In the last five years, I’ve euthanized three senior horses that I had rescued.
Each time, the “end of life” decision came up, it wasn’t easy.
It always weighs on my heart, and I have very emotional responses to having to choose to put an animal down.
Emotionally, I find myself asking:
- Is it really the right time?
- Do they really want to go?
- Is there something more I can do?
And of course:
- What will other people think?
When it comes to the end of a life of an animal, especially a horse, there always seems to be a feeling that an owner should keep an animal alive for as long as they can. In certain equine communities, there seems to be a school of thought that euthanasia is absolutely the last resort.
I’ve seen people send tens of thousands of dollars on board, specialty shoeing, massage, chiropractic, and feed, simply because they feel that is what they should do for <insert the reason here>.
So when do you know it’s time to let a horse go? Here are the questions I ask myself:
- What is the quality of life this horse currently has?
- At what stage of deterioration are they at?
- Can they eat in a manner that keeps them healthy?
- If they can eat, what is involved in that diet?
- Can they eat hay and grain with ease?
- Or do they need mashes, a lot of supplemental support, and/or require a large time investment for daily meals?
- Are they rideable?
- With injections and some medical support, does the horse l have a job and role they can fulfill?
- If they aren’t rideable, is there a therapeutic role for them that they can fulfill?
- Do they have the temperament to fulfill a non-riding role?
- Can they move around in a way that isn’t painful?
- If a horse isn’t rideable, can they move in a way that isn’t painful?
- Can a long-term NSAID and/or prescription course of meds manage a condition that lets them fulfill a riding or non-riding role?
- Do they require end-of-life hoof care support? Will Scoot or Cavallo boots work? Or do they require something more costly like Freedom shoes?
After I ask myself these questions, I ask myself another set of questions. These questions involve taking a look at the quality of the horse’s life if I choose to keep them alive:
- How many years will this horse continue to live?
- How many of those years can be lived in no to limited discomfort?
- Is there a point in the total lifespan, that’s less than three years, that I may have to put them down, even if I make the financial investment?
I then ask myself about the financial implications of keeping an animal alive:
- What will the cost of that care look like?
- What sort of medical costs will they need, beyond standard veterinary care?
- Can I afford to keep this animal alive for that period of time?
- What level of my time, and/or the facility owner’s time, is required to meet their needs? What is the cost of that?
- And will the cost of care be a reasonable investment for me? Or will it be a financial burden?
And from there, it gets even harder because I then have to cross quality of life, use of the animal, and my personal desires into this decision. I then have to ask myself an even harder questions like:
- Can I keep this horse alive while still meeting my professional or personal goals as a rider?
- If the horse can live, and be retired, but can’t be used in another capacity, like therapy, can I afford to support this horse until the time comes to put them down?
- Will the investment, if I choose to retire the animal, and keep them alive, still end in the same result, after significant investment, in less than two years?
- What is that I need from the horse and/or horses I have?
After going through questions, I sit and reflect on the answers I write down. If I am honest with myself, there is no one decision or clear choice. And I have to sit with the thoughts and emotions that come through after doing this.
But I take it a step further. I go ask the horse. Yes, I do this. I ask them:
- Do you want to stay with me?
- Can you keep going if I make the time and financial investment?
- Or should I/ could I let you go?
And this is where it gets emotional. Because if you listen to them, they’ll show you. Horses and humans have amazing parallels in our behavior. Much of it has become the foundation of equine-assisted learning and experiences.
If you pay attention, you see the decline, what I like to call, “The start of the end.”
So if you ask them, they’ll show you in their behavior the answers to those questions above. It’s just important as their owners to not project what you think they’re saying onto your choices.
This is never an easy decision to make
I don’t come to this decision lightly, I usually have invested 12-18 months into rehab (and an average of $6,000 to $9,000) before I get here because I believe in giving horses new purposes after years of service to their humans. But there comes a point where the end-of-life question comes into play (usually when medical attention and holistic care can’t support them in the way that’s needed). It’s then I start to look to them, their energy, and their behavior to tell me.
The horses I rescued and sent to heaven
I bought Bella, a 25-year old Belgian/Halflinger five years ago on my healing journey. Bella’s shoulder had been crushed in a cart accident, and sadly, the people that owned her afterwards left her dark stalls and knee deep in her feces. I found her standing on the hill at the farm of a woman who rescued her. We connected. I gave the woman $1500 for her, because that was the price of convincing her to let her go.
I moved Bella to Northern California with me and for two years, she lived in peace in a herd of Angora goats. During our time together, I only sat on Bella three times, I actually found a harness to drive her and I ground drove her at a walk. She helped me get over the fear of horses I’d developed after two terrible accidents.
She was old and crippled, not rideable, but I was in no state to ride. But I needed a best friend and someone to help me. She was that. At 27, she all of sudden disconnected and simply stood by herself. She was physically there, but not mentally. It was like looking at a physical body without a soul. So I put her down.
I put Cadie down a year ago, and I cried for six months. Her loss was like losing my soul mate. Some of you have human spouses, I had her. She was my heart and soul, because she came to me in the darkest parts of COVID and we healed together. She just couldn’t keep going. Her mind healed, but her physical body just kept failing. Her hocks, stifles, back, and also the navicular.
Cadie was living in freedom shoes ($350 every six weeks) and on long term NSAIDS, any deviation from that and she was in pain standing. Cadie was only 10, but the level of abuse she’s suffered was too much.
And this month, I made the decision to put Mae down. Mae is 21 this year. She’s been a reiner, cutter and gaming horse. I took her in about two months before I put Cadie down. She and Cadie connected instantly, and really loved being with each other. I feel Mae came to help me with the transition of Cadie.
But Mae also had her damage. Physically, she’s arthritic and worn down from being a competitive horse. I feel with better care, she could have had a better life. But like Cadie, the injections failed (hock, stifle and coffin joint).
I told Mae three months ago, she could retire, and never be ridden again. She reared and bucked, and had more energy than I’d ever seen in her. But five days later, she became very quiet, and stayed that way. She didn’t want to interact with anyone she usually liked on the ground, she started moving away from the herd, and then the physical set in.
In two more weeks, you could see the pain she was in walking. I called the vet, we did bloodwork, and reassessed what was happening with her. I asked Mae, “What do you want to do?” And I felt the answer was what Cadie’s was, “Let me go.”
Why I won’t ever rescue horses again
So with the support of my fellow coaches and psychotherapist partners, I processed the sadness, anger and resentment I felt in having to make this decision yet again. So Mae is on her way to heaven, I know that she’ll be in a herd with Bella and Cadie.
No one can make you feel bad about your decision
So if you’re facing the decision to let an animal go, just know it’s an extremely personal and hard decision to make. But it’s not a decision anyone has the right to make for you and/or make you feel less than in doing so.
Give your horses a dignified ending
If a horse you have can no longer serve you, and you have the funds to put them in pasture, by all means do so. But only if they can live in comfort.
If they are in pain, and/or you don’t have the financial means to support long-term care and retirement, then please put them down. Do not drop them at an auction or post them on Facebook as projects.
They’ve served you, and they deserve to have a dignified death. Not a slow one.
Where I go from here
That leaves me with Mia and Mystic, who are both doing wonderfully. Simply because Mia didn’t come from a rescue situation, and Mystic I bought as a colt with no damage to be had. Mae is my last rescue horse, I’ll never do it again, it’s hard letting them go, and I have to stop breaking my own heart. For now, I’ll be working with these two as part of the work I do, and I’ll not be bringing more into the herd for several years.