It’s a sad reality that no matter how long our horses live, they never live long enough. Eventually, most horse owners will reach the fateful day when they must answer that most difficult question: Is it time to say goodbye?
When to Say Goodbye
In an ideal world, senior horses live out their lives as happy retirees, roaming green pastures and then one day going to sleep under a shade tree, never to awaken again. However, it’s more realistic that the time will come when even the best low-stress life will become too much for the older horse.
How will you know when you need to consider euthanasia as the best alternative?
“With every horse, there comes a time when you look in their eyes and see that they want to go,” says Eleanor Kellon, VMD, an expert in senior horse care and equine nutrition based in Pennsylvania. She is also the author of two books on senior horse care. “However, by that point they are generally clearly suffering. It’s better if you can spot the signs earlier and not let your horse get to that level of suffering.
“The decision is most difficult regarding horses that have been in a slow decline,” adds Kellon. “The signs can be subtle but soon compound until the horse begins to fail physically.”
Specific signs of declining health can depend on the challenges the horse is already dealing with, but here are general indicators to watch for:
- Poor appetite
- Loss of weight and/or muscle despite an adequate diet
- Difficulty moving and rising; reluctance to lie down to sleep; weakness
- Depressed/withdrawn attitude and isolation from other animals
- Difficulty with temperature regulation; trouble handling extremes of cold or heat
Quality of Life and Financial Issues
It’s hard, but it’s in your horse’s best interest to honestly answer these questions: Are you keeping your horse alive for your own needs? Are you avoiding the inevitable because you can’t bear the thought of life without him? Do you feel euthanasia is too big and too powerful of a decision for you to make?
Remember that if medical intervention or surgery won’t cure your horse, you’re only prolonging pain and suffering. The biggest realization is that quality, not quantity, of life is what matters, and that ending your horse’s pain is a gift you can provide.
Another reality is financial responsibilities. “With both older and younger horses, the costs of some therapies may make them prohibitive,” says Kellon. “With the senior horse, there are even more considerations beyond the initial cost. Surgery is not only very expensive, but it can also include considerable risks and a long, painful and stressful recovery period. The older horse is often less able to come out of this successfully.”
Not being able to—or choosing not to—spend thousands of dollars on surgery or other treatments does not equate to being a bad horse owner. “Sometimes, even if you can afford an expensive treatment, a humane death may be the best approach,” says Kellon.
Choosing a Time and Place
In cases of progressive chronic illness or lameness, you may be able to choose when and where to say goodbye.
Plan ahead and call your vet to discuss options. Your vet may come to your barn so your horse can be put to rest on a pleasant day in the environment where he’s most comfortable.
If it’s legal to bury your horse on your property, you can have the hole dug beforehand (be sure to temporarily fence it off or cover it with boards to prevent other animals from falling in).
Another option is to take your horse to the vet clinic. If he’s used to trailering and doesn’t get stressed by different surroundings, this can be easier for you. The clinic will deal with your horse’s body in the manner you choose: burial, cremation, rendering or use for equine research.
“Whether they’re faced with a crisis or have some time to plan, many people want to be there for their horse at his last moment,” says Kellon. “It’s especially important if your horse is being euthanized in a crisis situation or if he is not comfortable with vets or strangers. In these cases, your presence will be comforting. On the other hand, if you know you will be upset by watching his euthanasia, it may be best not to be there.” No matter what, Kellon suggests making peace with your decision, knowing that this is in the best interest of your horse. It’s your final gift in a long legacy of stewardship.
How to Prepare for Euthanasia
Euthanasia is ending a life humanely, and is often the kindest decision. That said, it’s also a difficult and emotional decision.
“Euthanasia is an extreme power to hold,” says Kellon. “It can also be very liberating when you realize you can help end the suffering of a beloved horse. While euthanasia is never easy, if you have thought about it and defined the parameters, you know it is a blessing and a gift, no matter how personally painful.”
If a vet performs the euthanasia procedure, the horse is given an overdose of anesthetic. Typically, the vet uses a pentobarbital solution, which causes the brain to cease activity in about 30 to 40 seconds. Because the horse is brain dead before he falls to the ground, it’s a quick, painless journey that relieves the horse of agony.
“However, because horses are big animals, they can fall hard,” says Kellon. “That can be traumatic to people watching the procedure. They may also twitch and appear to be trying to breathe, but these are bodily reflexes in death and the horse is not conscious of it.”
An alternative method of euthanasia is a bullet to the brain. In some circumstances, such as being on a backcountry trail ride or if you live miles from veterinary care, this is a way to help a horse out of nonrecoverable pain or injury. Ask your vet to explain this procedure if you think you may ever need it. “Performed properly, it is actually a very humane method of euthanasia,” says Kellon.
Dealing with a horse’s death is difficult under any circumstance. Planning ahead and making some decisions beforehand won’t make it easier, but it can help the process go a little more smoothly.
“Remember that while all life comes to an end, the legacy of that life is never-ending,” says Kellon. “Do your best to move beyond the death, and celebrate the life and the memories you shared.”
KARA L. STEWART dedicates this article to Surino, her beloved Arabian gelding who helped her transition from childhood to adulthood and showed her what true connection was all about.
This article originally appeared in the December 2013 issue of Horse Illustrated. Click here to subscribe.