slowly tortured or starved to death; but do thou, my Master, take my life in the kindest way. And your God will reward you here and hereafter. You will not consider me irreverent if I ask this in the name of HIM, who was born in a stable.