Facing Reality

"This horse will do anything for you. It's obvious how much he enjoys working for you. Keep riding him. Don't let him sit. If he wants to do it for you, let him. He'll tell you what he can and can't do."
-- Guinness on Tap, "5 years, 2 bad joints, 1 long journey"
This is the story of knowing when it's time, of accepting no for an answer, and of listening to an old friend.
Photo by StizPics
First there was the attitude change.

In the middle of March, I was on top of the world. Guinness and I were schooling like a confirmed 4th level pair. We were working on pirouettes, he was nailing his changes, and he felt amazing. Then at the end of March, he had become soured on the work.
Pig in mid-March, feeling like a million and a half bucks.
When my beloved Sonka's heart began to give out, I gave Pig time off. Being away from Sonka was impossible for me, even to ride. When I could convince a friend or family member to come help me with the dogs at the barn, I found Pig was still stiff and resistant in many ways. I scheduled a stifle injection, figuring that old injury was acting up again.

Our first ride following injections was stunning. Pig was forward, supple, and full of enthusiasm for the work. I couldn't wait to show him.
Moving like a horse ten years younger.
Our second ride after injections was terrible. Every time I asked for contact, Pig reared. I ended up having to get off and hand walk him until he was quiet enough to get back on and hack up to his barn. Subsequent rides were far less dramatic, but equally upsetting. Something wasn't "right."

I called the vet again. I described Pig's increasingly strange and spooky behavior, how his hind end suddenly felt "wishy-washy", and how his neck had been plagued with weird constant sweat marks all winter.
Sweat marks visible here. They showed up in late January.
The vet checked thoroughly for symptoms of neurological issues. He found none. We talked about EPM, and we talked about Lyme. He told me he didn't think either of those is what we were seeing. He told me the horse looked no different from the last time he had examined him. He was not any more stiff nor was he lame, if anything he looked better than before.

When asked about the neck, he told me it could be a couple of things. Anhidrosis often caused strange sweat patterns like this. With our weirdly warm winter weather, perhaps he was experiencing a mild form of this? It could also be nerve damage, from an external injury (like a bite mark or rub). Nerve damage could also be internal, coming from an arthritic narrowing in the cervical spine. He asked me diagnostic questions about this, but we decided there wasn't enough evidence to point at anything. The neck continued to be a mystery.
He's always been a bit of mystery.
Photo by StitzPics
The vet told me he would pursue any diagnostics I wanted to have him run. If I wanted his opinion, though? The horse was 19 with a litany of problems. If we x-rayed his body, we for sure would find more. The question was, would those found issues change the outcome? Would they even be the problem?

I understood what we was trying to tell me. He couldn't see a problem, so perhaps it was time for me to think seriously about retirement for the horse. The appointment ended with no real answers, but a lot to think about.

We had already entered the May show. With no real indication of something physical bothering Pig and his soundness signed off on by the vet, we headed off to the show and brought home a score towards my silver medal. The old man had once again proven himself.
Forever the champion of getting it done.
Photo by Liz Stout
By this time, the hind end weirdness had mostly cleared up with consistent work, though Pig was suddenly very heavy in the contact. He felt stiff and stuck straight, not the bendy pretzel horse he had always been. I attributed the issues to his fetlock or stifle arthritis, acting up from time off. Another proof Pig couldn't have time off any more, if he was to stay in work. He didn't seem to want time off, either. He continued to meet me with pricked ears and snatch the bit from my hands, ready and happy to go to work.

I entered our second show in June. The day before we left, he stabbed himself above the knee and developed massive cellulitis. In talks with the vet, the on-call vet instead of my normal one, I brought up the thumb print in his neck.
The thumb print was maybe secondary in concern to the leg.
"Oh, they're born with those. Some people think they're a sign of good luck, and call them "god's thumbprint" or something. They're really a place where there was some kind of nerve damage that affected the muscle development. They are totally benign." The vet said.

"But, he wasn't born with this. He just developed it about a month ago."

"Really? Hm… I'll have to give this more thought."

With a show and giant cellulitis leg to think about, I didn't have a lot of focus left over to think about this exchange. After the show, I reflected on it more.
Developing divot in muscle may be hard to see here, but visible if you follow a vertical line down from his fourth braid.
Nerve damage? Like how my vet had described a possible cause of sweat marks? Suddenly the wishy-washy hind end symptoms were making sense. So was the stiffness in the body, and loss of flexibility in the neck and poll we had been struggling with. I called my vet again, and we talked and decided.

Guinness has neck arthritis. He probably has for a very long time, but it didn't present a problem until the arthritic changes began impinging on a nerve.
The ever-increasing size of the divot helped confirm the diagnosis.
Photo by Liz Stout
The treatment options for an older horse with such a problem are very limited. I could inject, but the process is quite involved and costs a fair amount of money. The effects of such an injection are quite limited, and there are very real dangers and risks involved. Knowing the condition wasn't painful to him, I couldn't stomach putting him through it.

With a heavy heart, I knew the time had come. My beloved horse had given me all he could, and his body was truly failing him. I needed to make the decision now and retire him, before the workload became unfair.
Photo by StitzPics
He's never the type to quit, but in his way he'd been gently telling me this time was coming all year. Still, he'd approached almost every day of his training with pricked ears. He took real joy in getting the right answers and dancing with me. I knew I'd need to find a retirement option where he could continue to be happy and find joy in staying active. No small feat, so I set to work.
More tomorrow.
Photo by StitzPics


  1. <3 <3

    Such a hard decision. You've tackled this whole thing with so much grace though. Pig is the very best boy and so lucky to have you as a partner to help advocate for his well being. I think it's incredibly admirable that you sought out a retirement situation in his best interest. I know few people that would have done that <3

  2. <3 sending hugs. Pig is such a special horse and has given so much, and still has so much left to give - he'd do anything if you asked. While it feels a little bit like the end of an era, it's a testament to your partnership that you decided it's time to stop asking of him and seek out a situation where he can still "give" within his means.

  3. Big hugs for you guys! <3 This year has been so tough for you, and you've handled everything with love and maturity, doing the best thing for your animals every single time. Pig is truly one in a million, and it makes my heart happy to know that he is getting the gift of an honorable retirement.

  4. It's so hard when their bodies start to fail but their minds and hearts are still willing and eager. I'm in a similar boat right now with my mare so I can understand how difficult this decision was for you. I hope you've managed to find the perfect retirement home.

  5. Such a tough decision to make but Pig is lucky to have you to make it for him. I also hope that you've found a great place for him.

  6. <3 <3 <3 You've made a hard decision, but it's in his best interest. He'll be more comfortable in his new role :)

  7. It's so hard to listen when they start to tell us this. Good on you for listening. As someone who listened to another redhead say the same thing, my thoughts are with you.

  8. oh no not retirement. He is such a happy happy horse and he brings joy to us all who follow him. Hugs to you and Pig. We love you both! PS Remus has that same kind of divot in his neck. Should I be worried??? he is 14 now.

    1. Honestly, I wouldn't worry if it's something that's been there a long time. The vet that told me they are benign isn't wrong. Most of the time they are, this is a rare case where it was a symptom of something more serious. A lot of horses have these. They can either be birth marks or form in response to a muscle tear. They really don't cause any athletic issues for the horse, the muscle will function normally. Unless he's giving you other signs, I'd just take it to be another unique Remus feature! :)

    2. thanks! I hope we can follow along with Pig no matter what his retirement is and I can't wait to see what you will do next too!! Even though it is an end of an era, he is such a lovely guy and deserves only the best (just like you)!

  9. He's a special horse who has a wonderful owner who is willing to put his needs above everything else. You're both lucky to have each other.

  10. Pig is lucky to have you -- even though it's difficult, kudos to you for letting him retire gracefully while he's still happy. Mad respect. And these are beautiful photos illustrating your partnership <3

  11. Aww, I'm sorry, these sorts of things always feel like they happen too soon. Pig's lucky to have such a kind and considerate owner, and I hope he enjoys a long and happy retirement.

  12. Oh Pig. Hugs. My trainer's horse loved his job, but loved being the retired old man of the barn, flapping lips and knocking trunks over, and getting loved on by everyone. As long as they still get interaction, they seem to adjust to what life throws them.

  13. Sad! You have done a great job with him and have had a fabulous run. Good job listening to him and doing what is best for him. The top picture is lovely!

  14. Having been through this saga myself, I definitely feel for you guys. Better to retire him while he's still happy than end your relationship on a sour note. I am so glad I retired Foster (though of course I wish I hadn't had to) but he's loving life in his new job, and fat and happy. That's all we can ask for.

  15. Is someone cutting onions in here?

    Thinking of you and Pig <3

  16. This post makes me sad and happy at the same time. I know how hard this decision is. Bless you for keeping him first in your heart.

  17. Such a tough decision. We had to retire two of ours recently due to health issues. Hope you find the right retirement home that works for you both.

  18. Choosing retirement is heartbreaking, but it sounds like it is the best option for him. I hope that you find a fantastic place for him to start living the retired life.

  19. Hugs. It's a heartbreaking place to arrive at, but you will make the right choices and Pig will have even more spoiling to look forwards too!

  20. It is really fascinating that the thumb print helped diagnose this. I am so sorry you are both going through this, but you have accomplished so much together there is a lot to hold onto.


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