The retirement community of horses in the Backcountry Wilderness Area is teaching a new generation of equine enthusiasts.
Horses line the hitching posts each summer morning in the Backcountry Wilderness Area. They wait for saddles and snuggles from kids, as young as seven years old, with brushes in hand, ready to run the stiff bristles down their necks and along their backs. Unlike the majority of our young buckaroo riders, most of our horses are already on the other side of adulthood before they arrive at the Horse Corrals.
Of the 17 horses the Backcountry Wilderness Area owns, all but a handful are between 20 and 25 years old. When you multiply their ages by three years, you come to their ages compared to a human. Carly Steiger, the Backcountry Wilderness Area Equine Supervisor, has spent the last five years working with different ranches and agencies like the Dumb Friends League Harmony Equine Center, North Fork Ranch, Long Road Home Rescue, Safe Landing Horse Rescue, and Burro Base Camp to adopt or purchase horses (and donkeys) for the Backcountry Wilderness Area. These horses have spent their younger years working on ranches, racing, or doing long-haul trail rides … but still have love and lessons left to give. Barring the few younger horses, for our intermediate and advanced students, our corrals largely serve as a senior equine facility.
“The majority of our riders are students at the beginner and intermediate riding levels,” Steiger, who previously worked for a horse rescue with older horses, says. “The horses we’ve adopted are good teachers … patient for people who are learning and forgiving of normal kid behavior. They have a ‘been there, done that’ mentality.”
Our year-round senior herd is a roster of horses that are exactly the kind of horses we need: safe for young and inexperienced riders, patient, and laid-back. When we rescue senior horses, our initial costs can be less than half of buying horses who are younger … and greener in their training. The adoption fee or purchase price is also typically less than the cost of leasing a horse for our busiest summer months.
Through week-long Horse Camps at Camp Backcountry and horsemanship (non-riding) lessons to group and private lessons, the equine opportunities in the Backcountry Wilderness Area grant the community close-to-home access to learn about and on horses while our herd gets a chance at a second career.
“We focus on everything horses, not exclusively riding,” Steiger points out. “Students get to take up their horse, learn healthcare, muck corrals, feed, make mash for horses who are losing teeth … it’s all a part of owning a horse—especially into old age.”
Take for example Apache, our 23-year-old Quarter Horse. After more than two decades working as a dude horse at guest ranches, Apache was adopted to the Backcountry Wilderness through a private owner in northwestern Colorado. After arriving at the Backcountry Wilderness Area, he worked with kids and did one-hour trail rides until he was diagnosed with ringbone—a degenerative joint disease in horses. After diagnosis, Apache was no longer ridable, but he’s still the perfect companion for our students to learn about horsemanship, anatomy, and horse health.
“For horses like Apache, this is a great way to have a useful purpose in their older years,” Steiger says. “A large majority of our horses’ jobs is to get new riders comfortable being around horses in general. They get a lot of love.”
Working with older horses comes with the reality that they are also in the final stages of their lives. Our equine team works endlessly to monitor health and provide working opportunities that fit the comfort level of the horse. The normal creaks and strains that any being of a certain age endures must be tended to with care—both medical and empathic. And when the time comes, it’s our staff that helps make the hard decisions with veterinarians to humanely euthanize our horses. Unlike an operation with lots of younger horses, this occurs more often and it’s not easy saying goodbye to one of the herd—even if we know it’s coming. But, there’s a certain solace in knowing that the final years a horse spends in the Backcountry Wilderness Area was time with a dedicated staff, top-notch care, and access to love and snacks from people of all ages in our community instead of a fate discarded in inhumane conditions.
“Even though sometimes our time is shorter than what we wish for the horses we adopt, we know they’ve lived out their days comfortably and getting loved on by lots of people … especially kids,” says Steiger, who owned her horse Bourbon until he passed at age 32.
Retirement is just a mindset when the horses are aging, yet still healthy. Our corrals and pastures are a pretty fine place for a horse to spend their sunset years and they’d love to have you out for a visit.
Click here for more information on our equine programs and lessons.