Euthanizing a Horse: Knowing When It’s Time To Let Go

angelic ponyMaking The Difficult Decision Of Letting Your Horse Go, Sucks.  Period.

I am not a veterinarian, and I am not qualified to offer anyone medical advice.  But I am a veteran when it comes to having to put your horse down.  I had to make this difficult decision with my own horse barely six months after buying him.  As hard as it was actually comforting my friend, and holding and stroking his head through the process, and, as haunting as the images were that seeped into my thoughts and dreams for quite some time after I put him down, in hindsight making the decision to euthanize my best friend was still the hardest part.  In fact, writing this article coming up on the one-year anniversary of his crossing over the Rainbow Bridge, I still find myself reliving the experiencing and fighting back tears wondering, did I do the right thing?  Fortunately, I am able to answer, yes, because I made the decision for the right reasons.

The Question Your Heart and Brain Will Argue Over:   What is the right thing to do?

My horse, Merlin, foundered. Nothing we tried stopped the aggressive inflammation that caused him to rotate and drop in all four feet in a matter of days.  Each day, new x-rays taken showed things were getting worse, and my beautiful horse was simply not responding to any treatment.  He was old, he had Cushings, and the cards were stacked heavily against him.

If you have ever witnessed a horse fighting for his life through what must have been for Merlin, ungodly pain, to say it is heartbreaking would be an understatement.  It rips out your heart and soul and the tangible pain is amplified in its intensity by the feeling of utter helplessness.  That unrelenting pain you are both feeling can easily cloud your best judgment and the war inside you begins with your brain and heart screaming at each other as to whether it is time to just let go, and they never seem to agree.  Just as your brain kicks in and weighs the odds, your heart screams no!  But when you heart rests peacefully in the decision to let go, your brain screams “but what if we tried this or that?”

I consulted with two different vets and they both agreed; Merlin’s prognosis for any chance of recovery enough to offer him comfortable retirement was not even that of “poor.” With such dismal news, it might seem like it should have been a no-brainer – just let him go.  But the heart often overrides even the most obvious choices made by the brain and I could not resist the urge to scour the Internet one more time for advice.

Our family is fortunate – money for medical treatment was not an issue, we had the means to exhaust every option available.  But in Merlin’s case, he quickly reached a sad point where all the money in the world could not help him.  The one thing he needed – to be released from his pain, was the one thing I dreaded most.  And so, I read every article I could, seeking out similar stories, and trying to latch onto anything at all that would lend me hope.  I found many forums with posts from others who horses had survived founder and some stories of horses that were even able to be ridden again (something that I did not care about — I would have been happy to have a big “dog” horse.)   I found ads for “cures” and read up on every experimental treatment available.  I was looking for any microscopic bit of hope to let me off the hook of making a decision, deep down, I knew I had to make.

I talked to other horse owners who had dealt with laminitis and founder.  Everyone had their own story, their own outcome, but only one person, a trusted trainer, suggested euthanasia rather than putting my horse through hell for my own benefit.  I found that when you rely on the expertise of well-meaning friends, they are more likely to try and give you hope – saying what you want to hear rather than what you need to hear.  In the end, I trusted the medical professionals and chose to make my horse comfortable; doing the right thing for him, not for myself.  It helped a lot that the trainer I trusted, and who also loved my horse, fully backed my decision and said the words I really needed to hear, “you are doing the right thing for Merlin.”

Hanging On Just Because You Are Not Ready To Let Go Is Unfair To Your Horse

Hanging onto your horse simply because you cannot bear to let go is not the right reason to hold on.  In most cases, you will simply be buying more time for yourself at the horse’s expense.  So you must consider two things:  your horse’s quality of life (not yours!) and your ability to provide for all his current and future needs if you do decide to hold on hoping things will get better.

If your horse has a fighting chance, there is nothing wrong in fighting for him, just make sure that “fighting chance” is based on something other than not wanting to face letting go.  If there is a reasonable chance for a favorable outcome, you know your horse best, but it is also important to take a good, long, hard look at your resources.  Do you have the financial and emotional resources to follow through to the end no matter what that may be?  If your horse will never be able to be ridden again, will you still make the lifetime commitment to him when he becomes a companion horse or pasture ornament? If you need a horse that can do more than yours will be able to after recovery, simply “rehabbing” him to become someone elses’ “problem” is cruel.  Are you committed to finding a safe, permanent loving home?  Is that even realistic?  Or will he end up at auction frightened, unridable, and likely to end up with a kill buyer?

Does your horse still love life?  Is he fighting hard?  Merlin certainly was and that made my decision all the more difficult.  But sometimes, having the will to live comes from lacking the knowledge of what life will be if you go on.  In other words, Merlin felt pain – tremendous pain – in the moment but he did not understand that this pain might never go away and would only get worse.  He was holding on to me and staying connected because the pain had not worn him to a nub yet.  But at some point the pain would have been too much for him and he would have collapsed inside himself and all the love in the world I had for him would not be able to change that outcome.

Should You Be There During The Final Process?

The decision to be present or absent during euthanasia is entirely a personal decision and it is fine if you choose to be there and hold your horse’s head to his last breath.  But it is also fine if you say your goodbyes then leave the rest to the vet to handle.  There is no right or wrong that is universal.

When I was seeking advice from a friend who had been there for a horse, she strongly recommended I not be present.  She told me, in great detail, what to expect every step of the way.  As hard as it was to hear (I was sobbing through the conversation) she did me a favor — she told me what to expect and everything she said turned out to be true.  She prepared me, and without her cold-hard-facts talk, I would not have been prepared.  That said, if you do decide you want to be there with your horse, understanding what will happen ahead of time can lesson the shock of experiencing it.

For me, it was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do in life, but when the time comes for our other three horses, I will choose to be there for them as well.  Being there or not is not about how strong you are — if you have made the decision to let go for your horse’s sake you have already demonstrated both strength and compassion.  You should not feel bad in any way if you choose to have your final memories a little less visually disturbing and decide not to be present for the procedure.  You can say your goodbyes as spiritually and loving as possible at any point in time — it does not have to be in the exact final moments, and the actual process is purely a medical one that does not require your presence.

My Final Advice

I believe horses go to a better place, to Heaven, where they no longer suffer pain and sickness.  That faith helped me considerably and allowed me to still feel connected to Merlin after his heart stopped beating.  But I did not want him to exit this world alone and so I chose to be with him through the entire process.  I have held every cat and dog in my arms when they passed and it was never easy, but for me, it would have been harder to not be there for them.  I will only say that the process for cats and dogs is easier than it is for horses.  I will write a separate article about what you can except during the euthanasia process for horses because the decision to put your horse down should be made entirely separate from whether or not you can handle being there with them, so I won’t combine the two in this article.

So in closing, I offer this advice.  The decision of whether or not to let your horse go should be made based on what is right for your horse – not yourself.  It is a decision you will have to live with for the rest of your life and therefore, should be made out of compassion and selfless love.

The decision as to whether you wish to be there during the process should be made based on what is best for you.

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2 Comments

  • Thank you for sharing this story. My heart ached with yours. I lost my horse as well. It is important to hold onto the good memories and try to let go of the sadness — but it is never easy. It took some time, but I was able to open my heart to another horse. There are plenty to love, and as hard as it is knowing they all leave us someday, the joy of horses is worth the sadness we feel after they are gone.

  • It is a hard decision and I feel sorry for anyone who has to go through this. But the writer is right that it really is about making two decisions. It is okay if you cannot handle being there it is hard enough to say goodbye as it is.

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