Okay, not really…but damn it, don’t ruin my story with your logic!
Look what came in the mail on Wednesday!
I hadn’t really forgotten, per se, about “my” article in Practical Horsemen…but I was still a bit taken aback when I realized what the manila envelope in my mailbox held! I reread the article, cried like a fool, squee’d over the fact that my picture was in a magazine, and immediately posted a brag on Facebook.
Here is the full article here for those interested in reading:
Getting to Goodbye
The decision is never easy. Rhode Island horse owner Melissa Winsor wrestled with
it last summer as she watched her horse Finis become progressively more uncomfortable.
She had owned him for 11 years, but now he was in his mid-20s and suffering from a painful degenerative lameness. Her veterinarian had suggested that the horse shouldn’t go through another winter. But she hesitated. “At what time do I say, OK, it’s time to let him go? He had not given me a clear sign that he was done,” she says.
For Amanda Rains, there was no question—her horse Image developed a
mysterious neurological condition, and veterinary diagnostics couldn’t nail down the cause. In less than a month Image was in a steep decline, losing weight and muscle mass. He was no longer the “sweet, silly little black horse” she knew. “I firmly believe in letting them go before it’s too late, especially with something like this,” the Massachusetts rider says. “Still, it was the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make.” Image was 11 years old, in his prime, and she had owned him for just 6 months.
No one wants to think about euthanasia, but if you own a horse you’ll likely have to deal with it at some point. As the horse’s owner, you are the only person who can make this final decision. Here, Melissa and Amanda share their stories, and Joan Gariboldi, DVM, of Hagyard Equine Medical in Lexington, Kentucky, offers a veterinarian’s perspective. They explain the considerations, plans, and preparations you’ll need to take into account.
A decision may come years down the road, as your horse nears the natural end of his life; or it may come tomorrow, as the result of a catastrophic accident or inoperable colic. But the best time think about what you would want for your horse at the end of his life is now, while he’s healthy. “With Image I had a month to prepare and make arrangements; many people don’t have that much time. Having a plan in place will keep it a little less terrible,” Amanda says.
WHEN IS IT TIME?
By definition, euthanasia is an act of mercy—inducing the most painless death possible for an animal that is hopelessly sick or injured and suffering. Guidelines from the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) state:
• A horse should not have to endure continuous or unmanageable pain from a condition that is chronic and incurable.
• A horse should not have to endure a medical or surgical condition that has a
hopeless chance of survival.
• A horse should not have to remain alive if it has an unmanageable medical condition that renders it a hazard to itself or its handlers.
• A horse should not have to receive continuous analgesic medication for the relief of pain for the rest of its life.
• A horse should not have to endure a lifetime of continuous individual box stall confinement for prevention or relief of unmanageable pain or suffering.
The AAEP also says that euthanasia of “unwanted” or unadoptable horses is acceptable once all available alternatives have been explored. “A horse should not have to endure conditions of lack of feed or care erosive of the animal’s quality of life,” the guidelines say.
The criteria apply in a wide range of situations, from a foal born with severe defects to a horse debilitated by age. Every situation is unique, though, and that’s what often makes the decision so hard. The “right” time may be different for each horse and each owner, says Dr. Gariboldi.
“For me, the main consideration is the animal’s quality of life. People may have different perspectives on that, and sometimes it’s hard to make the call,” she says. “If a horse is suffering significantly, I support the owner’s decision to euthanize. If the horse is old, thin, and unappealing to look at but still enjoying life and not in pain, I discourage it. In those cases, consider other options before euthanasia.” Your veterinarian is in the best position to give you information about your horse’s condition, level of suffering, and outlook for recovery. If you’re in doubt about the prognosis or your options, get a second opinion.
For Melissa Winsor, the question centered on how much her horse was suffering and at what point that would be too much. Finis, an Arabian cross and veteran hunter pacer, had developed degenerative suspensory disease (DSLD), a progressive lameness in which the suspensory ligaments become spongy and no longer support the fetlock as they should.
“Over two to three years his hind fetlocks dropped, getting progressively worse until they just barely cleared the ground when he moved,” Melissa says. In addition, the horse seemed to be losing his sight, and he showed signs of Cushing’s disease, a metabolic condition common in old horses. “All his issues just kept adding up,” she says.
Finis was not having a life-or-death crisis. He was alert and eating. But there were subtle changes in his behavior and his overall “look.” He began to prefer being alone in one part of the paddock he shared with Melissa’s second horse. Most of the time he stood with his hindquarters positioned uphill from his forehand and his hind legs pulled forward under his midline. Her veterinarian, Dr. Jeremy Murdock of Ocean State Equine Associates, told her the position probably eased pain in the lower branches of his supensories. “He quite often looked like he was nursing a bad hangover–drooped head, ears out to the sides, and squinty eyes,” Melissa says.
Dr. Murdock was able to provide information about Finis’s problems and explain that they would only get worse with time. “He told me he would support whatever I decided,” she says. She discussed the situation with friends who had horses and asked for advice on an online bulletin board where she was a frequent poster. “Friends who knew Finis could see his deterioration,” she said. “What finally helped me answer the question was a group of photographs I had taken of him. Somehow in the pictures it was just obvious how uncomfortable he was.”
Amanda and Melissa were both able to make arrangements before their horses were put down, and they say that helped the painful process go as smoothly as possible. In an emergency you won’t have much choice, of course. But in other situations you’ll want to settle these questions in advance:
Where? Having the horse’s regular vet come to his barn is probably least stressful for him; Melissa and Amanda both did this, and it’s the most common choice. Choose a site on the property that’s close to the place where his remains will be buried or picked up (more on this below). Many equine clinics will perform euthanasia; in that case, you transport the horse to the clinic.
How? Injection is by far the most common method. The veterinarian delivers a lethal overdose of anesthetic (sodium pentobarbital) into a vein as rapidly as possible. It’s fast–the drug shuts down the horse’s central nervous system. Within minutes he loses consciousness and goes down, his heart stops, and he stops breathing. Veterinary charges for euthanasia performed at home by injection vary; $200 to $300 is a typical range. In some areas equine rescues sponsor low-cost euthanasia programs.Euthanasia can also be done humanely with a gun or a captive bolt pistol. “Some will argue that gunshot to the head is the most humane method. It’s quick and done,” Dr. Gariboldi says. “I respect that opinion, although I don’t use the method and don’t believe it’s really less traumatic.” Only someone experienced with the method should do it, she adds: “In inexperienced hands it can go terribly wrong.” If the gun isn’t correctly placed or the horse jerks his head at the last second, the shot may not be fatal. Also, the bullet may ricochet.
What about the remains? That question isn’t easily answered for an animal that may weigh 1,000 pounds or more—but it’s important to decide ahead of time because disposal must be done without delay. Be sure to check local regulations governing the disposal of livestock remains before you go ahead. (The Humane Society of the United States has a web page with helpful contacts, http://www.humanesociety.org/animals/horses/facts/humane_horse_remains_disposal.html.) Here are three common choices:
• Burial requires land with an appropriate site and machinery to dig the hole
and move the remains. Melissa was able to bury Finis at home, with help from a neighbor with a backhoe. Image was buried at the farm where he was boarded; a landscaping business based on the property provided equipment and manpower. If you’re not so lucky, hiring a backhoe and operator may cost $300 to $600.
• Cremation is clean but costly—$1,000 and up for a typical adult horse, plus charges for pickup of the remains and various optional services. Some equine crematories will help you arrange euthanasia at the facility.
• Rendering is traditional and simple. The renderer picks up the remains and processes them to obtain fats, bone meal, and other products. The cost typically ranges from $100 to about $300.These are not the only choices. Composting is an option in some areas, although it’s best done by a commercial composter. If you are near a veterinary college, the school may want the remains as a teaching specimen. You’ll pay a pickup fee, or you may be able to arrange the euthanasia at the school’s clinic.
What else? If you have mortality insurance for your horse, you’ll need to notify the insurance company in advance. Afterward, your veterinarian will need to provide you with the documentation needed to process a claim.
WILL YOU BE THERE?
This is strictly a personal decision, Dr. Gariboldi says. If you’ve never seen euthanasia, discuss the procedure beforehand with your veterinarian and others who have. Usually death comes quickly and quietly, but sometimes a horse reacts unpredictably or crashes dramatically to the ground.
“Most vets give light sedation first, so the experience will be less traumatic for the horse and the owner. When the horse is sedated and less aware, he gets the euthanasia drug,” Dr. Gariboldi says. “Often the vet can help the horse go down, although this is dangerous because he can fall on you.” Because of the risk, you’ll need to follow your vet’s instructions on where to stand and may not be permitted to hold your horse. Sometimes there is unexpected movement a few minutes after the horse goes down.
“After the heart stops and the body is no longer getting oxygen, the horse may take a few deep breaths. Mentally and physically he is already gone; this is just the body’s reaction to lack of oxygen,” Dr. Gariboldi explains. “It can be alarming to anyone not expecting it.” In the last step, the vet checks the heart to be sure it has stopped.
Melissa had previously seen a horse put down, and she was prepared to be with Finis. Amanda had not, and she found the experience jolting. “I wanted to be there for Image,” she says, but he was sedated and “pretty dopey before the euthanasia injection, so I’m not sure he knew I was there. The vet said it was the least dramatic euthanasia he had done. Image just folded his legs and went down. But I wasn’t prepared–in seconds whatever I saw shining through his eyes, which to me was him, was just gone. I wish that had not been my last sight of him.”
If you decide to be present when your horse is put down, Amanda suggests
leaving afterward, if possible, and letting others take charge of the burial or removal that follows. “That can never be pretty, and it’s not the memory you want to keep,” she says.
You’ll want to say goodbye to your horse in your own way. “I am very grateful that I was able to plan the day and had all the details sorted out, so I was able to focus on Finis,” Melissa says. “I spent all day with him and gave him all his favorite things.” When Dr. Murdock arrived, he gave Finis a physical exam and told her again that he agreed it was time. “Having that input and knowing that he supported my decision was important for me,” she says.
The euthanasia went more smoothly than she had anticipated. Finis was sedated, so he was quiet. “The vet gave him the shot and then eased him down. It was a peaceful end, and it made me think he was even more ready to go than I thought,” she says.
Losing a much-loved horse is hard, whenever and however it happens. It’s OK to grieve, and talking with friends and family can help. “I miss Image every day, even though we were together only a short time,” Amanda says. She kept his halter and a lock of hair from his tail, to be braided into a bracelet or a key fob. Melissa also kept tail hair, and she plans a stone marker for her horse’s grave.
“This process was a learning experience for me and really showed me the connection I had with my horse,” Melissa adds. “Everyone says ‘the horse will tell you when it’s time,’ but horses are stoic creatures and don’t necessarily tell you in obvious ways. You may be waiting for signs that won’t come. You have to be able to read subtle cues and look out for their best interests even when there isn’t a crisis. When you can’t ease their pain, then it’s time.”
I hope that this helps at least one person out there struggling with the decision to euthanize. I am grateful that the author (who was super, super sweet on the phone with me!) was able to take this sort of topic and turn it into an informative but sensitive article that is 100% worth reading if you’re a horse owner or horse owner to be. Big, big thanks to Kate
for being so kind in letting me use one of her fabulous images from our photoshoot (and despite me asking them to PLEASE credit the photographer, they did not…they’ve already gotten a kind-but-annoyed email from me over that one!).
This aside, I’ve been a busy freakin’ bee with 847560987456 photoshoots and about that many house sitting engagements. I have a whole, gushy post to write on a WONDERFUL Paso Fino stallion that I had the privledge of taking for a spin…but this will have to hold you over until then 🙂