Written by: Sarah Bruce
The toughest responsibility and the greatest act of love.
Everyone knows horses are a huge financial, physical and emotional responsibility. But there is one responsibility that is often overlooked, the responsibility that is as important as it is unpleasant. However tough that decision may be, it’s the most compassionate thing we can do for the horses we love. As owners, we need to know when it’s time to let them go, but each situation is unique and every owner must make that painful decision based on their own circumstances and those of the horse. There are no simple answers.
It may seem morbid, but it is always better to have a plan than to suddenly have to make life-altering decisions under stress and a time crunch. Following are some factors to consider.
How to Know When to Let Your Horse Go
We would all like to believe that our horses will tell us when, and sometimes they do, but often because of their instincts, horses will keep on going, even when they are in considerable pain. The most obvious reasons to euthanize are severe or chronic pain, grievous injury or illness, but there are other, admittedly difficult, but valid reasons.
Injuries can happen at any age to any horse. It does not matter how careful you are, or how safe your turn out is, horses find a way to get hurt. In many cases, veterinary intervention can help, but if the injury is severe, euthanasia might be your only option. The American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) euthanasia guidelines state a horse should not have to endure unmanageable, continuous or chronic pain, nor should they have to remain on pain medication or stall rest for the rest of their life. Consider if your horse is comfortable eating, lying down, trotting or even walking. Discuss your horse’s condition and possible treatments with your veterinarian. Know your horse’s pain tolerance and what’s best for him long-term. There may be therapies available, but consider the prognosis and your horse’s quality of life to help with this decision.
It is important to evaluate your horse’s psychological state. We can’t simply tell them to “stay off that leg.” Confinement and restrictions are often necessary. Some horses are more tolerant of stall rest and hand walking than others. If they are not, the road to recovery becomes longer with many detours along the way. Confinement stress and boredom can have far-reaching health effects.
Your available resources matter too. Know ahead of time how far you can go financially if your horse becomes sick or injured. With recent developments in veterinary medicine, injuries that once proved fatal – a fractured cannon bone or torn suspensory ligament – now have a chance of healing. However, surgery or treatment can be costly and there is no guarantee your horse will return to its previous performance. It may seem callous, but you need to determine your price point ahead of time or you may add financial debt and family strife to your problems.
For example, if your horse is colicking and your vet is suggesting surgery, keep in mind that the cost will be at least $10,000 with a long, painful recovery time. It’s too easy, in the heat of the moment, to make a decision emotionally rather than a practical one with an eye on both your available finances and the horse’s chance of a useful recovery. Consider also what you will do if your horse does not recover as well as hoped. Can you afford to get a replacement, or are you able and willing to retire your horse?
Old age is another common reason to euthanize. We all know that horse that is 30 and still going out on trail rides or taking kids in lead line classes, but this is the exception not the rule. Horses age differently depending on their workload and personality. I know a 21-year-old still going intermediate cross-country and a 12-year-old with Cushing’s. The number is less relevant than your horse’s well-being.
Dangerous behaviour is a reason for euthanasia that is hard to define and harder to accept. A horse with a behavioural issue (bucking, rearing, biting, kicking or aggressive refusals) could be the result of bad training or pain. But if retraining and veterinary intervention cannot correct the behaviour, the problem is no longer just about a dangerous horse, it’s about who is liable if the horse hurts someone. A “problem horse” can get passed from barn to barn, trainer to trainer, until eventually someone gets seriously hurt. Sadly, often the problem horse gets mistreated along the way in misguided efforts to “fix” it. Discuss options with your trainer and your vet; you could spare pain to future riders, and your horse.
Unwanted horses are a bigger issue than most people realize. Unfortunately, due to backyard breeding and increasing expenses, the market is flooded. Every horseperson knows it is not the initial cost of the horse, but the upkeep that makes horses expensive. As a result, many novice owners, with the best intentions, buy or adopt a horse only to find later they cannot afford them. They then try to sell or give them away. If the horse is sound and well-trained, this can be an excellent opportunity for someone else. However, if the horse is lame or not broke, you risk handing off your inconvenience.
If you are no longer able to keep your horse because of finances, you’re moving, or it was a deceased family member’s horse and the horse can no longer serve a purpose either as a riding, driving or companion horse, perhaps the kindest thing you can do is give them a peaceful end of life. Otherwise, the worst-case scenarios could be even more unthinkable.
How and Where to Euthanize Your Horse
Know the options for how to let your horse go. Commonly, owners have their vet euthanize their horse using sedation and barbiturate anaesthetic. Alternatively, livestock removal services might be available to euthanize with a small calibre firearm or captive bolt, which is not considered less humane by the AAEP.
Equally important is deciding where to carry out the euthanasia. If possible, and if your vet has hospital property, arrange to have it done at the clinic. Many people choose this option to avoid the bad memory every time they go to the barn. If you choose to have the procedure performed at your barn, let management and barn mates know ahead of time to spare them emotional distress if they would rather not be there.
If possible, arrange removal ahead of time, as this is an unpleasant task to consider while grieving. In case of emergency, often your vet can make arrangements. If not, contact your local livestock removal service and they will take care of the remains. Ensure the site of the procedure is a private, but accessible, location for the removal truck. When the horse is removed, the livestock removal service will render or incinerate the remains. Or they can deliver them to a cremation service if one is available in your area, but be aware this is an expensive option. Horses can only be buried in certain areas; always consult your local bylaws first as regulations vary by province.
It’s your choice to remain with the horse or not. During the procedure, for safety reasons, the vet or livestock worker will handle the horse, but they will let you be by your horse’s side in the final moments. Take the time you need to say goodbye. This is an emotional moment and can’t be rushed.
The decision will never be an easy one, but reach out to your vet, trainers and barn mates. Be prepared and know ahead of time what your plan is. When the time does come, spoil them. Indulge them with their favourite treats, hand graze them in clover, or let them go for one last rip around the field. Brush them and love on them. Arrange to be with them or trust your vet. And take a little bit of mane and tail or horseshoe to make a keepsake and remember them by. If you’ve made your decision with them in your heart, you’ve made the right one.
Depends on the amount of sedation and anaesthetic needed and whether the procedure is performed at a clinic or on your farm, where a call out fee will be applied.
Livestock Removal Fee: $150-$300
Depends on proximity to facility.
Varies by crematorium. They can also make keepsakes for additional costs.
Varies by province. When a diagnosis can’t be found by time of death, but it is clear the horse was in pain, livestock removal services can transport to an autopsy facility. Necropsies are helpful for evaluating the benefits of therapy or
for insurance or legal reasons, and an insurance company may demand a necropsy in the case of an insured animal and has the right to do so.
Fracture Repair Surgery: $2,500-$5,000
Plus another $500-$2,000 for post-op care.
Ligament or Tendon Injury Surgery: $2,500-$5,00
Plus $1,500-$5,000 in therapy.
$300-$1,500 for injections (depends anti-inflammatories or regenerative medicine) one to two times a year.
Jewellery – Many artists (locally and online) can turn horsehair into bracelets, necklaces and key chains.
Horseshoes – Artisan welders can take horseshoes and redesign them into works of art or a shoe can
be pressed into fresh cement if you have the chance to do so at the barn or your home.
Plaques – Place a plaque with your horse’s name at the barn or, if possible, at a memorial site.
Photos – Collect your best photos and ask barn mates to contribute any they might have into creating a memory book or collage.
Stories – Keep a journal of your favourite horse tales and ask barn mates what they remember about your horse. The good, the bad and the ugly make for good laughs when you’re ready.