End of Life Decisions

It isn’t a topic any of us want to think about. It’s absolutely the hardest part of horse ownership, but it’s one that we all must face, sooner or later.

It’s something that I think about a lot, given the high percentage of geriatric horses in my family herd. Over the past year or so, I’ve twice been in a situation where I thought it might be the end for one of my beloved old folks. Luckily, it wasn’t, but at their age, it’s all bonus time.

While it’s not easy to think about the last day for your special equine friends, it will make the day, when it comes, less stressful if you put some thought into it ahead of time, knowing what to expect and what options are available to you, before you’re in the middle of a tragedy.

First, think about qualify of life. Sometimes it’s a straightforward, if not easy, decision. A catastrophic injury, a severe colic or illness, with no chance of recovery, and it’s simply the last gift you can give to your horse, to make the decision to end their pain. Other times, it isn’t that simple. Last winter, Robin, who was then 26, had a terrible flare up of her laminitis, associated with Cushings disease. The morning she wouldn’t get up for her breakfast, instead just lay there awkwardly, her shallow breaths evidence of her pain level, was the morning I decided I would give her prescribed pain medication, and if she wasn’t up and eating in one hour, I was calling the vet to come and end her suffering. She was still down in an hour, but when I opened the gate and walked away, she struggled to her feet and staggered out of her stall and over to the hay stack, staging the slowest jailbreak ever, but one that showed me she was still fighting and I could too. A year later, after a lot of veterinary and farrier care to get her here, she is prancing out of her stall when I open the gate, with a cheeky toss of her head for good measure.

But if I had chosen euthanasia, on that cold winter morning when her pain was so great? That wouldn’t have been a bad decision either. While I am extremely grateful that Robin is still here bossing me around and complaining about any change in her routine, I firmly believe that euthanasia is never a bad choice for the horse – it’s only hard for those of us left behind.

What to Expect?

So if it is that terrible day we all dread, if you’ve got the vet on the way to end your horse’s pain, what’s going to happen?

If you have questions, ask your vet. Most vets are very good about explaining and making sure you know what to expect. They also are happy to have you there with your horse, or not, as you are comfortable. Personally, it’s the last thing I can do for my horse to be with them at the end, and I think a familiar presence is a comfort to them. However, if you’re not able to be there, that’s okay too. Your vet will take good care of them, you need to take care of you.

First, the vet gives them an injection of sedation, which makes them sleepy. Their head hangs low, and they may look off balance. The next injection is the same they would use to put them to sleep for a simple surgery, such as a castration, and the horse will go down. Be careful, and let your vet handle the situation – no one needs to get hurt, and vets anesthetize horses all the time, so they’re experts at having them go down gently and safely. Once the horse is safely on the ground and unconscious, then the vet will administer the drug that will stop their heart, and they will monitor everything carefully to ensure that it is completely effective. While unexpected things can happen, it is nearly always very peaceful, and even horse owners who are worried about the process feel much better for having been there to see how quietly the end came.

The next thing that can be a stressful decision on an already stressful day is what you’re going to do with the body of your horse. If it is legal and you have the means to bury them on your property, I know that is a preferred approach. However, in many cases that isn’t an option. Most areas have a rendering truck that will pick up animals for processing for a fee. Other options may include services that bury your horse, and you may be able to have them cremated, with the ashes returned to you in a beautiful wooden box. The prices of these services will vary widely depending on where you are and what’s available in your area, and it’s a good idea to look into them ahead of time. Having the knowledge of what’s available, what you’re comfortable with, and what cost you’re looking at ahead of time will made that terrible day a little less stressful. If you’re starting this research, begin by asking your equine vet – they’ll have options and services they recommend.

Worth mentioning, is that many people like to braid and cut their horse’s tail, or part of it, to have as a keepsake. Many horse hair jewelry designers are happy to use your horse’s tail to create a beautiful memorial piece. It’s a great way to keep your horse’s memory close.

Moving On

Don’t let anyone make you feel bad about grieving for your Miniature Horse. If someone tells you something insensitive like, “You’re still upset about that? It’s just a horse!” just remember that they have never been lucky enough to love a horse and they truly don’t understand.

Don’t rush into anything either – I have friends who have lost horses who meant a lot to them, and well meaning people want to make it all better for them by giving them a new horse to love. If you’re not ready for that, just say so, and that’s okay. If you need more time before you’re ready to invest your heart again, take it.

If you can, get back to the barn, get some horse time in, get to that first activity you usually did with your horse as soon as you feel you can, even if you’re just volunteering, or helping with a friends horse. It’s going to be really hard, and sad, and you’re going to miss your horse like crazy, but trust me, waiting will only make it worse. Remember what you love about the activity, give yourself permission to be sad, and do it in honour of the friend you lost.

Be kind to yourself, and remember the good times with your horse. It might be hard to believe, at first, but one day, you’ll think of them and be more likely to smile than to cry. 

While it’s a terrible thing to lose a horse, it’s the price we pay for the joy having them in our lives, and I think we’d all agree that it’s worth it.


One thought on “End of Life Decisions”

  1. Thanks so much for writing this article. It is very sensitive and informative. My first miniature horse died last spring at just 4 years of age. A barn door to the chicken barn was left open at the place where I boarded her. Her paddock was adjacent to the barn, so she walked in and consumed a lot of chicken feed. The owner of the barn knew about this within 30 minutes of it happening but didn’t phone me to let me know. I knew that chicken feed was very toxic to horses. When I went for a regular visit at 5:00 pm that day, she was very ill. I immediately got the vet out and stayed with her throughout the night. The vet tubed her but cautioned that a lot of absorption had already happened. I’m not going to share the very painful events that followed but we had the vet out again through the night and ended up taking her to the Milton Equine Hospital in a last hope effort. She declined there and we euthanized her not even 24 hours after she ate the chicken feed. She died of endotoxemia from grain overload. The vet at Milton said that if intervention/treatment had happened within 2-3 hours of her eating the feed, the outcome would have been different. My husband and I were heartbroken. We were so connected and just two days earlier had celebrated her birthday with her. I still miss her terribly! I’ve owned several full size horses in my past but I’ve never witnessed anything like what happened to our Little Dancer. I know your article will help others through a very difficult time if and when they are in that situation. My only peace from what I experienced is that I stayed with Dancer through it all and I know she knew I was there.

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