WHEN IS IT TIME TO PUT YOUR HORSE DOWN? by Don Jessop
It's sad, yes! But it's not inappropriate to talk about putting your horse down when he's struggling to be himself or herself. When your horse is on deaths door, you have to ask yourself, "What am I holding on to?" I'm not saying you shouldn't prolong life. All forms of life are valuable! But when is it time to let go? That's the question that has come up in several intimate conversations recently.
Over the last year, I've had several different people ask questions about their older or disease, or injury laden horses. When I say disease ridden, I don't mean chicken pox. I'm talking about neurological and mental diseases. I'm talking about severe lameness and constant physical pain at high levels.
To help answer the questions I've put together a simple checklist.
Consider these factors:
Is the intense pain constant and incurable?
Pain can easily be measured on a scale of zero to ten. Constant pain of six or above, to the point where the horse can't even move around a 12X12 stall, is severe enough to consider letting them go. I'm talking about pain that can't be managed, or is being managed, but a level six pain threshold is the best you can get. When the pain threshold is this high for more than a couple of days without any potential for positive change... it's time.
Are you incapable of caring for the animal and there is no one else on the planet that can?
I've had people tell me that their horse needs special care and there is no one capable of offering that kind of care. It's not very often you find a "bleeding heart" personality that's willing to look after a horse with severe conditions. In these special cases, even though the horse may live a lot longer, the quality of life will be in question the entire time. And if you're not capable of caring for the animal anymore due to your own situation, it may be time to look into putting your horse down. Obviously, you should look for a home that will love and care for your horse, long before you make the decision to let them go.
Is your horse struggling to eat?
Either the horse lacks desire to eat, or psychically can't eat anymore. There are many things you can do to prolong a horses life. Senior feed, for instance gives the horse food choices that are easier to chew and digest. I always recommend doing what you can to empower your horse or improve the quality of their life, right down to the last minute. But keeping a horse alive that doesn't want to be alive anymore isn't logical. It's emotional. When a horse stops eating, in spite of all the options you've provided. It's time to consider the next step in the life process. If you don't, the horse will naturally die anyway. It will, however, take days or even weeks of excruciating pain. Not a pretty site. Lethal injection from a qualified Veterinarian is painless, almost instantaneous, and free of trauma or drama (usually... there are some rare instances where injection didn't go as planned. Ask your vet about that too.) It doesn't make the decision easy, but when comparing definite starvation, to manageable and painless death, it's becomes more logical to let the animal suffer no longer.
Is your horse struggling move about or get up after lying down?
This could point to severe neurological disorder, muscle atrophy, or severe pain. When a horse can no longer defend himself or herself in the field with his herd-mates, due to an inability to move, you must consider isolating him. If he can recover... great! If not, then what's next? If isolation and special care is too much to manage due to your circumstances, you must then consider something else. Regarding horse's that struggle to get up, I have often helped horses rise from the ground and seen them live another twelve months, happily. One bad day, doesn't mean life is over for the animal. But day after day after day of struggling, means it's time to get the vet out and consider your options for the future.
Is your horse extremely dangerous?
Extremely dangerous horses are also something that we, as master trainers, consider important to think about when it comes to the same question of when to put a horse down. In most cases horses can be cured of dangerous behaviors. In some rare cases, it's a lost cause. Consider the horse I met in Florida... This particular horse was a small brown and white, gaited gelding. When I met him, his owner asked me to help cure him of his challenges. I asked her to be more specific. What I found out, shocked me. He'd already killed one person. His distraction level was out of this world, which made it hard to ask him to focus on anything for any reasonable length of time. On top of that, his reactivity to certain stimulus, caused him to twist, buck, and bolt, like no horse I've ever seen before. If he felt trapped. He'd strike. He'd go from "la, la land" to "hell fire" in just moments. He was extremely dangerous. With my supervision, he became manageable. Not ride-able. Just manageable. And not for anyone, but me. You had to be perfectly focused. Ready for anything. You could never let your guard down. One wrong step or missed cue, could set off a tirade of fireworks. He wasn't mean. He didn't behave badly on purpose. He was dangerous because of a severe distraction disorder. After weeks went by, with minimal progress and obvious signs of mental disabilities in the horse, I gave the woman three options.
1. Find a place to put the horse out to pasture, never to interact with a human again. Except to pet from the other side of the fence. Just being in the same space required all your faculties.
2. Find a home that has the same skills sets I have to manage the horse, but tell the truth about his history and mental disabilities.
3. Let him go to heaven.
Eventually, she chose number three and I supported her. I don't like to destroy life, but the other two options, in spite of genuine effort to discover reasonable homes, failed. Option three was the only logical thing to do. He was too dangerous to halter, lead, and work around for any health care issues. He was too dangerous to ride. He was too dangerous, even to greet in an open field unless you had the right tools and techniques to protect yourself in a flash. He'd already shown a history for trouble. It was time.
Let me be clear. I'm not saying there wasn't some other possible outcome. I am saying that when your life is measured against the life of the horse. Which one do you value more? His, or yours?
If you feel it's time to let one of your horses go and don't know how to take the next step, consider calling your local vet or vets. Get a few opinions with people who've had experience before. Lethal injection is the most common. However, there is still evidence that points to old west techniques as being more conservative and quicker. I don't think I would pull the trigger on a gun, but some swear by it. They say it also leaves the horse with no chemical poisoning, which makes the animal's resources usable to continue the life cycle.
Your vet should give you sound advice. He or she can also give you the ins and out of all the details of lethal injections, transport or burial, and much more. Most vets worth their salt are willing to answer your questions and guide you to the right path.
Understand, there are best practices to observe. There are state laws to observe about ending a horse's life and burial. There are also, wonderful people who've been down this road before. People like myself. Don't be afraid to reach out. I'm here. We are here.
Thanks for reading.
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