Euthanizing Your Horse: How to Trust Yourself

It’s colder now. The leaves are gone. The wind charges at us from the north, and the temperature drops ten degrees at three pm and keeps falling. We’ve had snow, the tank heaters are in. One of my horses has grown so much chin hair that I had to let his halter noseband out. It’s the bittersweet season of hard decisions. I write about death as the days get shorter, but most of us already have it on our minds. It’s part of autumn, isn’t it?

I’m going to ask for the impossible. Can we have an unemotional conversation about pain? Can we talk about end-of-life decisions without everyone taking it personally? I don’t want to turn this into a contest of who can mourn the most. Let’s stipulate we all experience loss and understand. Mourning our animals is the easiest thing we do. Forever and always. But for now, let those emotions rest. They won’t add insight to this conversation. 

Let’s talk about when you should begin to consider the unthinkable. That first day you get your horse isn’t too soon. Maybe you have a youngster or maybe a barn filled with elders. It’s a good time to talk about death on a sweet fall day while everyone is enjoying the sun. We talk calmly about plans so that when the time comes, we have some foundation and can be more helpful to our horse during an emotional time. 

A group of welfare experts in the United Kingdom voted on the top five horse welfare priorities. The biggest challenge for horses is delayed euthanasia decisions by owners. The second is the lack of recognition of pain behavior by owners. I’ve read several similar studies, and they are fairly consistent. We don’t want to know what we secretly see.

Some people believe a horse will tell them when it’s time. Horses have an involuntary instinct to hide their pain and weakness from the herd. Weakness is fatal. Some herds push them out, predators go for the weak and old. Do you really believe that a flight animal hard-wired to survive is going to become a different creature and tell you it’s time? More likely, some of their organs are already beginning to shut down. When horses lose confidence in their body through injury or age, add the stress on top of the rest. Horses are stoic, so they hide it all as long as possible. By the time we see it, it’s already serious. 

Maybe you want to push the decision off on your vet. It isn’t fair to them. Some of us have honest longtime vets and some of us land with the emergency vet on duty. In their defense, no one wants to give such bad news. It’s challenging to deal with their own feelings about their jobs, without sobbing clients. They might be better at science than psychology, fearing a client might get upset but then complain online with comments taken out of context. A conflict-avoidant vet will suggest more treatment, often to give the owner time to say goodbye. Do they prioritize our suffering over our animal’s pain when both are inevitable?

Can you even get a vet in an emergency? I can’t. Lots of us are hours from help. We need a plan before we need the plan.

If we’re talking about hard topics, money must be part of this conversation. Most of us don’t have trust funds. There is honor in being responsible. We can’t risk everything, including the other lives who depend on us, for one animal who is incurable or just worn out. Know ahead of time where you must draw the line financially. Then respect yourself for doing the best for all your animals.

Now, we have almost decided and are looking for support. We share our thoughts with someone, but they are shocked and think we’re horrible. It feels like a gut punch and maybe we falter. Always know that each of us is trying to make peace with death and the process is messy. It’s their fear for their own horses and themselves. Not really about us at all. Not really a compassionate friend. Walk away.

Please, don’t think of re-homing your elder or unrideable horse. The horse shouldn’t have to struggle with a whole new world of fear and uncertainty. No one will care as you do. The precise reason we consider sending our horse away is the reason we need to talk about this painful subject more. There are many things worse than death.

If you’re seeing discomfort, don’t dismiss it. Sure, some pain is normal, but keep track of how much rest the horse gets. Elders get exhausted standing up, not feeling confident enough to lie down. Cold weather comes and the less they move, the more painful it is. Arthritis is a given. Gauging the slow decline in an elder is challenging because we become comfortable with their discomfort. We normalize it and months pass.

How much is our desire to hold on against the odds? When we love horses, we don’t want to see signs of pain and discomfort. It doesn’t help that pain often looks like sweetness. Anxiety is mistaken for affection. Shutting down and holding their emotions inside, confused for peace. Understanding calming signals is crucial. Soon there is little natural horse left. In the wild, a predator would have ended this long goodbye. We are the only predator who can help them now.

Is there a high side to this dark conversation? Acknowledging the natural reality of death adds quality to each day. Life doesn’t get more precious; it’s always as precious as a new colt.

Think back over your years with horses. Remember times when unbidden ideas came into your mind? It’s simple in the beginning. They limp and the idea of lameness comes into our mind. We read body language, but awareness appears as a thought. Maybe a worry and you went to check and found a problem. What if that’s the same way the idea of euthanasia arrived? From them first.

Part of my job as a trainer is to be a death counselor. On any week, I may talk with two or three horse owners facing that hard decision. What I have come to understand sounds obvious but is also profoundly true. The last thing anyone wants is to euthanize their horse. If you are even considering it, I expect the condition to be worse than you’re aware. You would never bring it up if you could look away. Trust yourself because it’s the last thing you want. Anything else is preferable, but here you are. Trust your eyes. Trust what your horse is telling you. See euthanizing as a luxury.

Most days, loving horses is effortless and rewarding. But comes a day when they need a deeper love, one harder to give. What it means to put a horse before ourselves shouldn’t even be called love. We need a bigger word.

For what it’s worth, you are doing the right thing. The hard thing. The loving thing. Breathe on through. Not because you are strong or fearless. Simply because you’d do anything for your horse.

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58 thoughts on “Euthanizing Your Horse: How to Trust Yourself”

  1. Brilliant, and overdue. “Think back over your years with horses. Remember times when unbidden ideas came into your mind? Maybe a worry and you went to check and found a problem. Horses communicate through their bodies. It’s simple in the beginning. They limp and the idea of lameness comes into our mind. We read body language but awareness appears as a thought. What if that’s the same way the idea of euthanasia arrived? From them first.”

      • I had my 26yr old brilliant showjumper I had the pleasure of owning for 21 years put down over 25yrs ago took the decision to do it before he suffered in old age as he was getting less sure of himself and have felt bad all these years your kind words made me cry again but in a good way thank you for writing the article.

        • How does a flight animal feel when they can’t trust their ability to flee? It’s something to consider. Thank you for sparing him a unnatural and anxiety-filled decline.

  2. Good day
    Euthanasia post. I’m a veterinarian. There are complications regarding euthanasia. You can do it by injection. However, the disposal of a carcass contaminated by a lethal dose of a veterinary drug is a problem. In our part of the world you can burn it: BUT that takes a lot of fuel. You can BURY it , but only on certain types of land: water drainage etc. Has to be your own land. Has to be above a certain size farm. You can donate it to a vet school for Anatomy, but then it may need to have formalin put in straight after death. Or you can shoot the horse, using a humane killer. That is not as easy as it sounds. If you are going to use the body for meat ( eg donate it to an animal welfare society to be boiled up and fed to homeless dogs) it also has to be bled out, which is HORRIBLY messy. We have a mobile abattoir in our area, run by a retired cowboy who worked at a horse abattoir at some stage previously and then at the race course to help vets put down injured racehorses . He is the best. You or someone else the horse trusts holds the halter loosely. He steps between you and the horse and shoots it right between the eyes with a humane killer at the correct angle so it goes straight through to the medulla oblongatata at the back of the brain and the horse slowly goes down onto its back legs, The hole is tiny. there is just a dribble of blood. They do not even blink. If he needs to bleed it out, he does it via the rectum. Fortunately we have game farms here in South Africa, so we can send the whole carcass to the lions. I think you may also have this sort of service in the USA, seem to remember that there was something like that on call for shows. As a vet, explaining all this to an owner is hard. Its easy if the horse is at a riding school. The people in charge know how to do this – but if the owner is around it can be fairly traumatic!

    • Thank you, Cheryl. In the US, those options are not always available. The days of an abattoir have passed here and vets suffer for it, as owners do. Thank you for your valuable input.

    • Cheryl – THANK YOU!!! I am SO thankful for you comment here. I think every horse owner should have an in-depth understanding of the impacts of each death intervention options for horses when they buy a horse (and THANK YOU Anna for suggesting people think of this at the START of the relationship…not at the end). Context of where the horse dies is so incredibly important, and the idea that lethal injection is always the best/most humane option is entirely misplaced yet so often adopted by so many horse owners. Many years ago my husband and I decided to do a long distance journey with horses across Patagonia. We traveled with 3 of our horses for 4 months a 1000 miles across some of the wildest and most difficult terrain in the world. Just before embarking on our ride, I realized I didn’t know how to end the life of a horse by my own hand. Without having the option of calling a vet to support (impossible in the regions we were traversing), and deciding that we would not carry fire arms, we needed to learn the most human technique with a knife. I had to confront everything in me that resisted having to do what had to be done if we had an accident, and decide whether or not I was willing, and if I had the knowledge to do this with calmness, precision and clarity. If I was unwilling or unable to hold the responsibility of lovingly, respectfully and as peacefully as possible killing one of my horses if they were suffering, then I had no right to ask a horse to walk with me on that adventure. Luckily we had no accidents and I never had to use the technique that the guachos had taught me, but it completely changed my perspective about the responsibility of horse ownership, and the responsibility we carry when we say we will care for our horses until they die. On the other side of that long ride, I continue to take this responsibility extremely seriously. We continue living with our (much larger) herd of horses here in Patagonia, and we live in a holistic relationship with the land where we live all together, so the natural cycles of decomposition are critical (all management practices are dedicated to regenerating soil/watershed restoration and supporting biodiversity/animal and ecosystem wellbeing), so any/all chemical inputs that impact the soil have to be considered and avoided as much as possible, which is why lethal injection continues to not be an option if we need to intervene and end suffering. A while back I found this article to be really helpful in laying out impacts and affects of multiple options, I thought I’d share here as well if other horse owners want to learn more and your essential comment has scratched their curiosity.

    • Dr. Cheryl-I think it is just a matter of semantics-but the above could cause confusion the way it is worded. One does NOT shoot a horse right between the eyes at the correct angle-I’ve dropped several with a small 22 pistol point blank and I “draw” an imaginary X from mid ear base to mid upper eye lid and place the bullet in the middle of that-which his actually above the area described as “right between the eyes.” Every single one has dropped like a stone, and only one had a minute of muscle spasms-though he was long gone.
      Anna-this is a very important conversation. I had my very first horse kindly put down by just the best vet via Sodium Pentathol and it took FOREVER. I vowed to find a better way-and a kind gentleman taught me this: (and it is also in the back of the book “How to be Your Own Veterinarian-Sometimes”, with an illustration).
      The body is fine to enter the food chain-or it can be buried or carted off to animal part of the landfill. (here) Pasture buddies can hang out and grieve in their own time, and I can sit and ponder the lovely relationship I’ve had with this marvelous animal, the gifts they have given me, and the final responsibility that is now released.
      Knowing how and that I can do this has brought me odd peace, as there isn’t but a handful of the multitude of animal relationships that have ended calmly under their own quiet passing in my life. I’ve almost always had to come to that conclusion, and have also helped others with their animals in this way. It is always in the back of my mind-a bad fall on a trail ride, a bad colic episode in a senior horse that does not reverse with my usual ministrations, a trailering accident, a diagnosis of ???…a fall in competition or? To deny this is part and parcel of life with critters is to careen into the “pre-event” both un-prepared and without rational decision making. The horses suffer more and usually much longer.

  3. Thank you for sharing this! We need a bigger word than love, for this…yes. Of course I’ve been there several times, and my vet normally cries with me. It wasn’t just for myself I cried, it was the relief I witnessed, and the gift of peace I have given to my beloved friend. My daughter is an equine Veterinarian, so I can tell you waiting too long is the one thing she sees the most and would change if she could. Pick a good day. Just like your book, Anna, we are tough as twine with chores yet as soft as a breath with horses. I am a member of a small group of local women who support each other in our horse endeavors – we have had this subject matter as a roundtable – what are our plans for our horses, when is the right time to let them go? Also another subject you can delve into – what are our plans for our horses if we die or become unable to care for them…Make a Plan!

    • We talk about it all the time in The Barn School, too. It’s common sense.

      With the number of large animal vets dropping, I appreciate your daughter. I want to protect her as I can in this very challenging job. We need to be more helpful to them if we expect them to keep driving to our farms in ground blizzards at midnight. Thanks Monica.

  4. I never thought, when I bought my horse, that we would both be senior citizens one day. I am 68, my horse is almost 29. I have owned him for twenty-one years, and the last twelve of those years have been hard financially since the death of my husband. I have boarded him the entire time, and have made sacrifices over the years to keep him healthy and happy. He still looks really good, and I can’t bring myself to do anything other than watch his behavior and wait for a “sign”. In the meantime, I put off dental work that I need (his teeth are lovely), and X-rays for my aching hip. Your article twisted my heart into a knot, but, it’s probably going to take a catastrophic event involving one of us to get me to move from this emotional place I’m at. He has helped me through grief many times in my life, letting me lean on his shoulder to cry, and, I can’t imagine the day will come when the grief will fall on my shoulder alone. I hope, I pray, that I do what is best at the end of our story. Thank you for all of the wonderful articles.

  5. One of the most loving horsewomen I knew put a bullet in the brain of a few of her horses when it was time since she was rural and unable to get a vet out quickly enough. That amount of courage takes a lot of knowledge and compassion. How fortunate most of us only need the wherewithal to decide to euthanize. Thanks for the revisit of the topic. It always helps.

  6. One of the most difficult decisions to make. Any time we must say good-bye to our pets, no matter if they’re big or small, it’s horrible! However, it is a part of having them in our lives, and we should all feel lucky to have shared this time with them. Perhaps remembering all the fun times will make the difficult decision a bit easier. Thank you for writing this.

  7. Promise was my first horse, the one who changed everything for me. I couldn’t have loved anything or anyone more. I always thought that when she had to euthanized, I’d be hysterical and it would be the worst day of my life. She had been living the life of her dreams, retirement in a pasture with her horse husband. That boarding space was leased by her vets. They were wonderful and help was available immediately, should the horses need help. Eventually her medical condition declined to the point where she could not continue to live in the pasture without significant hoof pain. I was offered the option of keeping her in a stall, which was a hard no for me. In consultation with my vets, I opted for euthanasia and I was sure this was the right thing to do. As opposed to my idea of what it would be like, putting her down was very peaceful. One of the vets fed her cookies right up to the time she went down. Her lovely husband was there. For him, they had arranged a new partner, who was stalled on the his other side, to ease the transition. All the vets and staff who’d cared for her were there. The really hard, painful part had been watching the decline and getting to the decision, but the end of her life felt right – full of love and respect for someone who meant the world to me.

  8. I waited too long with my first horse and it is a regret that will haunt me until the end of my days. Since then I don’t hesitate because I’m left with the lovely memories of our times together and knowing we gave them the best life & death possible. I am fortunate to have a big enough property where we have a boneyard. We do it ourselves, the herd gets to understand the passing and the horse becomes part of the food chain. I struggle a bit with the irony of a horses greatest fear in life becoming their reality in death but it is what it is. Oddly enough, I go back and retrieve their skull – final resting place is on a shelf in our barn with the nametag from their stall. I like having them there.

  9. A very sensitive topic well approached! I always hate they “they will let you know when it’s time” cliche. Over the decades I have only had one horse who made it very clear it was time, with the sudden onset of a health issue that he clearly could not cope with and was not curable (so not a short-term issue). All others were the type of “is it time?” struggles you write about. The only regrets I’ve had were when I felt it was time but let myself be talked into waiting – a cat, a sheep, and a horse, all of whom had endings I would not wish on any being. We often say just what you did, and from experience – there are things worse than death. It is the ultimate act of putting their needs ahead of our own feelings. Thanks for addressing this uncomfortable topic.

  10. Thank you for this article Anna.
    We just let two of our long term loves go in the space of a week. I am thankful that we have great veterinarians to help us.
    We have one old man left-his bloodline has whispers of greatness from both sides, and when we bought him with a sore knee at age 6 at auction, he had come off a ranch in Idaho. I’m quite sure we never used him to his full potential on our trail rides in the woods and fields. He is a kind, patient gentleman, and he knows that he knows more than we do.
    He’s most likely the last one for me, and I have a plan when the time comes.

  11. This is beautiful and oh so pertinent for every horse owner – or animal owner, to be honest. It’s true, and you’ve reflected some of the hardest parts about making the decision to end suffering in this piece. Thank you for leading the way into this conversation! It’s one of the hardest things a childless adult horse-and-animal-loving woman such as myself ever has to face. I’ve done it before, and God willing, it will be a long time before I’ll have to again, but in the end, it’s the animal’s welfare that must always win out. Even though it hurts us, the caretakers, more than words.

    God bless you!

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  13. I read a piece of advice from a wonderful horse and dog person a few years ago – it is such an emotion filled and difficult decision to put your animal down. Pick what seems the best day for it, and then afterwards don’t second guess yourself, saying “I should have done it sooner” or “maybe she had a few more months left” or any other “I should have done it better”. You did your very best to give your beloved horse the best life, and the best death, and be okay with that. I hope when the time comes for my current horses, I can do this, and have my grief uncompounded by guilt.

    Thanks, Anna, for such a good article on such a difficult subject.

  14. Thank you for raising this topic. It’s an essential part of stewardship of any animal. Dealing with the body is much harder with horses, but the pain and decision making process is the same whether it’s your beloved pony or a barn cat.

    Couldn’t agree more about not rehoming ‘old dobbin’ when they are past their useful life. I’ve also seen a crazy amount of articles lately about old dogs surrendered to the pound because the owner got a new puppy. People like that should not be allowed to own animals.

  15. Thank you, Anna, and all the readers here for your insights and reflections on this important topic. For the moment my plan is to have my husband make the right decision when the time comes, as his love for our animals is strong enough to overcome my own doubts about what we should do. That said, I was left to my own devices last year without him, but had my vet close by to take Dover out of his pain.

    • So you are as strong in your love as your husband. Thanks, Lynell. I feel this way about death, whether it’s a human or a companion animal; I marvel at the transition death takes from the worst thing imaginable to a blessing. Well done.

  16. Absolutely excellent discussion.
    I have 18 horses buried here. Most were over 30 when the time came. Yes, the hardest were the ones falling.
    I preach this constantly and so does my vet. So many don’t listen. My best friend even. Her 32 year old mare was skin and bones after one winter but perked up over the summer. It was time but she procrastinated. Colic occurred and she couldn’t get a vet. Hours later after hauling her to a clinic and much time and money spent she was done. Wouldn’t it be better to have had a peaceful goodbye 4 months before that?

    • Thanks, Deb. I agree. One of the other things that folks don’t consider is that meds might work differently on a horse in distress. And yet another complication…

  17. Timely having just had another one be euthanised. I have the big plan, it is expensive, but I try and factor it in for each horse.
    I do remind myself , as with the dogs, it is often the last act of caring you can do for them. Sometimes there is little choice, other times it is the balancing of signs, signals, prognosis, feelings.
    I would rather do it a week too early, than a day too late.
    Thank you for this post, as always brilliantly written and clear.

  18. I put my 30 plus year old mare down last week. I didn’t want to her to go through another winter. We were together almost her entire life. It was one of the longest relationships I’ve had. She had been a good friend, a good horse. This was a tough one for me and your words are a balm, they help. Thank you.

  19. Thank you! Great article!
    You voiced my thoughts so well.
    I decided, with a heavy heart, to euthanize my 23 year old horse, my soulmate, due to severe arthritis and keratitis that was taking a toll on his life quality.
    My decision was based on pure love for him, did not want him to suffer and be in pain.

  20. It is interesting that all of my horse-loving friends say that they deeply wish for themselves that they could just fall over dead before they have to endure continual pain, get moved to a senior care facility, be just enduring life. Yet some keep their elder or injured-without-chance-of recovery horse, or move them to a ‘pasture pet’ home, with constant pain – exactly what they fear for themselves. In our area, the rendering company people are the best – so kind and compassionate, and – with a bolt gun – able to take away suffering in literally the space of a heartbeat. Wish that option were open to me when the time comes. Bless you for saying these truths.

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