Welcome to part 2 of our ‘Saying Goodbye’ blog series that aims to shed light on the unknown and unsaid surrounding what is undoubtedly the hardest part of owning and loving a horse, having to make the decision to have them put to sleep. In part 1 we looked at what was involved in coming to the decision, the circumstances that lead up to being forced to make the decision and how your vets, family, friends and fellow liveries can impact the decision you come to. I had a phenomenal response from my followers who sent me extremely heart felt and poignant accounts of their experiences. It was incredibly emotional to read everyone’s messages and I’ve tried to include as many of them as possible throughout the series. If you haven’t already read part one, you can read it here.
A recurring theme to come up in the messages I received from my friends and followers, and in conversations I had with people when researching this topic, was that people rarely knew what was involved in the process of having a horse euthanised or what the options were before it was happening. Given the emotional nature of having to make the decision at that moment, it can often be hard to hear at the time and there’s a lot to be said to having a plan in place in advance. There were also very strong views on either side about which method of euthanasia to use. Here in part 2, we’ll explain what happens when a horse is euthanised and what your options are. We’ll also look at the experiences of those who were present when their horse was put to sleep and those that weren’t to help you make a plan should you be forced to make the decision to have your horse put to sleep.
Choosing HOW to have your horse put to sleep
What was notable in my research was that horse owners had extremely strong views on which method was the ‘kinder’ way to put a horse to sleep. There is obviously no right or wrong way but it helps to know what happens in both options to you can make an informed decision. Loch Leven Equine Practice, do not hold a licence for a captive bolt so will always use the injection, although they will support and help arrange services for their clients opting for the captive bolt method, “The method used to put a horse to sleep is a choice that only an owner can make. Regardless of what method is used, the horse is not aware of what’s happening. We have vets that personally favour both methods to euthanise their own horses, but the injection is the most common method amongst our clients.”
Euthanasia by Injection
“We as a practice do not hold a licence for a captive bolt so we can only put a horse to sleep by injection. Prior to having the injection the vet will sedate your horse, to help make the process calmer and safer. A catheter will be placed into the horse’s vein and if possible the horse will be walked to a safe, open area where sedation will be administered. Once the sedation has started to take effect, the euthanasia injection will be given by the vet. As the horse relaxes they will go down and pass away. This process is relatively quick and is painless for the horse. There are always reflexes that happen after a horse has passed away - usually just a blink of an eye or twitching of muzzle, but occasionally there can be a sudden intake of breath or snort. These are all a normal nerve reflex that can occur for a minute or two after death.” Loch Leven Equine Practice
Suzanne said “Shaka was PTS in the indoor school at the yard so the other yard users had to be considered as the indoor school couldn’t be used until her body had been recovered. The yard manager cancelled lessons that day and stopped others from using the indoor school that afternoon. My vet made the arrangements for the body to be recovered and advised on the cost and payment method for this which I found very helpful.”
Euthanasia by Captive Bolt
“If you decide to use the captive bolt to put your horse to sleep, the vet will come and and sedate your horse prior to the captive bolt being used to make the process safer. If possible, the horse will be walked to a safe open area where sedation will be administered. Once the sedation has started to take effect, the captive bolt will then be used followed by a pith. This is a very quick, stress free process for the horse but one that is loud and can be distressing for the owner. Please be aware that there will be some blood.” Loch Leven Equine Practice
Daisy said “I took her to the hunt kennels where she was PTS. A bit controversial but she was a difficult horse to inject and hated the vet. She had hunted numerous times, so when we got her tarted up and put her in the trailer she was on her toes and bright eyed - she thought she was going out with the hunt. I left her with a very close friend to hold because I couldn’t face doing it myself”
Joanne always chooses the captive bolt option when her horses need to be put to sleep, “I remember the first time we chose to have a horse shot I was a little nervous and didn't quite know what to expect but the chap was amazing, very calm and kind but got the job done. It was done in in the field, was very quick and she had no idea at all that this was happening. With her being in the field, the recovery man was able to remove her body straight away. It’s just a very quick, straight forward and inexpensive way to have your horse put to sleep and I wouldn’t ever consider doing it another way. I’ve had a few comment from people over the years saying it’s brutal or cruel but it couldn’t be further from the truth.”
One of the main reasons owners may choose to opt for the captive bolt option is to eliminate any possibility of things not quite going to plan using the injection method. We’ve all heard stories of horses who have reacted ‘badly’ during the procedure but Loch Leven Equine Practice are quick to reassure owners that this is in no way the norm,
“Unfortunately this may well be a case that bad news travels far further and quicker than good news. There are very isolated cases of sick or painful horses whereby the anaesthetic drug combination can cause a horse to either lie down or even drop more suddenly, or occasionally stumble for a step or two before collapsing onto the ground. This is due to each horse’s reaction to the strong anaesthetic cocktail that is used. However, the vast majority (well over 90%) of times, the horse passes away peacefully and wit dignity. The dose and speed of injection is always carefully controlled to help this. Ultimately, the only reason why a horse lies down during this process is because they are falling heavily asleep before the stinger drugs then stop their heart once they are lying down.”
To Be There or Not To Be There
Owners often feel a sense of duty to be there with their horse while they’re being euthanised but it can be an upsetting and traumatic experience which owners worry could potentially be picked up on by the horse. It’s an extremely personal decision to make whether to be with your horse or not and again, no right or wrong decision. “The horses are usually heavily sedated so will be aware of very little. It will always depend on the individual horse and their bond with their owner but horses are incredibly intelligent and if the owner is very distressed it can make the situation more difficult for both the horse and vet. Whilst the drug is being administered the vet’s focus must be on the horse and making sure the process goes as smoothly and safely as possible.” Loch Leven Equine Practice.
Suzanne said “I was there for her being PTS but I left the yard before her body was uplifted. I have witnessed other equine bodies being lifted and it wasn’t something I wanted to be involved in with one of my own. I wanted to stay for the vet visit as she was a very very kind mare and I felt I owed it to her not to be with a stranger.”
Sammy said “On the day he was PTS both my husband and myself were with him for the whole process. The vets were incredible and organised everything including disposal. They did not rush us and allowed us plenty of time to say goodbye. He was put to sleep in a quiet corner of the yard in a field full of lush green grass.”
Suzanne A said “My daughter and I were with her. We wanted to be able to comfort her and make it as stress free as possible. We felt us being there would help her, even though we were upset and she picked up on that. We were allowed time with her after which I feel was very helpful as we were able to say goodbye for as long as we wanted to.”
Once your horse has been euthanised, you will need to arrange collection of the body and there are various collection services you can contact to arrange. Loch Leven Equine Practice will organise this on your behalf and unless the client requests otherwise, they use a company called Equine Recovery.
“We will try to co-ordinate a mutual time with them so the body is not left for longer than necessary. Equine Recovery offer a compassionate personal service and is run by horse owners who understand how the owner may be feeling.”
Collection companies will require to be paid in advance or at the time, so that’s something to be aware of.
Whenever possible, it’s advisable to walk the horse to a safe and open area for the procedure, mainly for the practical reason of having the body collected. As Rachel found out, it can add an extra potential trauma should the horse be unable to leave their stable..
Rachel said “The worst part of the process was the fact she was in her stable on a reasonably sized yard. We had previously warned all liveries that there might be a chance this could happen and we were mostly an adult yard. The yard owner, a farmer, was on hand to take care of things afterwards and do so in a discreet way and time so as not to affect any other horse or person.”
There are 3 options for disposing of your horse’s body…
Burial on private ground (you do require permission from your local authority due to potential interference with water courses)
Communal Cremation - The most commonly used option where your horse will be cremated along with other family pets and some ashes are scattered in the crematorium’s garden.
Individual Cremation - This option can be very expensive (£800 - £1000 depending on the size of the horse)
Loch Leven Equine Practice will discuss all the options with their clients but will often suggest other ideas when a client is considering individual cremation, “We will discuss the option of having a painting commissioned instead as sometimes this idea has not been suggested to them prior and it may be something they’d rather have. We would also recommend that owners consider what they will do with the ashes when they are returned. Unlike humans, a horse comes back in a very large heavy box which practically is difficult to have in the house.”
It’s not always easy to read and think about these kinds of things, but it can really help knowing what your preferences are in advance of being forced to find out. Trying to make informed and considered decisions in a moment of what can potentially be frought with stress, shock and upset, is difficult to say the least, so having and plan and letting your family, friends and yard owner know your wishes can be really helpful at the time.
Next week, in the 3rd and final part of ‘Saying Goodbye’ we look at how we as horse owners cope with the loss of our beloved horses and how we remember and commemorate them.
Once again, a massive thank you to Loch Leven Equine Practice for their contribution to this blog post and to everyone who took the time to send me stories of their horses and their experiences of having them put to sleep. I read every single one and although I wasn’t able to include them all, everything I read has coloured what has been written in this blog series.
I’d love to hear your stories and views on this topic, do you have a plan for what you’d like to happen in the unfortunate circumstance when you have to decide to have your horse put to sleep?