Choosing Vintage: The Value of Older Horses

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We see it happen so often at the bigger shows. Some fantastic athlete (a four-legged one) is retired at the ripe old age of 15. Or maybe 17. The horse is brought into the middle of the ring and stands as it is honored for its achievements. Which is all well and good, but…retirement? In their teens? What does the horse think of this? Of no longer competing in a sport that they relish… Or of being turned out in a field somewhere with no purpose and little attention..,or maybe still kept in the barn, but kept at home while its stablemates load on the trailer and go off to a show.

Nicole Wright thinks that those retirement parties are cruel. “Until you’re dragging them up to the ring, they’re not done. If you know your horse you know when they’re done and when they’re not.”

Nicole loves older horses. Nearly 40% of Nicole’s barn is aged 15 and up, and one, Off the Cuff (Brookson), is still showing in the 2’6” hunters in Wellington…at age 30. “Every year, he’s trotting off the ramp, ready to go,” laughs Nicole. 

Nicole knows what older horses can bring us: the gifts of their knowledge and experience, teaching younger kids or nervous adults the ropes. Retiring horses in their mid to late teens makes no sense to her. She knows that these horses have many active years ahead of them. Accordingly, she chooses to let the horses make the decision.

“Do they want to keep working? Trucking a kid or scared adult around crossrails is fun for many older horses, and they get to be appreciated.”

Of course if the horses want to choose retirement, they can do that too. But few choose that option. At Nicole’s Enrite Farm, horses “do have an afterlife. You’re not done till you tell us you are. It’s all individual.”

Nicole gets most of her horses from other trainers who feel that the horses are too old, and that their careers are over. Some of the horses are 16 or 17, while others are older. One of her top amateur-owner hunters, Zapata, is 20. Another one was recently champion at the Hampton Classic…at 25. The horse has had no injections, and, as a racehorse, ran 72 races at the track. Sky Pilot, also 25, was just Circuit Champion at Wellington in the Thoroughbred jumpers. Capitol HIll competed in the big eq finals this year, in his mid-twenties.

Nicole’s business partner, Sissy, has a 38 year old horse who competed in the Puissance when he was younger, jumping 7’. “He’s still sound,” says Sissy.

“You have to take care of them,” declares Nicole, “change their diet. It’s individual. Part of our responsibility is to look at each of them and see what they need.”  None of their older horses are ribby or swaybacked. “They have a good topline. Their coats are bright and shiny.”

Signature was one of Scott Stewart’s top hunters in the 90’s and was later sold to Jay Patshek. Signature is 25 now. Although he was sent to a retirement home, that wasn’t the option he wanted. He showed his displeasure by running along the side of his paddock and kicking down the fences any time he saw a trailer leaving.

Jay called Nicole.  “Come and take him,” he said. “He wants to work.”

Nicole brought Signature home to her barn. He just showed at Old Salem in the schooling hunters. He’s so happy to be back, “He runs onto the trailer to go to shows,” says Nicole.

“No one can believe the horses we have,” she continues. “So many of them are 20 or older, still moving, still showing.”

Carlos, who is 16, was just leased from Molly Ashe. Nicole says “I don’t even look at them until they are a certain age. They all have their experience and their mileage, and they want to be appreciated. I feel very strongly that 16 is not old to me. I think we should stop breeding so many horses, and use the horses that are already out there for their lives. I don’t want to go to Europe and get the new baby; I want to get  a vintage model and not go through the crazy baby routine.

“We get horses from rich people who are bored with their horses. To me it’s like they’re giving me their jewels. They’re missing out on the latter years of their horses, their best years, past their crazy times. Who made 13 or 14 the magic number? It’s all in people’s heads. We’ve all evolved as humans, why not horses too?”