Dear Jessica, I have a problem that I have no idea how to resolve and I hope your usual combination of knowledge and diplomacy will help me out. I recently bought a horse for my son, and was told that the horse was "around five years old". The seller (someone I trusted until this happened) didn't own the horse, it was at his barn on consignment. My son and I both fell in love with the horse and we bought it then and there. (I know, I know, you don't have to tell me how stupid that was!) The horse is very sweet and gentle and I thought he would be ideal for my son to ride.
My son is nine and disabled. He has been participating in a local program for handicapped riders, and he has gone from being introverted and shy to being very talkative and happy, he'll talk about horses to anyone who is willing to listen! The change in him was so great that I thought he should have a horse of his own. His brother will help him care for it, and we live one mile from the instructor who helps with the handicapped riding program, and she has offered to help us too. This all sounds good, doesn't it? But now I'm afraid that it may all be ruined. When we had the vet come out to look at the horse, he said "There's good news and bad news". The good news was that the horse is sound and he thinks it has a good personality. The bad news is that it is NOT five years old, it's probably FIFTEEN years old! My plan was to get a horse that my son could enjoy riding for many years, and now it turns out that I stupidly bought him an old horse.
Now instead of being happy for my son, I will have to worry about his heart breaking when this old horse dies. The man who sold the horse said he is sorry (which I doubt) but it was a consignment horse so he can't take it back. I don't think that would work anyway since my son is so in love with this old horse. My husband has a friend who is a lawyer, and he says it would be more trouble and expense than it would be worth to try to pursue the horse's owner in court, since we don't have anything in writing and the seller said the horse's owner SAID it was "about five years old".
I am hurt and disgusted and angry and I don't know what to do. I'm trying to keep my worries from my son, not that he would notice anyway right now since he spends every minute with his horse! The instructor says things may not be so bad as they appear, but they seem extremely bad to me. Can you help me with some suggestions, either how to get a different horse for my son or how to prepare him for the horse's death or even just how I can think differently about the situation? I am so upset! How could anyone do something like this to a disabled child? Thank you very much for always being there for us.
I'm with the instructor on this one - things are not so bad. In fact, by my standards, they're not bad at all.
For now, let's put aside some of the issues I'm not going to try to deal with here: The issue of the possibly deliberate misrepresentation of the horse's age, the potential expense and pointlessness of litigation, and the question of whether or not you can trust the person who sold you the horse.
We'll also put aside the question of telling a horse's age by its teeth - I'll just mention, briefly, that this is NOT as simple or straightforward as the diagrams in some books make it seem, much depends on how the horse has been fed, and using the teeth to answer the question "How old is he?" is often neither simple nor obvious with horses over the age of 5, and can be extremely difficult with horses over the age of 9. The better and more experienced a horseman (including vets and dentists), the LESS he will be likely to make definitive pronouncements about the age of a mature horse, based on the appearance of its teeth.
These matters are all, understandably, much on your mind, but they are not really germane to the issue of whether this is a suitable horse for your son. They are also not issues that call for any action on your part; I tend to agree with your husband's friend, but I'll leave all of those questions entirely up to you.
Here are the facts as I see them:
1. Your son is disabled, has benefited greatly from riding horses, and is ready and able (with the help of his family and instructor) to have a horse of his very own.
2. You have purchased a horse that you love, your son loves, your son's instructor loves, and the vet finds to be sound, kind, and suitable for your son.
This is ALL GOOD.
3. The horse's age is now believed to be nearer 15 than 5.
This is not necessarily bad. It would be much more serious if you had discovered that the horse were ill, chronically lame, or of an uncertain temperament. Instead, you've found out that the horse that acted like a good, 15-year-old school-horse may actually BE 15. I say, "no harm, no foul." ;-)
Now, let me explain about school-horses, what they are and what they do.
The job of a good school-horse, and the job of a good horse for a disabled rider, is to take care of its rider. A horse at age 5 is still a youngster - if you visit any good riding school or talk to any instructor of able-bodied OR disabled riders, you will find that the best horses in the program are generally in their teens or older. It takes time to develop the skills of a good school-horse, and even given time and the best handling and training, not every horse is suited to become a good school-horse. The expression you will hear, over and over, whenever an instructor refers to the best school-horses at the barn, is "worth his weight in gold". This isn't too far from the truth. A reliable, patient, kind, generous, SOUND school-horse of fifteen is something that every instructor would love to own.
Instead of worrying that you've been ripped off, focus on how very lucky you were to get your hands on this particular horse. And whilst you're doing that, here are two more things I'd like you to do differently.
First, think of this horse as a HORSE - not as "this old horse". You're thinking of him as a horse for the short term, and that's a mistake. You may still be supporting this horse, and your son may still be riding him, ten or fifteen years from now.
Second, think of your son as a RIDER and HORSE-OWNER, not as a little, disabled boy. He's only nine, but he's been through a lot in his life, and he's obviously learned to enjoy and value the good experiences. You're worried that he will be devastated when his horse dies - well, of course he will, that's an experience that goes with horse ownership. But you're assuming that this geriatic equine is just about to collapse from the weight of his years, and THAT is a mistake. The horse may not get into the record books by living into its fifties, but it sounds as though it's likely to live a good, long life. Don't worry about your little boy losing his pet horse - you're just borrowing trouble. By the time your son's sound, sane, kind, well-cared-for horse dies of old age, your son may well be twenty or twenty-five years old - no longer a little boy in ANY sense. If his horse dies sooner, from illness or injury, your son will be very sad, but his sadness will have everything to do with his affection for the horse, and nothing to do with the horse's age. Furthermore, NO horse of ANY age comes with a warranty against illness or injury - you would not be guaranteed more years with another, younger horse just because of its comparative youth.
You don't have to look for a new horse - you'd be lucky to find a similar horse of similar age, soundness, and suitability. You don't need to prepare your son for the horse's imminent demise. You DO need to think differently about it - you see, you were right about that! If you feel a great need to "do something", visit the HORSE-SENSE archives, where you will find quite a few articles on caring for the older horse.
The bottom line here, I think, is that you've somehow managed to get your son exactly the sort of horse he needs. This isn't easy, horses like this are hard to find and usually expensive t o buy, but you've found one. Congratulations! Now, stop worrying about exactly how it happened, stop worrying about what MIGHT happen, and just relax and enjoy the sight of your son enjoying his horse.
On a personal note, in my own barn, at this very moment, are two fat, sassy, active and extremely cheerful "older" horses - one is twenty-six, the other is twenty-nine. ;-)
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