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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