Horse & Hound
Wise heads Older horses thriving in their twilight years
Age, wisdom and experience go hand-in-hand. Tessa Waugh tracks down some venerable old salts who are thriving in the twilight years, and giving their riders both confidence and plenty of fun times
TO some people veteran horses are like old cars – expensive to keep and liable to break down at any moment. But nowadays more and more horses are enjoying active lives well into their twenties and beyond. Ponies even longer. Far from generating a tonne of vet’s bills and little else, veteran horses are viewed as the gift that keeps on giving.
Director of the Hunting Office Alice Bowden is a case in point. Having retired her hunter, Spike, when he was about 17, she had no choice but to bring him back into work when her new horse went lame.
“Spike had missed two seasons,” she says. “It was November and he was big and hairy in the field. I went and put a headcollar on him and told him, ‘We’re going hunting’.”
That was three seasons ago and they haven’t looked back. There are, however, a few concessions to make for an older horse. Spike’s working year begins on 1 July: “We do two months of walking and we carry on walking when I exercise him through the season,” explains Alice. Out hunting with the Beaufort, she is more careful than she would be on a younger model.
“I’d rather ride along a road than a rough verge,” she says. “Always slow up at gateways. If he’s tired, I go home. I have lots of days when I stay out until the end, but I never finish with him feeling knackered.”
For this, she is amply rewarded, hunting Spike every Saturday with an alternate weekday in between. When it comes to jumping: “I’m good at choosing when I go and when it’s best to save him. When it’s needed, I can still pull out the big guns and jump something silly, but I don’t do that all the time.”
Alice notes that when it comes to crossing the country, older horses have wisdom which can be lacking in the young.
“Spike picks his way,” she says. “He is great over trappy things and has a fifth leg. Also, he doesn’t expend energy when he doesn’t need to.”
THESE qualities are especially valuable when it comes to instilling confidence in a novice rider. Ailsa Tweedie has owned 26-year-old Marco for six years and couldn’t begin to number the children he has taught to ride. Like all the best ponies, the 13.2hh Connemara is well-known in the area and, having been piloted by both of Ailsa’s sons, is now doing the rounds with her youngest, nine-year-old Mary.
“He will do Pony Club”, says Ailsa, of the pony she describes as “the ultimate gentleman”, “but his real love is hunting. He grows a hand when he sees the hounds.”
And he is adaptable, too.
“I lent him to a friend to teach their seven
year-old to ride on the agreement that I could pick him up for the odd day’s hunting. One day I collected him for my middle child, John, to have a day with the Buccleuch. We had a fantastic day jumping all these big hunt jumps and packing up in the dark. I sent some photos to my friend and she couldn’t believe it was the same pony who had been walking around the school with her seven-year-old the day before.”
Dragon, a chestnut 12.2hh aged 30, is a similar character, so in demand that he has never left the Essex and Suffolk branch of the Pony Club. Tobina Aldous, who currently has him on loan, reports that his current legend status didn’t emerge straight away.
“Apparently he was a nightmare to back and you couldn’t put a child on him until an adult had ridden him,” she says.
“He is a professional. He just knows what he is doing”
GEORGIA BUCHAN ON THE CONFIDENCE-BOOSTING BOOTS, 22
When it comes to care of this old campaigner, Tobina says there isn’t much to it.
“He has some joint supplements and he had three clips during the summer to stop him getting too shaggy, but that is all. He will be out autumn hunting on Saturday with my daughter.”
In some instances, the schoolmaster horse can really turn someone’s fortunes around. Georgia Buchan was having a hard time before Boots, aged 22, came her way in 2018. His owner, event rider Henny Cooper, had tried to retire him but Boots was having none of it – he was jumping out of the field and generally making a nuisance of himself. It was Georgia’s instructor, David Harland, who suggested to Henny that he might suit Georgia.
“I had lost confidence,” explains the 18-yearold, one of a select band of people eventing a horse who is older than she is. “The horse I was riding was horrible and I kept being eliminated. I started British Eventing on Boots that year. We did BE100s all year and then 105. We were in the top 10 about 15 times. He is the best horse.”
In their two-year partnership, Boots and Georgia were selected for the Scottish two-star under-18 eventing team and went to the national championships at Frickley Park last year. Far from being high-maintenance, Georgia says Boots is the opposite.
“Boots would love to jump every day, but we barely jump him at home because he really doesn’t need it,” she says.
When it comes to competitions his experience shines through.
“He is a professional,” she says. “He just knows what he’s doing. In the dressage he shows off and does his thing. He is a crosscountry machine. I just sit there, close my eyes and hold on to the martingale strap.”
As for the care at home, Georgia notes,
“he does lose a bit of condition in the winter but he doesn’t require any extras beyond a joint supplement and his hocks injected now and then.”
Georgia and her team are careful to space events out to allow for his age, adding, “he never comes out of the stable stiff. He is a true sportsman.”
KATE CHESTER jokes that her partnership with her 30-year-old mare Lucky Tigger, Tich for short, is the longest relationship she has ever had. For Kate, having a veteran horse is all about the relationship.
“People get a new horse, and they expect things to happen overnight,” she says. “It has been 24 years and my mare is still teaching me things. I have a three-year-old, but it will take years to get to where I am with Tich; that feeling of being on top of the world and being able to tackle anything.”
It wasn’t an auspicious start. Kate bought the 15.2hh bay when the mare was six.
“She was a rearer and put me on the ground more times than I can remember,” Kate says.
But the pair of them went on to have success in novice eventing, before trying dressage and finally getting into side-saddle. The adventures they have had together could fill a book. Kate even rode Tich to church on her wedding day. At 30, Tich still enjoys trips to the beach to jump the breakers and galloping through the stubble fields at home – “We did three circuits the other day before I could stop,” laughs Kate.
Retiring just isn’t an option.
“If I stopped working Tich she would be depressed,” says Kate.
But she concedes there is “no point jumping big jumps anymore – we have nothing to prove”.
These days Tich has a new job doing sidesaddle demonstrations.
“We did four days of demonstrations at Countryfile Live last year,” Kate says. “Afterwards Tich was tired, but two days later she was raring to go again.”
Like all the most successful veteran owners, Kate understands what works best for her horse, naming careful shoeing for Tich’s collapsed heels, regular exercise and sixmonthly physio as the essence of her regime.
Looking ahead, Kate says: “Tich trusts me every day to do the best for her. There might be a time when she turns around and says, ‘I’ve done my bit’, and just wants to be in the field and that’s fine, she is with me forever. Should something happen to her, I wouldn’t let her suffer. We have a responsibility to horses not to let our own sentimentality get in the way of their comfort.”
Meanwhile, Kate cherishes every day – “I wake up every morning and thank my lucky stars that I have another day with my girl.”
JULIANNE ASTON has plenty of experience of this kind of relationship. She founded the Veteran Horse Society 20 years ago to promote the welfare of older horses alongside establishing affiliated showing classes for veterans. The society now has 3,000 members. Having had a mass of entries for this year’s National Championships, which took place last weekend, Julianne admits: “I had no idea what a huge event it would become.”
In her opinion, attitudes to old horses are changing.
“When I formed the society 20 years ago, people would disregard horses and ponies over 15 years of age,” she says. “Now, with extended educational development and popularity, people ride and compete them for much longer.”
Like Kate, Julianne feels that the relationship with a veteran horse can be profound.
“Many will have experienced some discomfort in life and will show so much trust and appreciation,” she says.
Veterinary advances are making a difference, too. Equine vet Euan Laidlaw BVMS MRCVS has witnessed a bigger uptake in clients having their horses’ joints injected.
“Arthritis was one of the main reasons why horses had to retire,” he says. “Now people are choosing to take treatment rather than retire them. When it comes to ponies, we have a better understanding of Cushing’s, which means it is often diagnosed and treated earlier, keeping them active for longer.”
Something that can only be great news for golden oldies everywhere.
“I wake up every morning and thank my lucky stars that I have another day
with my girl”
KATE CHESTER ON 30-YEAR-OLD TICH