Least Favorite Subjects

Horses die. It is one of the ways they keep us horsemen grounded in reality during these modern, antiseptic times. They remind us of an essential truth; everything that lives, will die. Sometimes horses do it all on their own but sometimes we are called upon to help. That ultimate decision will always be one of the hardest, most gut-wrenching you'll ever have to make but if you live with horses long enough you most likely will. Human life expectancy is simply longer than equine. Odds are that one or more of our horse friends will reach his end before we do. We must accept this and be ready to handle it responsibly and compassionately when it comes. Even though euthanasia is one of my least favorite subjects to ponder, much less deal with, having some clearly thought out parameters before the need arose has helped me when it's been my turn to make that call. 

I'm not going to talk about what happens to a horse after he dies or even how one might feel about the whole subject of death. Not being a dead horse I really couldn't say. I've got some notions and you are entitled to yours. I have, however, dealt with the end of a horse's life enough times to have reached some conclusions. 

One is that you can't fix everything. This past summer we lost Mocha, one of my all time favorite horses and one of the top prospects we've ever had on this ranch. A surprise attack launched by another horse put him through a woven wire fence. The damage to his right forearm was gruesome. Hide and muscle, tendons and nerves, everything was cut right to the bone then down almost to his knee. The only good thing was that my oldest daughter Katie happened to be right there. She is a talented vet tech and managed to keep him from bleeding to death and we were able to get him to town. 

At the vet clinic the prognosis was not good. The damage to his leg was catastrophic. He would never be able to use it or control it again. There was, however, a slim chance that we could save his life. A younger me probably would have tried but I'm a little more realistic now. I thought about what it would have meant to succeed. At best Mocha might have hobbled around three-legged, never straying more than fifty yards from the water tank, able only to watch as the other horses ran off and left him. This was not fixing him. It was nothing Nature would ever stand for. Movement is the essence of being a horse and we could never restore that. As much as I didn't want to let him go it would have been unnatural and wrong to hold Mocha in a life that denied him his right to be a horse. 

I signed the consent form and said farewell to my good friend. 

I've also come to think that the good of a herd comes before the good of a horse. That's how it works in the natural world. The weak and the sick get taken so the rest can survive. If you only have one horse and really deep pockets this may not apply to you but nobody is ever going to mistake one of my horses for that kind of an only-child. 

Gypsy, one of our broodmares, colicked this past month. It was a bad colic and on top of that the nearest available horse vet was 115 miles away. After examining Gypsy he gave us the grim report. Her only chance was major surgery and we'd have to load her back up and haul her to another clinic to have it done. We were looking at between six and seven thousand dollars just for the surgery. Even then the outlook was extremely poor. 

It was hard. It always is. Gypsy was my personal pet among the broodmares. She wasn't bred this year so I had begun riding her. I just knew she would make the perfect saddle horse for my wife. Still I chose not to try the surgery. The odds were bad and she was in enough agony that another long trip in the trailer would have been torture. Plus, I had been down the surgery road before and that horse colicked many times thereafter and ultimately died from it. Weighing equally in my mind was the money. Resources these days are finite. To spend them all on Gypsy would have left nothing for everyone else. I might well have sealed the fate on some other horse or horses for a losing cause. 

Sometimes as a herdsman you have no other choice. 

You may have noticed that I use what happens in the natural world to guide my decisions. It is the best yardstick I can think of to measure what is truly in the best interest of the horse. It gives me three basic factors to use when making this hardest of calls. I can use them as a counter-balance against my emotions and it keeps me from playing an arbitrary God. The first is, will trying to keep this one horse alive cause harm to others? Remember that in life or in death, horses are herd animals. Maybe at the very least you can take comfort in knowing that now there is room for one more. The other two factors I use in conjunction with each other. I believe that if a horse would have no real chance of ever again surviving out in the natural world, and if that horse is truly suffering, it becomes our responsibility to step in. This is difficult for us humans because we'd like to try and give our horses a miracle. We live in a world of "what if" and "someday". Our horses live in a different world. 

They live in this day, with what is, and we shouldn't prolong their misery to make us feel better about ourselves. 

I'd like to stress that I'm not advocating euthanasia simply because a horse has reached the point where he couldn't survive in the wild. Here at C Heart we've patched and we've doctored - and we've run up vet bills that looked like the national debt. And we've kept plenty of old horses going far longer than Nature would have, too, with blankets, tender care and special feed. But these horses weren't truly suffering, they were just old and needing extra care. Now let me share a cautionary tale about what happens when we don't live up to our responsibilities. It comes to me from someone I'll call Sharon. I've known Sharon for years and have no doubt that this story is accurate. I've changed the names but not the facts. 

Holly was an ancient sorrel mare. She did not belong to Sharon, nor was she in a position to decide her fate but she helped her owner look after her. Arthritis and many, many years of living had severely deformed Holly's pasterns and her teeth were barely functional. One autumn a few years ago, the natural decline she was on became steep. She couldn't keep weight on no matter what she was fed and she either laid down for hours at a time (if the weather was warm) or else she stood shifting her weight from one front foot to the other to relieve her aching pasterns. 

As her condition worsened Sharon thought that maybe it was time to consider putting her down. 
Her owner would not hear of it. This person was adamant that Holly should die on the ranch and wanted her to, "just go to sleep one day and not wake up." That sounded liked a pretty accurate description of Sodium Thiopental to Sharon but Holly's owner just could not bear the thought. So Holly continued to hurt. 

Sharon told me not to think that Holly's owner was unkind or didn't love her horse. Instead it seemed as if her owner loved Holly so much as to only see her as she once was, not what she had become. And she had become a painful shell of her former self. 

Having her teeth floated might have helped but her owner felt, and Sharon remembers thinking she was probably right, that a trip to the vet's would have done her more harm than good. Holly was gentle in her own way but she had never been handled much and she'd never even seen the inside of a trailer. Even if they could have gotten her into one she'd probably have torn her self up in it and if they could have somehow gotten her inside the vet clinic any procedures would have had to have been done under general anesthesia. Not the best things at her stage of life. 

Her feet were another problem. In earlier days they'd been able to catch her and sneak a little Bute into her. A couple of hours afterwards her pain eased enough to trim her feet. The shoer had to be fast but he could get it done. By this point however, Holly could no longer tolerate the Bute; it would cause her to stop eating. They decided that long toes were less bad than stomach ulcers.

At last spring came. Green grass worked its wonders and Holly actually put on a little weight. She again laid down for hours in the warm sun, resting from the long ordeal of winter. Eventually she even felt good enough to let the shoer trim her feet. Kindly left unsaid by the owner was, "I told you so," but Sharon got the feeling anyhow. 

It was a mirage. As soon as the grass began to cure she lost the weight she'd gained and then some. Droves of flies plagued her despite daily spraying. As it became full summer and the ground hardened, she moved less and less. She still spent many hours lying down but she was no longer simply resting; it just hurt too much to stand. 

Her steep decline became a free fall. Already prone to it, she began to choke on everything. Senior feeds, rolled grains, wholes grains, soaked or not, fed high off the ground or down low, - whatever - she choked on it. Eventually Sharon rigged a four foot square platform and if she spread out a small amount of sweet feed (go figure) over the entire surface, Holly could eat that without choking. She got this several times a day and all the good hay she wanted. It wasn't enough. 

Soon you could have scrubbed your clothes on her ribs and hung them up to dry on her hip bones. 

Holly's owner finally agreed to end this. They even hired a backhoe man who came and dug a grave. But alas, at the last moment Holly's owner reversed the decision, convinced that she was actually starting to look better. 

Winter came early that year. Snow and sub-zero temperatures started hammering them in the first part of November. It never let up. Soon even the respite of lying down was ripped away from Holly; the bitter cold ground made it hurt worse than standing. 

Every morning Sharon crossed her fingers on the way to the barnyard. "This may sound bad to you," she said, "but I wished she would just die. It made my heart sick to look at her.

Holly's weight dropped down to nine hundred pounds, then down to eight. She held one aching foreleg off the ground, then the other. Then her hind feet could no longer bear the strain and they began to hurt. Still the weight fell off, until Holly was down to around seven hundred pounds. 

Finally, on a bitter cold afternoon, Sharon went to feed her one of her mini-meals and found her on the ground. For an instant she was happy for her, thinking that at last she'd found a place where she could get down and rest. She looked normal enough until she tried to get up. She couldn't do it without Sharon supplying most of the muscle. When she did it was obvious that she had little feeling in her feet. After a while she was able to walk but her gait remained a strange one. Sharon had seen it before only in cattle. Holly's feet were dying, there was not enough circulation left to reach them in this kind of cold. If she lived long enough they would fall off.

That night it got down to thirty-five below. In the morning Sharon was mildly surprised to find Holly still standing and impatient for her first bit of grain. She thought that perhaps she'd been wrong about her feet and that there was a glimmer of hope. It was the first of February by then and in a couple of days the temperatures were forecasted to reach the twenties. Maybe this old mare would see another spring after all. 

She returned two hours later to find Holly down again. This time she wasn't getting up. There wasn't much Sharon could do. The mare was thrashing around so Sharon moved her over a bit to keep her from knocking her head against the wall of the shed she was in. She was so light Sharon could do it without help. It may have been a mistake, for instead of the shed wall Holly banged her head on the frozen, unyielding ground. Sharon put a little hay under her head, it was all she could think of to do.

This wasn't the end Holly could have had. Her death throes lasted for quite a while. It haunts Sharon to this day. Being a kind person she lied and told her owner that Holly died in her sleep; she didn't think there was any sense in adding to the misery once it was finally over.

Thinking about it, I'm sure Nature would have ended it quicker and about two years earlier. It would have been a mercy.Her owner could have done the same thing; euthanasia would have been more humane and an even bigger mercy. Hearing the raw emotions in Sharon's voice as she told me this story makes me sure of that, too. 

Reaching the end of a horse's life is always hard on us humans. Having to decide exactly when that end will come is harder still. But, while having thought out ahead of time the parameters by which you'll frame your decision won't make it easy, 

it will help you make that decision with clarity.