Today I'm going to discuss my own thoughts, as a horse owner and trainer, on the sensitive subject of equine euthanasia, a topic my friend and Horse Journal colleague, Dr. Grant Miller, discusses in his Veterinary Viewpoint column in the July issue of the Horse Journal. I'm not disagreeing with anything Grant has written, but the viewpoint he expresses is strictly that of a veterinarian. I'm going to discuss it from my own viewpoint, as someone who has trained and cared for horses for the last 40 years.
My primary theme is that we shouldn't fear euthanasia as the final solution to trauma, other severe medical problems or old age. I've been present for the euthanized end of nine of my own horses over the years (and for a few others who weren?t my horses), plus for four dogs, and I can assure you (if you haven't seen it) that it is a merciful, peaceful end. The last
moments are a trickier situation in horses than in dogs, because the veterinarian has to guide their large bodies, as gently as possible, to the ground before administering the solution that stops the breathing and the heart. Then they appear to fall asleep and are quietly gone?to a peaceful place.
The final, irrevocable moment is far, far harder for those of us left behind than it is for the horses (or for the dogs).
I often remind people who are caring for an old or terminally ill or injured horse to remember that horses don't see into the future. They see the present and remember the past. So if your horse is lame, ill or compromised by age, he can't logically deduce (like we can), ?If I stay still for six months and take these medications, I should be OK.? All the horse knows is that He's in pain and his ability to move is hindered, and his instincts tell him that's a dangerous situation?because he is a prey animal.
That should be a primary consideration when contemplating the future of a very old, sick or injured horse. We must honestly evaluate their quality of life. Are they frightened or unhappy because a condition has confined them to a stall or because they can't walk or can't see' What, truly, is their quality of life' Is trying to eat or be comfortable a constantly unpleasant task, a situation that's causing high anxiety or other physical problems'
In his column, Grant argues that euthanasia shouldn't be chosen as a matter of convenience, that it shouldn't be done because an owner is tired of taking care of a horse. He argues that other solutions should be investigated, and I agree.
that's whey we sometimes suggest to horse owners that they should figure out their own guidelines for the care of their horse in case of severe trauma, illness or the inevitable onset of old age. Basically, write down your own version of a living will or medical directive for your horse'something that will guide your decision making at the moment of emergency or as the dark clouds are forming. The decision can be almost as hard as it is for a relative or human partner, and we find it helps if you?ve thought rationally about the decision before you're pressed to make it.
As trainers, we also believe that your best horse insurance?in case you have a debilitating accident, suffer financial reversal or have to weather some other life-changing event?is to be sure your horse has been trained well to do a horse job. If something happens to you, your horse is most likely to land on his feet if He's well-trained and doesn't require special management because He's been poorly handled. If He's correctly trained (including being easily handled on the ground) and useful, the chances are far better that he can be sold or given to a caring owner.
We have no respect for horse owners (or dog owners) who lament, ?Oh, I just couldn?t put him down,? as their animal suffers, especially for months or even years. Our two main jobs as horse owners are to care for them correctly and kindly when they're alive and to give them a peaceful end if we're still responsible for them when the time comes. THere's no excuse for not having the guts and commitment to do that.
The hardest decision I ever had to make in this regard was for my wonderful partner Merlin, almost three years ago. He?d been fighting sarcoidosis, and the lymphangitis and laminitis it caused, for about six months, and despite our veterinarian?s efforts, it would not recede. Finally, it got to the point where he could barely walk because of the pain caused by the gross swelling of his entire hind leg, and our veterinarian worried that his hoof would soon just slough off, leaving him literally crippled and in severe pain.
Merlin had been the center of our lives for 12 years, and we'd worked so hard to develop his confidence in us, after his unhappy early years. In return, he?d taken me to levels of competition and accomplishments that I'd never dreamed of, and now our obligation to him was to let him go with the peace and dignity that he deserved.
After the horse is gone?after you?ve tearfully said farewell to the now-still form of your former partner?you never feel like you?ve made a good decision. You feel the incredible loss, a sense that someone has ripped your heart out of your chest or put a pit in your stomach that won?t go away. And sometimes you question whether you could have done more. But you shouldn't. Often the veterinarian will say to you, ?Well, if you had $1 million, you could have done these extreme procedures, but the result would have, eventually, been the same.?
And, eventually, you realize that you made the right decision. You realize that it was the best decision for the horse, because He's now at peace, and that's what counts the most.