It is without doubt the hardest part of owning and loving a horse - having to make the upsetting yet likely decision to have your friend put to sleep when 'it's time'. Though many of us welcome horses into our lives with the intention of keeping them for all of theirs, we avoid thinking about the inevitability of having to make the uncomfortable judgement of when the time is right - it’s just too uncomfortable. Even when horses join us for an intended short period of time, there is always the possibility of having to make the decision to have them put to sleep should tragedy strike or circumstances dictate, and it's not something many of us are prepared for until the time comes.
When I put out the call to my friends and followers for contributions to this blog series, I was completely overwhelmed by the interest in the topic, people's eagerness to tell their story, the complexities of the decision-making process and it's impact. I was also blown away by the love people have for their horses and the care and effort they go to to be there and ‘do the right thing’ whatever they perceive that to be, for their equine friends when it’s been required. Reading through the stories of the 184 people who took the time to respond to my call for contributors has made me cry (a LOT!) and it has been a real honour to have been trusted with these stories to tell. What started off as a one-off blog, has become a 3 part series of which this is the first and I hope I’m able to do justice to this really important topic. I hope you can understand that it wouldn’t be possible for me to include every single story from those who responded, but be assured that I have read them all, was touched by each one and they have all helped inform this blog series.
In part 1 of 'Saying Goodbye', we look at how people have experienced making the decision to have their horse put to sleep - how you know when the time is right, who's advice you sought out, the impact making the decision had on you. In part 2 we’ll look at the mechanics and practicalities of when a horse is euthanised - which methods of euthanasia are available, the consideration of which method is right for you and your horse, whether it’s right for you to be there or not and what happens after your horse has passed then in the final part of this series we’ll look at how we come to terms with the loss of our equine friends and the ways in which we remember and commemorate them.
We have this idea that when it’s time to have your horse PTS, the effects of old age will be the cause. Your horse will have had a great life full of lovely memories for you to treasure and he will have been loved and cared for into his senior years. In reality of course, it’s not always the case, with the vast majority of your stories involving young horses with some sort of physical breakdown preceding the decision. Kissing Spine, bone spavin, navicular, arthritis, heart conditions, colic, fractured limbs and ulcers were the most commonly-sited conditions that forced the decision to be made but of course, we all know horses with these conditions who’s symptoms are managed to allow them continue to live a comfortable life. How then, do you know when it’s the right time to make the decision? Do you wait until the crisis point or do you make the decision ahead of real suffering? It’s a really complex topic with all sorts of practical and ethical considerations but it helps to hear from a few people who knew when it was the ‘right’ time.
Suzanne Arnott shares her story…..
“Shaka was PTS due to the progression of cushings disease, a field injury and the subsequent suppression of her immune system. She developed mouth abscesses and ulceration of the tongue and gums causing acute problems eating and drinking. The attending vets recommended treatment for the mouth but advised she needed to be able to heal herself in addition to the treatment so it might not work. On the day she was PTS I had already decided to have her PTS as she’d been unable to eat or drink for 2 days and found this heartbreaking to see. When the vet arrived she agreed with the decision and did not offer another opinion.”
Sammy Boothby says...
“3 years ago my boy was diagnosed with a heart murmur. We had an ECG done and was told to enjoy him while we could. The following year when the vet came to do his vaccinations she detected arterial fibrillation and was advised to retire him from a ridden career. At this point we discussed how we would know the time was right and agreed to see how he went through the winter and potentially give him one last summer. In June 2017 I found out I was pregnant with my first child and after much soul searching and discussing with my vet, we decided that we would not put Charlie through another winter as his heart beat was becoming more irregular and the vet felt he would struggle. We decided that we would pick a date (we chose 31st August just before my 20 week scan) this was by far the hardest part knowing each day that we were a day closer to losing him. I have no regrets that we picked the right time as the vet listened to his heart on the day and said he would of had at most 3 months and the thought of coming to the yard one day and finding him dead would have broken my heart more. He owed me nothing and was my horse of a lifetime”
Rachel Bragg shares her story….
“My 5 year old mare was ill and had been for a few months. She’d be in and out of the Royal Vet College near London for a period of time, initially with what appeared to be a nasal cavity issue but this triggered other symptoms that were both perplexing for all vet staff working on her case and terribly emotional for me. I’d had this mare from birth and she was the first foal of a wonderful mare of mine I’d sold to a good friend to breed from. Her problems got more difficult to diagnose, her weight dropped hugely, she was colic-ing frequently (albeit mildly) and her heart was struggling to cope with it all at times. She needed surgery but wasn’t strong enough for it so brought her home with a huge amount of medication in order to give her some home comforts and familiarity in the hope she would gain strength and weight then cope with the surgery. Despite all the problems she was incredibly alert and stable in many ways, she was a real fighter and just loved to be with people. The decision was made quite easily by me. She’s been super-brave all the way through, dealing with whatever came her way. She was never nasty, always whinnied at the sight of me and put up with so many procedures, tubes and contraptions with such amazing grace. I decided that at the first signs she was no longer fighting herself then this would be her time. One morning at 5.30 I arrived and her head wasn’t over her door and she made no sound. When I got to her her head was low to the ground and it was clear she’d stopped fighting. I called my vet straight away. I didn’t really talk it through with anyone else, although I’m sure I’d have had great advice if I’d needed it. I’d lost 2 horses in the past so was fully aware of my options and what might happen afterwards. I have no regrets at all about my decision or my timing. I knew her well, had done since birth and I knew the second I saw her that she’d given up”
Suzanne Anderson said
“I bought at 17 year old warmblood mare unseen, through a friend of a friend, with the intention of hacking, light schooling and just general pottering around day to day - something to pamper. The day she arrived via a transport company, she fell off the box as she was so weak, stiff as a board and skin and bone. I made it my mission to fix her up which I did, but as the weight went on, her arthritis went well beyond manageable which took me down the path of putting her to sleep. From start to finish I had her 8 months and I made the decision when she began being visibly lame late August and gave her until the end of October when I finally decided it was time - I wanted her to go looking her best and still be able to get up after a roll. I sought advice from the physiotherapist and vet during the 8 months of ownership and on the day the vet agreed fully. She was put to sleep out in her field, done that way for ease of disposing her body as advised by the yard owner. I think I made the right decision at the right time although in all honesty she should have been PTS well before being sold to me. "
As so many of you mentioned, the role of your vet in making this decision is vital and central. My own vets, Loch Leven Equine Practice have kindly shared with us their thoughts on helping their clients be as well-informed as possible and where required, guiding owners to make the best decision given each case’s individual circumstances…
“Here at the practice we unfortunately have to deal with euthanasia, sometimes daily, and it never gets easier. Every member of our team is affected and involved when a horse is euthanised. Whether it’s the office team discussing it through with upset owners, the nursing team caring for the horse here at the clinic or the vets treating the horse and carrying out the euthanasia.”
“Each and every conversation will be different. Obviously the clients are all individual and whilst the reason for discussing PTS may be similar we approach each situation individually. It’s ultimately about what is right for that owner and their horse and there is no standard or set conversation. People will often go through a roller coaster of emotions are they try to make the right decision for them and therefore the situation fluctuates depending on their reactions at the time.”
“We always want to be as honest with our clients as we can but we do understand how upsetting euthanasia can be. We discuss with owners what will happen during the vet’s visit for example why we always sedate the horse or pony. When they are booking in euthanasia a discussion of what happens after sedation is offered if the client wishes to know, however we do mention that owners do not need to be present for the actual injection.”
Timing is absolutely key when making the decision to have your horse put to sleep and we have this responsibility to somehow know when the ‘right’ time is. Talking things through with your vet and hearing their advice can absolutely help in making those decisions but they’re there to help you make the decision not make it for you.
“Deciding on the right time to put a friend to sleep will depend on each case. If the horse is not compromised welfare-wise it is entirely up to the owner when they feel the time is right. Hindsight is always a wonderful thing and none of us have a crystal ball. However it is rare for an owner to regret making the decision too early and it would be more common for owners to regret leaving it too late. It is quite common for owners to be relieved that their horse has made the decision for them, for example they get stuck in a muddy wet field and can’t get up, but this is more about it being an easier decision for them rather than when it is actually the right time” - LOCH LEVEN EQUINE PRACTICE
What about when the decision is not so clear-cut? When there are other factors at play like how your horse would cope with treatment and recovery or how your own personal circumstances impact on your ability to care for your horse and their condition? These decisions can often be extremely difficult to make, and result in feelings of guilt and experiences of judgement from others.
Carole Glover was forced to be pragmatic in her decision-making,
“I made the decision as I came to the realisation that I was paying livery for 3 horses that I couldn’t do anything with. I went through so much with my boy that I didn’t want him being mistreated and left rotting in a field or pushed and pushed while doped up on bute. Casper wasn’t a companion and had trust issues and was scared of men and the farrier. There are too many good horses out there without a lame horse being passed about. At least this way I was in control of his fate.”
Janine Scott also had to make a tough decision based on her own circumstances and said
“I had Star PTS after he’d be on and off lame for 6 months. He wasn’t insured and I couldn’t afford to have his lameness investigated by the vet. I tried resting him, working through the lameness and spoke to my farrier and vet about the possible causes. Both thought he was likely to have navicular syndrome so the likelihood of him being a useful ridden horse was slim anyway. He was only 7 and I wanted him to event which he wasn’t going to be able to do even with a best case scenario so we arranged to have him put to sleep. My vet was great, even though I suspect he would have liked to have investigated the problem, he respected my decision and arranged for him to be PTS. I felt a huge amount of judgment from the other liveries on the yard, they didn’t hold back in telling me that they thought I hadn’t exhausted the treatment options and tried to change my mind but I had no option. I have huge regrets about the whole thing - make sure your horses are insured!!”
Daisy Duke said
“My TB mare was 7 years old, I had owned her since she was 6 months old. She was diagnosed with kissing spine and bone spavin. She was a typical hot-headed but very brave TB, she was insured and the insurers had agreed to pay for the kissing spine surgery. She was being treated at a clinic in Glasgow but knowing her nature and how she would have struggled with the box rest and after a long chat with my own vet who knew her well, I decided the best course of action was to have her PTS. I also had personal reasons too - I was a new mother, had returned to work full time and struggling for time. I was also in the process of splitting up with my daughter’s father”
So many of you mentioned feeling judged by others around your decision to have your horse put to sleep and your accounts of what people were judging you on varied from you choosing to have a horse PTS before the crisis point, waiting until you were at the crisis point or that your reasons for making the decision weren’t wholly due to your horse’s medical condition. These accounts were really sad to read. My feeling is that it’s hard enough making the decision and that every single one of you who took the time to get in touch with me and tell your story had invested a huge amount of time and consideration in making what you felt was the best decision at the right time for you and your horse. I think the words we use are partly to blame - we keep talking about the ‘right’ time which suggests there is a definitive window in which we must make the decision and we are either right or wrong in our decision making. Of course in reality, there are a multitude of factors that make up any owner and horse’s circumstances and the right time for them may differ hugely from the right time for others. As long as a horse’s welfare is in no way compromised, it really is up to each individual owner to make the judgement of when the time is right, no-one else’s.
“It’s not up to us to judge an owner’s decision to have an animal euthanised. We will always respect an owners’ decision because we know how difficult it will have been for them. There shouldn’t be any stigma associated with having to make this decision for them, in their own unique situation.” - LOCH LEVEN EQUINE PRACTICE
Though medical issues are normally why horses are euthanised, changing family circumstances, owner’s deaths and financial problems can also be factors that lead to horses being put to sleep which can be especially upsetting for those having to make the decision and the veterinary staff who are asked to perform the euthanasia.
“These situations are sadly quite common and all of us find this difficult especially if we have looked after the horse for a long time. However, we believe that many horses end up being repeatedly sold on or sold for meat and that sometimes the really hard decisions are also the most responsible.” LOCH LEVEN EQUINE PRACTICE
There is no doubt that the decision to have your horse put to sleep, regardless of the circumstances that force it to be made, is incredibly complex and difficult. So what can we do to make it as easy as possible if, and more likely when, we have to make it? I think what is clear to me is that you have to listen to the advice of your vet, take into account everything you know about your horse in terms of temperament and how they are in themselves and ultimately, go with your gut. Loch Leven Equine Practice have some final advice for us on how to make the process as easy as possible…
Have a think about your wishes so when the time comes you’ve already looked into the options.
Pass on the information about your wishes to family, friends and your yard owner so that if you cannot be contacted, people are aware of what your wishes are.
When you go away on holiday and leave the care of your horse in someone else’s hands, have a think about whether you’d want to be contacted should the worst happen?
I want to say a massive thank you to every single one of you who took the time to share your stories with me and agree to having them featured in this blog series. I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences on this topic as I know it’s emotive and we don’t often get the opportunity to talk about it. Next week in part 2 of ‘Saying Goodbye’ we look at the mechanics and practicalities of having your horse euthanised, and read about owners’ experiences of the process.
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