Senior Horse Care – 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.

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.

How do you know when the time is right?

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. There are a lot of social media posts that circulate around, telling us that it’s better to euthanize your horse too soon than a day too late, and I don’t think they’re wrong, but that isn’t how I approach my herd. I won’t be euthanizing them just because they’re old, and have health concerns, and something bad might happen. If something bad happens, I’ll be there so made the decision and get them to the vet and end their pain, but I’m not going to do so a minute sooner if they otherwise have a good quality of life. They might have one bad day at the very end of a really great life, but I’ll be there by their side all the way.

That’s my choice, but I would never judge anyone for making a different one on behalf of their horse.

Euthanasia is never a bad choice for the horse – it’s only hard for those of us left behind, no matter how or when the decision is made.

What to Expect?

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 usually feel much better for having been there to see how peacefully 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.


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