Retiring Your Heart Horse: Truth Behind the Transition

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When Maddie (aka “The Blonde and The Bay”) decided to shift her FEI dressage horse Leah into semi-retirement, she imagined a seamless transition away from the competition barn and onto her ranch in Texas. Much to Maddie’s frustration, Leah struggled to settle into her new life. Read on as Maddie offers some hard-earned advice in dealing with the lifestyle change of a retiree.


I'm going to dive right into my thoughts. Leah's semi-retirement has thrown many curveballs my direction. I was definitely nowhere near mentally equipped to balance not only her emotions and anxieties, but my newfound (surprising) feelings of emptiness, failure, disappointment and frustration. I took Leah's overall docile, calm spirited nature for granted completely blind to the fact that I had just flipped her routine - and world - upside-down. Together, our transition has been every bit of an adjustment, but even then, that's putting things lightly. Retiring your competition horse when a strict training regime has been the foundation of their life is freaking hard. I am not here to sugarcoat nor to inflate our experiences so they appear glamorous or stress free. I'm here to tell you the truth.

Trouble at Home

In the beginning, she embraced her new paddock whilst staying a bit leery of the back corners plus her newly installed run-in shed. Slowly, behavioral changes creeped through her confidence. Leah's security blanket came in the shape of the corner by the entrance to her paddock. She refused to wander away from this spot other than for a drink of water or to eat her breakfast and dinner. The stall virtually sat untouched; dragons lived in the brush behind her paddock or so she was mindfully convinced. Groundwork matured into our daily focus, paying special attention to areas in which she felt most uneasy. We didn't ride much - mostly because I'm a firm advocate that saddle time comes last when striving to strengthen your relationship with your horse. Given the state of her mentality, our riding fell by the wayside and transformed into the least of our concerns.

It wouldn't have been fair to ask otherwise.

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After moving Leah home, Maddie decided to focus on ground work.

As time went on, Leah's general consensus of ranch living outlined a mediocre picture. Any and everything gave her a fright, she refused to enter her stall without me her side, and she wouldn't retreat from the stupid corner. Some days were more relaxed than others, but her lack in security outweighed the good. Groundwork wasn't easing tensions like I had hoped, either. I practiced my empathy but self-motivational speeches only last so long before total grievance and confusion consumes you from the inside out. When she noticed the neighbor's cattle for the first time...? Her switch flipped.

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Spotted: Moo-Demons.

Leah's first encounter with the cows went about as well as I predicted, and by well, I mean horrendous. Gawking turned into passaging (where was this passage in the arena during our training days ???), prancing turned into pacing, and pacing turned into weaving so severely that she completely tore up the ground around the entrance of her paddock... to the point where she uncovered roots located deep within the soil. Foaming sweat gathered around her chest, and I watched in an anxiety induced horror as my heart horse allowed fear to engulf her ability to rationalize. Thank God for my fiancé - he immediately swooped in, putting Leah's attention on simple maneuvers he asked from the ground. Nearly two hours later, he was able to help activate her coping skills. She eventually settled.

Finally, a Solution!

Something had to change, and my gut awareness told me that the paddock on the end just wasn't the right fit in combination with her diet. I switched her into a paddock between two other horses and experienced instant success. I noticed an immediate alteration in her attitude, she navigated the entire paddock without any hesitation and happily entered her stall without any coaxing. Her breakfast and dinner menu quickly followed. I weened her off performance calories and onto senior feed, cutting her alfalfa consumption in half while boosting coastal hay. My decision to wait when making any adjustments to her diet stemmed from not wanting to introduce too many new factors all at once.

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Leah gained confidence in her paddock with horses on either side.

Trading places and switching grain was the judgement call I could not have been happier to make. This brought much needed peace to our valley. F I N A L L Y, Leah is content as a clam inside her paddock, and I'm eternally grateful she deems her stall as a safe zone now that the boys are easily visible. Prior to our move, L preferred the solidarity of her corner stall without a neighbor at the barn. Now, she yearns for company on either side... Yet another loop she's tossed into my lap, but hey, at least we found a solution that works best for her overall comfortability.

I have since added an Equi-Essential Slow Feed Hay Ball into her daily happenings. This might sound a little comical, but I never thought a simple invention would take a weight off my shoulders. Instead of turning her focal point to our neighbor's cattle, she now enjoys the challenge the hay ball provides. It keeps her mind stimulated solving the boredom woes with its near magical powers. Plus, she'll stand at the hay ball anywhere from two to three hours at a time! The addition of her new favorite thing has been a game changer for semi-retirement life.

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The Equi-Essentials Hay Ball helps Leah focus on something other than the cows.

Reframing Expectations

Subconscious expectations were bound into place prior to the kickstart of our semi-retirement journey. That's on me, I own this mistake. I held Leah to a particular standard because she's a seasoned FEI competition horse. Nothing should ruffle her feathers at home because we rarely dealt with shenanigans during show weekends or in-barn training. Wrong, so wrong. There were many moments I forgot to remember that everything, everything was entirely new to her universe. I believed the changeover in her career would be seamless on both of our spectrums... That we'd be cantering alongside the creek in no time, or gallivanting bareback around the ranch.

Stress, anxiety, worry and doubt made me awfully resentful of what truly is a blessing before my nose. And you know what? That's exactly what my new level of relationship with Leah is: a blessing. Our mentality as equestrians carries considerable influence over our perspective. Allowing myself to downward spiral was an exercise in futility. Yeah, not training daily has been a bit of a modification for my personality but I've swung my once negative attitude into finding the positives such as setting targets like keeping my core engaged while sitting the trot or seeking the cadence in our gait to gait transitions. Oh, and the minor detail that I am able to kiss Leah on the nose whenever I please from the comforts of my own home. I will never take this part of our relationship for granted again. With the encouragement of my friends, family, trainers, and all of our supporters, I now realize that caring for a semi-retired citizen is just as creditable alongside those who are actively showing on the A-circuit. Giving Leah the opportunity to fully enjoy her golden years is one of the most rewarding facets of horse ownership... Who knows where she would be if it weren't for me or my family.

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Semi-retirement brings a whole new set of challenges - and rewards!

Patience plays a ginormous role when making moves in your riding career. Whether you're moving up a dressage level or height of jump, studying the ways of a new horse OR deciding to pull your current mount from competition. Rome wasn't built in a day, as cliché as that might sound, it's true. The slower you go, the faster you get there. Don't be like me and lose sight of this sentiment when going through a big change. You will cry, you will mourn, you will feel helpless, anxious, upset, resentful, angry, annoyed, frustrated... But in the same breath, you will feel fulfilled during the little moments, like seeing your horse rest happily in her run-in shed or having a breakthrough ride without mare-interpretative-dance moves. Those little moments will build into bigger successes. We will always struggle with various areas of equestrianism, that's life. But, I can confidently say that things will improve and you'll look back only to reminisce like "remember when she wouldn't think about exploring the back end of her paddock? Look at her now."

Read the full blog by Maddie at The Blonde & The Bay. To shop the Equi-Essentials Hay Ball and everything else you need for your barn, visit Riding Warehouse. Happy riding!
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