Old horses, new adventures: the journey of Heljar and Silvia Ochsenreiter-Egli

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Silvia Ochsenreiter-Egli shares her experiences with Heljar, her 21-year-old Icelandic horse. The stallion can look back on many years of top sport experience, but is still in excellent health. How did they manage that? Healthy old horses need varied training, patience and horse-friendliness. Silvia talks about how to assess the ageing of horses appropriately and how to manage their retirement.

Authors: Veroinka Conen: CEO Sportsfreund Studios and Silvia Ochsenreiter-Egli

Dear Silvia,

How old is Heljar, when did he come to you and how many show seasons have you been competing together?

Heljar was born in 2003, so he will be 21 this year. I got to know Heljar as a six-year-old in Iceland in 2009. He had not yet been shown in competitions, but he showed good potential. As he had resisted a quick career as a riding horse in Iceland and showed great strength of character, I was able to purchase him at a very fair price.

I took my time, he often stopped abruptly when he became unsure or frightened, which happened frequently in the first two years. I made the training very varied and was gradually able to gain his trust.

His successes are second to none. He has been Swiss five-speed F1 champion six times, four times in a row, including 2023. He has been runner-up Swiss five-speed champion five times. Heljar is two-time Central European champion in the five-speed F1 and in the overall standings, has competed five times for Equipe Suisse at world championships and has placed in the top ten several times.

Our best result was 5th place in the overall five-gait competition at the World Championships in Oirschot in 2023. In 13 years, we have ridden the Sport A five-gait test a total of 54 times and the average result from all preliminary competitions is 6.89 points. This consistency makes me particularly proud and shows how well we harmonize. 2024 is our 14th show season.

Heljar's success is unparalleled.

Have you ever taken a year off, perhaps because he was ill or injured?

No, we were actually able to stay on top of the game every year without any significant injuries and there was never a breakdown. In 14 years, he was briefly ill twice with a fever, once after a German Championship and once he had colic, which fortunately did not require surgery

We were only able to admire Heljar in all his glory at the World Championships last year. Only rarely do horses start at his age. What do you attribute his dazzling condition to?

Heljar has the best genes, very good teeth and always likes to eat, no matter how many thousands of kilometers we have driven together. He really feels at home almost everywhere and is very frugal.

Of course, I always looked after him very well and tried never to push him to do anything he wasn't in the physical or mental condition to do. I was often ridiculed for this at first. "Why don't you really put him on his ass, he's just stubborn, you can't let him get away with so much, etc." is something I've heard from many a trainer and fortunately ignored. Read now: Horse training in a sport-friendly way

At the age of 20, the combination finished 5th overall in the five-gait class at the World Championships in Oirschot.
How have you worked with him over the years to ensure that he still has healthy muscles, bones, tendons and joints?

Maybe I was just lucky... However, in my opinion it is important not to overtax the horse physically and mentally, and to allow him his dignity and natural curiosity. Good care and feeding are just as much a part of this as a diversified training and well-deserved breaks after top performances.

If you have gained the trust of a horse and do not abuse it, it will do everything for its rider - as long as it is physically capable of doing so and is trained carefully. It is a privilege to be able to grow together with a horse for so many years and to continue to develop.

What is your secret to Heljar's unwavering motivation, even after countless tournament starts?

We always allow ourselves breaks from the "competition drill", spend a lot of free time together and only very rarely practise on the oval track. He is so experienced after all these years. It is always important that he enjoys his work, which must never be too monotonous.

We often roam through the forest on long reins and enjoy nature together. (Also in other places, e.g. we have been going to friends in the Engadine for years and I ride him on the wonderful endless paths along the Inn floodplains). In his case, this is extremely important. Also the break of at least 2 months after the show season.

Varied training keeps horses physically and mentally fit.
Heljar is now 21 years old and has hardly any gray hair. Do you still notice changes in him that you attribute to his age?

Heljar actually only has 10-20 gray hairs, "LOL". Physically, he certainly looks much younger, but I notice that he sleeps more than he used to and isn't quite as fiery as he was 10 years ago when we resume training after the winter break.

In general, he has always looked like a cozy teddy bear in winter, but as soon as the change of coat is over, he pupates like a caterpillar into a butterfly and impresses with his unmistakable strength and power.

I train less technically than I used to and ride a lot of loose riding through the forest so that he doesn't lose condition and stays happy. He only loves the arena and oval track in homeopathic doses, but that has always been the case. As he gets older, it takes much longer for me to get him back to 100% performance after the winter break. You have to be patient and not want him to be too ready too soon.

This recipe has worked wonderfully over the years, we are simply a perfect match. I am really very grateful for that. It is such a gift and a deep joy to be able to go such a long and beautiful way with a horse as a sporting friend!

Oh yes, you asked about his agility: this has actually improved from year to year, as has his balance and the ability to carry his hindquarters.

Even at an advanced age, horses can still learn and build up muscles.
Has his demeanor changed over the years?

No, he's still just as playful and funny, and sometimes stubborn and jumpy, as he used to be. However, I've been able to conceal this better thanks to the many years of training together. Mellow with age, no, definitely not.

Or do you think that Heljar's good condition is not really worth mentioning and should be normal for horses of his age?

No, that is certainly an exception, especially in top sport. However, I know many horses from my circle of friends and customers who remain healthy and capable well into old age. For example, almost all of the offspring of our Blivar von Birkenlund.

You often read that one or two competition horses have been retired from the sport and can now enjoy their “well-deserved retirement”. Most of them are even younger than Heljar is today. How do you both see this? How do you see the future?

I think Heljar's “big, international” career will end with this tournament season. Over the years he has achieved everything that I never even dared to dream of. Young horses and talented riders are coming, we want to make room and not miss the jump.

He is now 21 years old and if training goes well, 2024 will probably be our last season in tournament sports. But 90% of our everyday life so far consists of “non-competitive riding”, so not much will change, except that he won’t have to drive so much in the trailer from tournament to tournament and practice his tests on the oval track. But who knows, maybe in a few years I'll still be riding a five-speed prize at home for fun. I think he's always very proud and happy afterwards.

The stallion will retire from competition in 2025.
How should I imagine such a “well-deserved retirement”? I don't think a horse that has been well trained throughout its life is grateful when it "finally" doesn't have to do anything anymore.

I will keep him physically and mentally busy as long as he is fit and motivated. I owe him so much, I want to give it back to him when he gets older and do everything I can to ensure that he can live a healthy and happy life for many more years.

If we could ask Heljar, how would he describe his desired retirement?

A retirement home in the Engadin and lots of pastures with a few young mares at his side.

And what would you insist on?

A life in the herd with a few nice geldings. I haven't been able to offer that to him yet. A mash every day, which he loves very much.

At what point would you describe a horse as “old”?
Old horses deserve special love and care: treat them to a wool blanket

Old is a flexible term. Do you mean physically old or mentally? There are very clear visual signs of age. Sunken eye sockets, sagging muscles, stiffer movements, gray hair...

I've seen many a 15-year-old horse that looked really old and tired. Horses that are never kept according to their nature, e.g. B. Riding only in the box and without horse company and also in a monotonous and wear-and-tear manner also ages very early in my opinion. The body wears out if it is not cared for, as does the mind. We know that as humans too.

I would also describe as old a horse that becomes more and more isolated in the herd due to its increasing age and also declines in the ranking.

What would you recommend to riders so that they can appropriately assess their aging horse? It should neither be used for too long nor wasted too soon.

You have to keep your eyes open and feel into the horse. If it is obviously becoming more and more listless and reluctant to ride, you should see whether it might have more fun with short ground work sessions or a ride as a hand horse.

From the moment the horse “just stands around” and cannot move around as it pleases (grazing), it will deteriorate extremely quickly. A pasture for old horses can be a good thing to give the horses a nice retirement.

If the focus is on the animal as a personality and not as a means to an end or “sports equipment” but as a sports friend, there is no need to be afraid of the horse getting older.
How do I recognize a loss of performance and how do I react to it?

If these losses occur suddenly, I would first consult the vet to find out if there are any infections or deficiencies present. The stomach is a current topic here, but you can also examine any horse that is “sick”.

As always, common sense is important, perhaps the rider is going through a bad mental or physical phase and this is then passed on to the horse. I can clearly sense when my horses' work is becoming too difficult and monotonous, and I then rethink the training.

Supplementary feed can support the older horse's organism just like a healthy herd with enough opportunities to retreat.

Signs of reduced performance can also include dull fur, diarrhea, fecal water, poor PAT values and muscle breakdown. The list could go on almost endlessly.

You can still have many wonderful experiences even without riding
How do I notice that my horse is no longer rideable and what do we do instead?

There will not be day X when the horse can no longer be ridden, unless due to an accident. This is usually a gradual process. If illnesses such as spasm or osteoarthritis occur, the decision will be easier than if the horse simply moves a little slower and more comfortably.

However, you can also do free work, circus lessons, walks and balance exercises with the horse until it is extremely old to keep it fit and trained. A former student of mine still regularly takes her 37-year-old mare with her as a hand horse and works with her on the long reins.

Unfortunately, I experience again and again that in our “throwaway society” old horses are “deported” for cost reasons, among other things. The question also arises the other way around. Does it make sense to keep such a proud and active animal like the horse alive by all means just because we humans can't let go? By this I don't mean horses that can still eat well themselves, but rather those that are kept alive for an unnecessarily long time with serious diseases of the musculoskeletal system or metabolism.

A successful retirement: pasture, herd and light exercise.
How much and what do I work with an old horse?

Old horses are proud, stubborn and stubborn. This applies to almost all old and very old Icelandic horses that I have had the pleasure of getting to know in my life. Last year we had Hafnersholt's 39-year-old stock mare, Eik frá Hóftúni, euthanized. Despite her physical disabilities, she was a horse with incredible charisma and an extreme will of her own right up to the last day.

For Eik, the physical care at the end was the highlight of her day. Her extra helping of mash and hay cobs, a thorough brushing of her shaggy coat and making her feel like she is still valued and loved. But you can also overuse the horses. I think most horses signal very clearly whether they still want to interact with humans or not.

What do I offer him so that he can live happily ever after?

An intact herd, the best food, adequate exercise, short, varied training sessions, good general care (a senior SPORTSFREUND blanket ;-)?), enough rest time and, above all, a lot of love and respect.

Silvia and Blivar von Birkenlund
You still have a real Methuselah at your court, Blivar. How is his retirement going?

Blivar von Birkenlund is now 33 and still acts like a young gigolo when he sees mares.

He came into our possession as a foal and was the 1997 breeding championship winner and vice world champion in the six-year-old stallions in Norway/Seljord under our friend Birgir Gunnarson. Countless titles in sports followed. Under me he was, among other things, German champion in the five-speed overall ranking in Blankenheim in 2007, two-time Central European runner-up in the five-speed and nine-time finalist in the five-speed at German championships. Blivar hasn't been ridden for 7 years.

He had problems with osteoarthritis and his incredible will to walk made it difficult to ride him gently. His nickname is “Mr 100,000 Volt”. Unfortunately he cannot be kept with other geldings because he is too dominant. He overlooks the yard from his large box and is of course allowed to go out regularly to move around independently if he feels like it.

Sometimes he stands in the same spot for hours and enjoys the sun, the wind or even a little rain. He enjoys everything that happens on the farm and greets all the horses with a warm neigh. Good food and regular grooming, especially when changing fur, are of course also part of his everyday life. I think he thinks of himself that he is still the young, fiery stallion bursting with strength.

This gigolo is still young at heart
Should I fear the day my pony grows old? Does our commonality then have less quality? How can I enjoy being with my horse until his last day?

If the focus is on the animal as a personality and not as a means to an end or “sports equipment” but as a sports friend, there is no need to be afraid of the horse getting older.

During quiet walks with the old horse, people can, for example, remember what they have experienced together, enjoy the beauty and wisdom of their old horse and be grateful for the countless hours that they were able to spend together

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