Some horses can make lifelong careers as eventers, but eventually, they all tell their riders when it is time for them to step back from competition. Making the right decision for your horse can feel overwhelming, but deep down we all know that the best decision is the one that places the horse first. To help you keep a fresh perspective when pondering this big decision, international eventers Will Faudree, Jennie Brannigan, and Laine Ashker all took a moment to chat about how they knew it was time to transition their horses to lighter workloads and ultimately retirement as a whole.
“A lot of it is a gut feeling for me. You have to look at what you are doing to get the horse safely to the competition and if that starts to take over the quality of the event, then you have to have a conversation about that. I had a horse a couple of years ago that I took up to the four-star level and I had taken him to Bromont. I had done Fair Hill prior, and it was really interesting at Bromont with the terrain because there were a lot of really big, wide tables there, more so than even at Fair Hill. It was just a feeling I had. He tried really hard and made a big effort and I felt that effort around that course. He was never the same after that. It got to the point where it did not feel in his best interest to keep going.
The biggest thing is that it has to be a gut feeling and you have to listen to your horse because they tell us. Whether they start telling us through veterinary maintenance and care that you have to do to get them there or they start telling us by starting to stop or by that feeling that this might no longer be fun for the horse. You have to have those honest conversations with yourself, your coaches, your veterinarians, your owners, your sponsors, your grooms if you have them. For the upper-level horses, you can ask yourself if the horse would be happier doing something easier?
One thing I hear a lot is that the horse doesn’t want to retire, and when a horse has had a really solid career at the upper levels and then they are 18 or 19 years old it doesn’t always work for the horse to go on to do Young Riders or to go on to another kid. The riders, owners, and team of people who support these horses know the horses and know which horses that would work for.
A lot of people asked me when Antigua retired why I didn’t let somebody take him around. He retired at age 20 and to me, he earned his retirement. It’s okay to retire them and let them be a horse in a field and get groomed and cared for, but there is something to be said for letting a horse retire. A lot of people think their horse might be bored and some horses maybe they are, but I think you have to listen to your horse and know your horse. Just because your horse can go and do something, doesn’t mean they have to.”
“Ping [Cambalda] gave me my first Kentucky completion, which was my first five-star completion. He didn’t have the biggest airway passages and he didn’t sweat well, but he was very careful and I was young and not as accurate as I probably am now. I remember looking at Nina Gardner [his owner] and I said to her, ‘I don’t like how I had to ride him around there. I don’t like having to ask him that much.’ That was right when live streaming became a thing and I remember one year at Red Hills I watched how hard I was having to ride him. I didn’t realize it, I didn’t realize that not everyone had to do that. I told the Gardners that I didn’t want to ride him five-star anymore. He was third at Carolina and then he began winning all these four-stars, but I still knew he didn’t want to be a five-star horse. He was an amazing four-star horse but he didn’t want to do five-star.
At the end of the day, the horse has to love it and I didn’t feel good about asking Ping to do that anymore. I look back and think what an amazing horse. He would show up for you every time. I knew it in my heart that he didn’t want to do the job. So from that point, we picked targeted events where he would do very well and he made a great career as a four-star horse. After a great year, he stepped back and did Young Riders with Alexa Lapp and it was great and the Gardners loved it. I remember going to Tryon in 2020 and I went to visit Ping who was then with Maddie McElduff and he was 17 at the time and sound. I went up and patted him on the head and said to him, ‘I am so happy I am not asking you to do this job.’
Eventually, we brought the horse home and I was chatting away with Nathalie Pollard and funnily enough her dad, Carl Bouckaert, owned Cambalda when I bought him. She asked if I had a horse that she could have fun on and just ride occasionally and I immediately thought of Cambalda. He was totally sound and looked awesome and I drove him down myself to Chatsworth, Georgia to drop him off. It was so awesome. I have videos of Sterling Pollard, who is Nathalie’s daughter, riding him in a bareback pad and in a western bridle on this beautiful farm. He is not doing nothing but he is not doing that much and it is great because he is loved.
It is about the horse and about loving them and knowing what they should be doing. That horse has absolutely touched so many people’s lives and I am really proud that we didn’t wear him out. I cannot give the Gardners enough praise and thanks for letting me do whatever was best for him. Throughout his entire career leading up to his retirement, they were 100% understanding and supportive. Ping is so wonderful in a lot of ways and he went from five-star to going on trail rides and getting loved on. I look forward to the day when Ping can live in the backyard with my goats, but I just love that he is there with Nathalie and Sterling now.”
"My biggest thing is that the horses don’t owe us anything. I always want them to retire first and foremost healthy and as sound as they can possibly be. It is our responsibility as the riders who ride our horses day in and day out to know when that point of retirement is. My biggest example was Al [Anthony Patch] who I got as a 4-year-old and retired at 17. Al could have gone forever but he had an ailing injury as an 11-year-old that we were dealing with. My vets just told me that I was going to have to listen to my horse. There is a fine line and there were a lot of times that I had to do a lot of soul searching. Al is a very careful horse, so if I had a stop at something I had to ask myself if he was stopping because he was hurt or is he stopping because I rode it badly? Most of the time it was because I rode it badly, but when the uncharacteristic stops started to happen in warm-up or when it felt like I was calling my vet more than I should to keep him going at the top level is when I started to have a flag raise. I do in my heart of hearts believe that the horses love it and I want their experience to be going out loving the sport as much as we love it and not hating it. That is my responsibility as their rider and caretaker.
Al is very picky when it comes to putting him at bad distances, but it was when he began stopping in the warm-up for the Preliminary at Rocking Horse I started to ask myself if I was nervous because that wasn’t like him to just stop like that. I feel like I am so much more in tune with myself now and I really pay attention to these nerves and I really think it was my body telling me that my horse was getting to the end of this. At Carolina, we were the third or fourth from last to go in cross-country because we were in the top five. The first part of the course was great, but there was a knoll coming out to the corner and he literally just stopped in front of it. He was a horse to never stop in front of a jump, he would just run out if I got a bad distance. So for him to stop dead in front of it made it so clear to me. I had my answer right then and there. That horse owed me nothing.
While he is retired, Al still gets ridden every single day. I am a personal believer that all of my older guys are sounder longer having a job, barring any large injuries where they can’t do that. He loves to have a job, he has had a job his whole life as a former racehorse. Now he looks like a 10-year-old, he is sound with no shoes on, and I feel like I have done really right with him. Every now and then I will bareback him over a little jump or take him out in the cross-country field. He is not great to take on a trail ride but we have a small 10-minute hack that we do. Some of my working students really love working on their flying lead changes on him and he is so correctly trained that I will give a little lesson on him every now and then. He has gone into that teacher role for the flatwork to show someone what true contact should feel like.
At the end of the day, more than your coach or your vet or farrier, you have to know your horse. I had Al for such a long time that the writing was on the wall. He had given me everything and taken me across the world twice, so I only wanted him to be seen in the best light. It is our responsibility as their caretaker to always present our horses in the best light. It’s one thing if they are a little older and just need a little bit of maintenance, but if they feel like they are not enjoying the job- maybe they need a different job. That could be a non-riding job where you just groom them and hand walk them, some resemblance of a job. It is our job to discern that and translate that for them. Horses will tell you. They don’t just randomly stop, turn grumpy, or start kicking out for no reason. We have to put our listening ears on and know what they are trying to say to us."
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For seasoned and novice riders alike, it is always good to revisit the basics. Serving as the foundation for any eventer, the positions used on the cross-country course differ from those in the dressage or show jumping ring. The USEA tuned into five-time Olympian, three-time World Equestrian Games rider, two Pan-American Games rider, and USEA ECP certified coach Karen O'Connor as she walked coaches and students at the USEA ECP Symposium through the basic positions for effective cross-country riding.
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With the recent wrap-up of the 2023 Eventing Coaches Program (ECP) Symposium in Ocala, Florida, USEA Podcast Host Nicole Brown chats with ECP Faculty Members Jennifer Howlett Rousseau and Robin Walker about all things related to the ECP. From the USEA Eventing Handbook by the Levels to the benefits of pursuing certification, selecting the best coach for you, recapping this year's Symposium, and more - this week's USEA podcast is the perfect educational tool for coaches and riders alike!