EUTHANASIA: A DIFFICULT DECISION by Gincy Self Bucklin
You’ve owned old Bonny for many years. She has been a good and faithful servant and friend. For the last two years she’s just been living in the pasture, only coming in on cold nights and severe storms. The kids go out and visit her regularly, taking her carrots and grooming the dead hair out of her coat in the spring. She has a ringbone in front, so she’s quite lame at the trot, although every once in a while you see her galloping around the field with the other horses for a few minutes. Most of the time, though, she just walks and grazes and rolls and does the things that horses do in the pasture. And she seems to be cheerful and enjoying life.
Then gradually she becomes more lame. You put her on some bute, maybe try changing her shoeing, but she slowly gets worse. There comes a time when she no longer seems cheerful. The vet tells you that there really isn’t anything more he can do for her, and she seems to be in pain a lot of the time, even at the walk. You ask the vet if he thinks the time has come to put her to sleep (or ‘put her down’ which seems to be the more common euphemism for euthanasia of horses) and he tells you that it’s a good idea, since she really isn’t enjoying her life now at all. After discussing it with interested family members, and with some tears, the job is done and Bonny goes to her well earned rest.
This is the simplest scenario which involves the decision to take a life. It is the same one you have made with your cats and dogs over the years, and you know you are performing an act of kindness. The rule here is, if the animal is suffering, and has no chance of recovery, rather than let him continue to suffer, you do as Mother Nature would, and give him a quick and merciful release from pain.
Even under these optimum conditions, some people find it very difficult to make this decision. After all, when some one close to you dies, there will be a period of grief, accompanied by the knowledge that you will never see them again. So, while the animal will no longer be suffering physical pain, you will have to suffer some unhappiness, and you will have to make the decision to suffer.
Not an easy thing to do. I once was boarding a horse for a person who had leased the horse from some one else who lived out-of-state. The horse was in poor health when he arrived, and didn’t seem to get any better. One day he began to colic. When the vet came he discovered a very serious, soon-to-be-fatal peritonitis. The horse was in horrible, agonizing pain which even pain killers could do little to alleviate. For a considerable time the vet argued with the owner over the telephone, trying to persuade her to let him put the horse out of his agony. The rest of us stood around and watched helplessly as the horse suffered. He was already so close to death that we had brought him outside so he wouldn’t die in the stall. Finally the owner agreed to call her own vet and ask his opinion. The two vets talked to each other, and agreed that if an abdominal tap showed certain symptoms, the horse could be put down. Within minutes the tap was done and the horse was on his way to a better world where horses don’t suffer because their owners are incapable of making a humane decision.
It is not only with horses that this happens. Small animal vets have told me of letting a cat or dog who was terminally ill but not yet suffering, go home with its owner until the time came. Often the vet had to call and persuade the owner to bring the animal back, because the owner kept putting it off, even after the animal was obviously miserable.
In any of these cases, however, the right decision is obvious; it is the willingness to make it which is lacking. There are other situations which are much more in the gray area, and in which the rules which apply to dogs and cats are not relevant, because there are two major differences. First, except for breeders, a horse is always purchased for purposes of work. He will be ridden or driven, shown or trail ridden, but to fulfill his purpose he must be able to work—be ‘serviceably sound.’
Second, a horse costs a great deal of money to keep and requires large amounts of space. As long as the horse can work, his efforts justify the expense. If his working life is long, like our old friend Bonny, we don’t mind paying for pasture board for the few years he has left.
Where the difficulty comes is when a young horse—comparatively speaking—develops an unsoundness which precludes his working, but is otherwise quite healthy, with every prospect of limping around for ten or more years. Unless you are blessed with ample funds and space, the idea of supporting him in leisured luxury for many years can be a bit daunting. And for many people, impossible if they are to get another horse.
In some instances, the horse’s disability is such that he can continue to work in a limited way, as a beginner school horse, or trail horse, for example. If he happens to have the right temperament, he may continue his life on this new level for many years. It is also possible to find retirement farms, where horses can live in a pasture, with sufficient care and supervision, for quite a reasonable price—perhaps as little as a quarter of regular board. Or a mare may be used for breeding, or a gelding as a baby sitter.
These are the honest and honorable things to do under the circumstances. There are some not-so-nice things that are also done. Unsound horses are sold by unscrupulous professionals and dealers to people who don’t know any better. Sometimes the horse is drugged in some manner to conceal the problem until the money changes hands. Unsound horses are also sent to auction with no restrictions, where the purchasers of camp strings and horses for hack stables buy them for just over killer price, then send them to be worked to death. Bad hack stables (there are good ones) feed the horses as little as possible. The horses stand in their stalls all week, then, on the weekend, are rented out every hour—as much as eight or ten hours in a day—to people whose only wish is to see how fast they can ‘make him run.’ Six months is often the maximum horse life span in one of these mills.
So if you find yourself with an unsound horse that you cannot use or keep, your next choice must be one that will have the most humane result that you can afford. The best choice is to sell him to someone, either an individual or a school, who can use him within his limitations, and who can be trusted to dispose of him humanely when he can no longer be used. (Often you can ask that the new owner notify you when the horse is no longer useful, and can stop by and check up on the horse occasionally to be sure he is still happy.)
If the horse cannot be used for light, quiet work, either for reasons of temperament or unsoundness, you may be able to find a place to retire him. The easiest, if you have sufficient property and other horses, is to keep him. If you only own one other horse, he will need a companion anyway.
You may also be able to find some one who needs a companion for their horse, especially for a youngster. Here again, though, temperament is a factor, as is cost. If your horse is large so he eats a lot, or requires special care, or if he is a bully in the field, he will not make a good ‘baby-sitter.’
Breeding an unsound mare is an option that should be considered very carefully. If her unsoundness tends to be hereditary there’s no point in creating the same problem for yourself again. Breeding your own is not a cheap way to get another horse. Foals and young stock require much more care and attention than older horses, not to mention skill, and from the time you breed it is four to five years before the baby is much use. The only reason for breeding is if the mare has exceptional qualities which she stands a good chance of passing on to her get. Consultation with your vet and other professionals is the way to go before you make this decision.
If you can afford it, a retirement farm is the next choice. Your veterinary may know of one, or the manager of a farm may have a place where she sends her old school horses. This is particularly appropriate for a horse in late middle age, so you are not faced with paying for his care for a long period.
If, for financial or other reasons, none of the above alternatives is viable, then you must make the decision to put the horse down, even if he is young. This is assuming that there is no way the horse can ever work in comfort. If you send him to a dealer on the theory that it is better if he is alive than dead, you are almost surely condemning him to a hack mill or the auction followed by the killer. He will die anyway, but will be miserable for a long time first. Keep in mind, when deciding to put an otherwise healthy but completely unsound horse to sleep, you are doing exactly what nature would do. An unsound horse is unable to keep up with the herd, so it won’t be long before the predators take him. And although that seems gruesome to you, the horse doesn’t think about death. The period of fear lasts only for the short time of the chase, and is soon all over.
Humane euthanasia as performed by the veterinary involves no trauma at all. The horse is first tranquilized, then led out to the place where he is to be buried, then injected with the same drug that is used for anesthesia, but in a much larger dose. Generally, death follows very rapidly, and certainly painlessly. Shooting is also an option, but must be performed by some one who knows exactly what they are doing.
If you have enough property—and the neighbors don’t care—you can have the euthanasia performed at home. You must have a backhoe available to dig the grave beforehand and bury the horse immediately. Most owners feel better knowing that old Bonny found her last resting place with you nearby. The only costs are the vet and the backhoe.
Lacking a burial place, if you are in the country there may be a nearby farmer who will allow you to bury the horse on his property. You will have to pay an additional fee for the use of his land, plus transporting the horse to the burial site.
If neither of the above options is open to you, you may be able to find some one who will take the horse’s body and dispose of it, either humanely destroying the horse himself on your property, or after you have had the vet do so. He will probably sell the carcass for meat, which you may not like, but it is about the only thing you can do with it. This is where the size factor between a horse and dogs or cats becomes critical.
The final choice is the least desirable; sending the horse to the killer. Some years ago, all rendering plants were equine Buchenwalds, where horses were kept without food or water for days before being put to death. Shipping was also unregulated, with horses packed too many to a trailer, so they arrived with serious injuries which were left untreated. However, legislation has improved conditions in many states so that suffering is kept to a minimum.
If there is a plant in your area, you can find out either by a visit or by asking some one who has been there how the animals are treated. A friend of mine who had to take horses to a plant several years ago tells me she was pleasantly surprised at how calm the atmosphere was, and how caring the workers seemed to be, but I have heard horror stories from others.
You can then make arrangements to take the horse in your own trailer to the plant, and see that he is immediately destroyed. What is traumatic for the horse is being shipped in less than optimum conditions, then left to wait in a strange place until his turn comes. If you can possibly avoid this, you should. If not, you send or take the horse to the auction, marked ‘killer only.’ That ensures that he cannot be sold for anything except immediate transport to the rendering plant. This should be your absolute last choice, after you have explored every other avenue thoroughly. It is very unlikely that you won’t be able to come up with some more humane solution.
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We all hope that when our horse, especially if he has served us long and well, must finally go, that we can make his passing as pleasant and easy for him as we would like for ourselves. But we should also remember that, even if we are forced to used one of the less agreeable methods, it will still be better for him than being sold into a situation where his life will be prolonged in pain and unhappiness. That indeed is a ‘fate worse than death.’