The Raw Pain of Relief

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On June 29, I lost my very best four-legged friend. Like any horse owner who has lost a horse, the sadness can feel endless.

Iggy was the first horse I owned as an adult. His care—and the cost of it—was 100 percent my responsibility, as were all decisions about his health. When put down on paper it can seem a daunting task, but it never bothered me to know that I was the one solely responsible for him—after all, that’s just what we horse owners do, right? We care for our horses to the very best of our abilities.

I was lucky enough to have loved Iggy for almost 11 years. I adored him, as most people who deeply love their horses understand. He was quirky and cranky and just plain RED, and I cherished every hair on that old man’s body.

Iggy and Sarah

He was always one of “those” horses – he got some pretty fantastic injuries and illnesses over the course of the years I owned him. I am blessed enough to have the best vets in the world to care for him, and we battled back from each issue to come back stronger than before. He was my 3-foot hunter and equitation horse until just months before he passed.

A Slow Decline

In January of 2015, it became clear that something was not right. After six months of recurring bouts of what appeared to be very minor colic, he was diagnosed with a cecal impaction and a displaced bowel. From the moment the ultrasounds were read, I knew it was a matter of time until he could fight no more.

Aptly dubbed an “old horse disease,” cecal impactions are sneaky beasts. The pain might be mild for months, then one day become agonizing as the cecum ruptures. What I didn’t want was for that to happen in the middle of the night and for him to be in horrific pain until someone found him in the morning. I worried about that horse every minute of every day. Every moment there was that nagging feeling of “what is he doing now? Is he up? Is there someone on the farm? Is he in pain?”

The pain from the impactions would come on swiftly. My red horse was one of the most stoic I have met, but this would drop him to his knees. But throughout his time with the impaction, one dose of oral Banamine would alleviate his pain. The pain was never unmanageable—until the day I put him down.

For six months, I constantly heard that clock ticking. My stress level was through the roof all the time, and I was operating in a constant state of emergency. Though I very much knew that this lifestyle was unsustainable, what were the options, short of euthanizing him? His team and I were doing everything we could to keep him pain free and happy for as long as possible. I knew it was not time—yet. I developed a new mantra. In the back of my head, all day long, I kept saying, “Please let me know what it’s time. Please let me know when it’s time.” I wanted to know I wasn’t being selfish and keeping my horse alive simply because I feared the pain of losing him.

During that time, I was too fearful to leave a four-county radius. I didn’t travel to see my family. I kept my social engagements subdued. My rig was always hooked, full of gas and ready at a moment’s notice. I was constantly worried.

When the day finally came, I can’t explain it any other way than that I just knew. I knew that the pain this time was worse, and after 45 minutes with Banamine on board when it didn’t abate, it became clear that it was time. I made the call to my vet and asked her to please come see Iggy to send him home.

Sadness, Relief, and Guilt

I have no doubt that I did everything I could to save that old man short of surgery. At 22 years old, he was not a good surgical candidate and I didn’t want to put him through it only to have a less-than-stellar prognosis. I know in my heart that I did a lot more than some people would have considered reasonable—and that’s OK.

What is hard for me to deal with, however, is the guilt. I don’t feel guilty about putting him down—not even one bit. I feel guilty because of the relief I felt. As I got on my knees in the grass to hold him one last time, I felt this massive weight lift from my shoulders. And for that I have guilt.

I don’t begrudge one penny, one tear, or one sleepless night that I spent on that horse. But how do I cope with feeling so free after he has gone? You shouldn’t feel that way if you’ve lost something you hold so dear, right?

I look at the forecast for the winter ahead and secretly think, “At least he won’t have to go through another winter like last year.” When the cold Kentucky rains came on in October, I thought, “Oh thank goodness he’s not out in this—he hated having wet ears.”

Iggy and Sarah
The last photo taken of the much-loved Iggy.

And then I think, wouldn’t I deal with that stress again for one more month, one more day, one more hour with him? And you know what? I am not sure I could. We all do what we have to do to get through hard times while they’re happening; it’s only in looking back that we wonder how on earth we survived.

I know I gave Iggy the very best life I could. I know I loved him beyond reason. I know it was the right thing to do. Though I feel relief that he is not pain any longer, more than that, selfishly, I feel this relief that I am not so worried, all the time. And there is nothing quite like fully understanding your own selfishness to make you feel like a horrible person.

So what do I do to combat that feeling of selfishness? I pour even more of myself into my young (red!) horse. I work even harder at my job rehoming ex-racehorses. I try so hard to remember that I did everything I could to help my sweet Iggy J and for him, it simply was time. Though I’ve always been cognizant of it, that horse drove home one resounding lesson: There is never, ever enough time with those we love.

That old horse was greatest love and my hardest heartbreak. Now I just need to learn to live with the guilt of being grateful to let him go.

Sarah Coleman has a soft spot for chestnuts
with chrome, including her off-the-track Thoroughbred that she competes
in the hunters. Based in Lexington, Ky., she is the Director of
Education and Development for New Vocations Racehorse Adoption Program. 

8 COMMENTS

  1. Couldn’t help but tear up reading this article. I recently had to put down both my cherished “one” horse and our 32-year old gelding due to a twisted cecum and acute colic, respectively. The “pain of relief” is a tough pill to swallow. This is well written and certainly hits close to home. Thank you for making me feel not quite so alone in the guilt and grief for my beloved horses.

  2. A poem that has helped me with the heartbreaking decision to shorten the pain of a beloved pet.
    If It Should Be
    If it should be that I grow weak,
    And pain should keep me from my sleep,
    Then you must do what must be done,
    For this last battle cannot be won.
    You will be sad, I understand;
    Don’t let your grief then stay your hand.
    For this day more than all the rest,
    Your love for me must stand the test.
    We’ve had so many happy years –
    What is to come can hold no fears.
    You’d not want me to suffer so;
    The time has come, so let me go.
    Take me where my needs they’ll tend
    And please stay with me until the end.
    Hold me firm and speak to me
    Until my eyes no longer see.
    I know in time that you will see
    The kindness that you did for me.
    Although my tail its last has waved,
    From pain and suffering I’ve been saved.
    Please do not grieve – it must be you
    Who had this painful thing to do.
    We’ve been so close, we two, these years –
    Don’t let your heart hold back its tears.
    — Author Unknown

  3. My made is 29. She has DSLD in the right hind leg and obviously arthritis in multiple areas due to age. When she moves you can’t see any of this and that is so hard to reconcile. I do everything I can for her, spend as much time with her as I can and worry about that ligament giving way all the time. I don’t visit my family or go far away. It is a weigh to bear. I don’t begrudge any of it. I have loved her since she was just an embryo. Just recently I moved her to a wonderful retirement barn where a wonderful lady has eased some of my anxieties by watching and caring for her when I can’t be there. I hope we have many more years but it is wearing. I understand how you feel. I will probably go through the same when her time ones. I think it’s inevitable. We should make a pact not to be so hard on ourselves.

  4. I had to put down my beloved Appendix horse of 20 years (he was 26) this past April due to crippling arthritis that finally the max doses of meds would not help. We had been everything to each other. I too went thru many months of worrying, “when is the time,” and not wanting him to suffer. He, too, was stoic and would fight his way through anything. I just went through my first summer and fall with no horse, and no riding, it’s like it’s not my life, I miss him every day. I do believe the time was right, and I too feel some relief from the constant worry. I hope to get another horse. I know he would want me to.

  5. Oh Sarah, please don’t feel guilty. I believe that it is a great honor to be the one chosen to be there when the time comes to let them go. You know in your heart the Iggy loved you too. God never gives us more than we can handle and even tho this was likely the hardest thing you have ever done, the relief you feel is not for you, it is for Iggy. He can now relax too, he is in a better place, pain free and happy. Feeling as you do is all part of the wonderful responsibility of having these magnificent animals in our lives. You will be OK.

  6. GREETINGS VIWERS I am apostle who God has ordain to wipe out tears restore people back to their destiny and set the captives free and the reality of the gospel the kingdom of God is not only in words but in demonstration of Gods power.people are suffering today as result of lack of ladder to climb.AS a minister of the God’sple are you lacking supernatural ability,you cant do ministry without power,you need the power to operate in that rhelm ,is not that the ability is not in you,but someone in that dimension is what you need that can activate what is in you by the Grace of God I have impacted a lot of minister that blazing for God,demonstrating power ,ministry expounded,doing well,what are you waiting for for mentorship for fathership for help,your ministry start the they you met your helper,if you need help visit http://www.apostlepeter13@yahoo.com or apostlepeter1313@gmail.com or call +2347033804232,for those that invited me as I step in to their utter as I prayed thing were revealed that has been the hindrance while their church was not growing their church change for the better esploded,some GREETINGS VIWERS I am apostle who God has ordain to wipe out tears restore people back to their destiny and set the captives free and the reality of the gospel the kingdom of God is not only in words but in demonstration of Gods power.people are suffering today as result of lack of ladder to climb.AS a minister of the God’sple are you lacking supernatural ability,you cant do ministry without power,you need the power to operate in that rhelm ,is not that the ability is not in you,but someone in that dimension is what you need that can activate what is in you by the Grace of God I have impacted a lot of minister that blazing for God,demonstrating power ,ministry expounded,doing well,what are you waiting for for mentorship for fathership for help,your ministry start the they you met your helper,if you need help visit http://www.apostlepeter13@yahoo.com or apostlepeter1313@gmail.com or call +2347033804232,for those that invited me as I step in to their utter as I prayed thing were revealed that has been the hindrance while their church was not growing their church change for the better esploded,some

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