My Best Friend for 27 Years & My Inspiration for Boarding Retirees
Prince was my best friend for 27 years. When he died at 34, I was 32.
As a child I remember sitting on the bed writing my Christmas List. "Horse" was always at the top. When I was eight years old, and after a year of riding lessons, my dream came true at the Pomona Spring Quarter Horse Sale on April 27th, 1969 with the purchase of Hip #2, a 1963 chestnut gelding named Helluva Note. Known as "Bug" by owner Denise Riley he was the high selling gelding of the sale.
My Mom renamed him Prince. He was so gentle and well trained that even my Mom ventured riding him. He was the only horse she would handle, from putting on blankets to taking off bandages. He was so sensible and well behaved that she was never afraid to work around him. Prince was boarded in California for three years.
When my family moved to Fairfield, Connecticut there was never any doubt that Prince was coming too. Our new home had a small stable and pasture for Prince. So, age eleven, I began my day before school by feeding him and cleaning his stall, some mornings even brushing him while he ate his breakfast. After school, my hours were filled with riding and caring for Prince. Weekends we often went to local open and 4-H shows where Prince and I brought home the All Around Championship before moving up to the AQHA circuit.
Retiring Prince Without Success
After my family's home was sold, I had to board Prince for the first time in over a decade. Circumstances necessitated my becoming an absentee owner. Unfortunately, that resulted in negative consequences for Prince.
In 1982, equine retirement farms were unheard of in the horse community. If I knew then, what I know now, I could have known which facilities to consider investigating further and which ones to avoid.
Stable Number One
The first facility had lovely pastures with trees and a stream running through the pasture. The barn wasn’t ideal, but I was assured by the caretakers -- who knew my family -- that Prince would be fine, and my family planned stop in to see him. I went over how I wanted him fed, his stall, and all of his needs in the belief that Prince would be properly cared for in my absence.
Mistake. I allowed the lovely pasture -- despite the less than ideal fencing -- and the assurances that the family connection to give me the confidence that Prince would be cared for as I had done before and after school for the past several years. Wrong.
When I visited and remarked on his weight I was told,
"I like them a little on the thin side.”
That was followed by learning they were riding him without my permission and despite being unsound, saying,
"He's a really nice horse and I only run him up and down the lane a few times."
Unfortunately, this kind of disregard is not uncommon in the horse community. Not only have I experienced it, but I’ve also spoken to owners whose horses were ridden without their permission as well.
Prince left the facility with his ribs showing and with a permanent scar on his front ankle.
Stable Number Two
I was able to bring Prince to a barn where I was working part time. I could keep Prince there for the cost of his feed. I was in charge of caring for the horses, so I felt comfortable that Prince would be fine. Then I missed a few days at the barn due to illness.
The barn owner literally threw Prince out of the barn, putting him into a field with sub-standard fencing and zero shelter, and without even a blanket. It was winter and Prince still needed to regain some weight.
Prince and I both left the facility. I had known the owner for over a decade.
Stable Number Three
The third boarding stable was a riding stable in York County, Pennsylvania. It was clean and neatly painted, while the barn aisle and barnyard area were carefully raked. The stalls were also clean and bedded, and the field was average for limited turnout and exercise, with the fencing acceptable as long as the electric was hot and kept in repair, and the horses were well fed.
Once again, instructions were given on the care of my horse. I paid for a stall for Prince because I knew he was at the bottom of the pecking order and I wanted to be assured that he had shelter. I also knew he liked a stall. He always came running when it started raining. I thought that by paying for a stall my horse would be guaranteed to be fed separately.
Again, I was assured that my horse's needs would be met and that my family would look in on him. I visited Prince a month or two later. He was not gaining weight -- if anything he had lost weight. I inquired to the amount he was being fed and requested his grain be increased. Again the assurances.
The next time I visited Prince, I noticed that the barn aisle and outside the barn were neatly raked as before. I looked in the barn for Prince, however his stall was empty so I went in search of him in the field. I walked among the herd searching for my horse to no avail. I went back to the barn and checked all the stalls.
I went back to the field looking at each horse in turn. Then it hit me. The emaciated horse that was nothing but a rack of bones was my Prince. He was so emaciated that I hadn’t even recognized the horse, the horse that I had fed and brushed every day all through my childhood.
I stood in the barn aisle and cried as I looked at the wreck of a horse that was my best friend. As I stood there brushing his tail, trying to gather my thoughts and formulate a plan to help him, another boarder came into the barn.
She told me that she had never seen Prince in his stall. She related how other boarders had asked the owner why Prince, as well as a three year old colt were both so thin. The owner told everyone it was because of their ages.
I had paid for a stall for Prince to insure that he was fed separately in his own stall. His own stall to shelter him in bad weather. No wonder it was so clean. He probably never saw the inside of it.
The vet who later examined Prince said he would have died from starvation within two weeks.
He was nineteen.
Stable Number Four
Fortunately, a new facility had opened nearby and there were stalls available. Within forty-eight hours I had Prince settled in a barn that I hoped would provide for him properly, a barn where I could stop worrying all the time.
I am forever indebted to them for taking us, only days before their grand opening.
Prince was so badly starved that someone had to stand by his stall and explain to everyone who walked by that Prince had arrived in this condition and that it wasn’t a reflection of their care. They even had a statement signed by their vet posted to his stall.
Prince regained his health and started living happily, despite the development of a cataract and the progression of his arthritis. He did, however, limped noticeably at a trot from the ankle injury caused by the first facility, which was unrelated to the soundness issue that prompted his retirement.
One of the many things I appreciated at this barn was the fact that I knew they truly cared about Prince. They cared about him in a different way, seeing him as an individual and not an asset to be utilized or a burden to neglect.
They cared about him the way my Mom cared about Prince.
In 1986, however, the owners divorced and the stables closed, taking with it my peace of mind.
Stable Number Five
At the time, I was apart of the team at Brook Ledge Horse Transportation, which required constant travel, though my future plans included buying a property that would again allow me to care for my own horse.
I boarded Prince at a facility that was definitely less than ideal, and more than thirty years on I can remember their response to my instructions to feed Prince separately and make sure he was sheltered.
"Yeah, yeah. Don't worry about it. He will be fine."
Yes, I had a bad feeling, only confirmed when I received the call that he wasn’t doing well. When I asked if he was being fed separately and how much he was eating, the answer to this day shocks me.
"He doesn't come up to eat."
Knowing Prince, I knew exactly what had happened. Being on the bottom of the pecking order with loss of vision in one eye, Prince had most likely been bullied, bitten, and kicked by more aggressive horses at feeding time.
It doesn't take much of that before a horse learns to stop coming up in hopes of receiving feed, which he was supposed to have received separately anyway. This time they blamed Prince's problem on an oozing open sore on the underside of his jaw.
The wound on the underside of his jaw was examined. I was told it was one of his teeth working its way out of the bottom of his jaw. I have my doubts, and I have to wonder if he was kicked and it was pieces of bone, not pieces of a tooth.
When I came to see him, I also saw the blanket that I had worked so hard for and saved up to purchase was lying on the ground in the storage area, half dragged through the filth on the ground. While only a blanket, it emphasized to me how little they cared.
Stable Number Six
It was now 1987. In five years Prince had been in six barns -- only one cared for him.
Within a few miles of my home, which we were building a house and barn for Prince, there was a show barn that agreed to board him on a temporary basis, until we had everything ready for him at home.
While a show barn wasn’t ideal for Prince, I was grateful knowing he had a stall that he actually saw the inside of and that he was fed by himself.
His stall was safe. The turnout, while small, had safe fencing. A big Paint mare liked Prince and because she was the lead mare, Prince benefited. No one picked on him. And he was fed. The other drawbacks we could live with until I brought him home.
Bringing Prince Home
In 1988, I could finally bring Prince home! Finally, I had the peace of mind knowing he was properly fed, watered, and sheltered -- and I was so blessed that Don Schock agreed to come up and trim him.
When Prince came home, there were no worries that he would be:
Left out in the weather when he preferred to be inside and dry.
Kept hungry when he needed individual feeding.
Made sore from others riding him when he was retired and didn't belong to them.
Injured by unsafe fencing and facilities
Bullied by more aggressive horses
Kept pain free by a farrier that knew how to properly balance a hoof.
As Prince and I resumed our routine from years before as a child in Connecticut, a friend who was familiar with the difficulties I had trying to board Prince across the years suggested I board retirees.
It was the best decision I ever made.
Starting Orchard Equine Retirement
My relationship with Prince and our boarding experiences provided me with a unique understanding of the relationships that we, as owners, have for our retired horses. And that's what led to Orchard Equine Retirement.
With Prince home, I decided to build a farm where owners could retire their horses -- secure in the knowledge that their horses would not only be well cared for, but loved as members of our family.
When I started Orchard Equine Retirement, retirement facilities for horses were virtually unheard of in the industry. Instead, owners were encouraged to pass their horse on to a less experienced rider.
At that time, no one talked about the fact that -- just like in Black Beauty -- horses develop soundness issues as they age, or the fact that at some point, someone has to make the decision to euthanize a horse, unless of course that decision happens when the horse is purchased by a dealer who then sells the horse directly or via an auction, to slaughter.
My inspiration for the care of horses was inspired by my love for Prince while the infrastructure of the farm was the breeding farms I worked at or visited during my employment with Brook Ledge Horse Transportation, Oley, PA.
Prince’s position in the herd and the health issues that he developed as he aged have guided me in the management of Orchard Equine Retirement. Just as the outstanding breeding farms guided me in the construction, Prince guided me in the management and the concern for welfare of owners’ horses.
Prince was at the bottom of the pecking order and he disliked being out in the wind and rain. Prince was always in the shed before thunderstorms hit and it was almost unheard of to see him out grazing in the rain. Prince also appreciated immaculate stalls. Maybe I spoiled him early on, but he refused to lie down in a stall if it was not immaculate. Manure stains on Prince were never a problem!
At age seven Prince foundered under the care and management of a boarding stable in California. The resulting coffin bone rotation and dropped sole meant that without excellent farrier care Prince was lame, thus I learned at an early age the importance of an excellent farrier who knew how to properly balance a hoof- no long toes and low heels so commonly seen on so many horses.
Thus when it comes to boarding owners’ horses I am very cognizant of the issues that many boarding facilities do not want to be concerned with due to the resources required to address them, several of which are why my horse suffered. The horses who have health issues, the horses who are bullied by other horses, the needs of horses who have lost their vision, and a myriad of other health and behavior issues. They could be my Prince.
Ever since I was a child, I had thought that when Prince passed away I would have him buried.
All the stables that I boarded at though, and all the horse professionals I talked with told me that it was impossible to bury any horse. When I started Orchard Equine Retirement, however, I found that wasn’t the case at all.
With some research into state laws, as well as local ordinances, I discovered it was legal to bury horses, which is why we offer burial for our client’s horses in our Heirloom Apple Orchard, next to the buddies they spent their retirement years grazing, sleeping, and grooming alongside.
Each spring, daffodils, crocus and other spring bulbs mark their final resting place.
As one owner said,
"To know he is buried in this Apple Orchard in Pennsylvania means the world to me."
Since Prince’s passing, I’ve continued my goal of providing horse owners with what I rarely had -- peace of mind by maintaining a facility designed to meet the specific needs of retired horses and their owners and that:
Meets the optimum standards for safety and management.
Provides only the highest quality feed.
Recognizes all horses are priceless to their owners.
Delivers care that’s motivated by a love of horses.
Shares with owners a love and concern for their horse.
Understands and respects your relationship and requests for your horse.
Offers peace of mind.
Overall, a facility that is everything the stables that caused me so much heartache is not.
As a lifelong lover of horses and animals, it means a great deal to me that more owners are considering retirement for their horses. It’s disturbing, however, to see that the same attitudes about retirement horses that resulted in Prince's suffering are still prevalent today.
Many of these facilities still view retirees as nothing more than "pasture or rough board" horses. As one horse transportation company notes,
"We have refused to drop horses off at retirement facilities due to the condition of the facility or the horses there."
It confirms that the pasture and rough board mentality is still firmly entrenched, which is disheartening to hear, as someone whose horse experienced the effects that kind of treatment and mentality causes.
That’s why I’m passionate about providing a facility where horses of all histories and needs receive care that’s akin to what they received as a valuable performance horse or pleasure riding partner, and from caretakers that understand and share the love owners have for their horse, because only then will their owners truly have Peace of Mind.
In everything, Orchard Equine Retirement remembers Prince.