Rhiannah De Carteret talks about coping with the loss of and grieving for your horse.
The bond between owners and their horses is unique and special. As many horsey people know, losing a horse is a distinctly different experience than losing any other relationship, human or otherwise. The sense of loss is different for every person, and no one else can fully understand exactly how you feel.
Grieving for your horse is both understandable and honourable. There is no set time frame for dealing with the various stages of grief, and it is perfectly normal for the grief to be triggered much further down the line.
The relationship between horse and owner is often complex, as not only are they a beloved pet, but often have a working relationship too, and rely wholeheartedly on their owners to care for them. They take up a lot of our free time, and often form the basis for social relationships too, and for those with only one horse, losing them can thoroughly impact on lives and routines. The loss of this routine/part of our lives combined with the loss of the animal themselves can take a long time to come to terms with.
Horses rarely die from natural causes, so often it is left to the owner to decide when the time is ‘right’. Making this decision can be complicated and difficult, even when it is undeniably in the horses best interests, and can frequently lead to feelings of guilt. It is also important to add that it can be more difficult for owners to appreciate gradual deterioration in condition when they are seeing their horse several times a day. Often it is much more obvious to a vet (or any friend for that matter) that hasn’t seen them for a while to identify these negative changes.
There are many different reasons we choose to euthanase our horses. These include old age, chronic degenerative illness or injury, catastrophic illness or injury (i.e. an emergency), behavioural issues that present a danger to humans or other animals, or change to the owners circumstances which mean they cannot care for the horse properly, where there is no viable rehoming option. Whatever your reason, it is important to remember that every situation is different, and you should never feel embarrassed or guilty about making the decision. Ultimately a controlled and dignified euthanasia is never considered poor welfare, but choosing not to euthanase when this is in the animals best interests to do so, is. Likewise, delaying euthanasia for financial or insurance reasons is not acceptable.
Making The Decision
It is easy to understand why many people put off making the decision to euthanase their horses, as obviously it is irreversible and therefore it must be thought about carefully. The clichéd statement of ‘a week early is better than a day late’ is frequently used concerning pets, but is particularly true when dealing with horses. This is in part due to their large size, and the obvious implications of dealing with such an animal in a collapsed or distressed state can create problems you wouldn’t have with a smaller animal you could lift and restrain more easily. Because horses are large and unpredictable, it is important to plan ahead and consider what you would do with your horse in an emergency situation, before the need arises. Dealing with an emergency situation is difficult enough without having to make life changing decisions on the spot.
If your horse has an obvious injury or illness warranting euthanasia it can make the decision making process slightly easier, however there are cases that are not as clear cut (this is particularly true when the horse isn’t elderly, or they have behavioural or management issues that mean they should be euthanased).
Similarly, the recession has meant that many people simply can’t afford to care for their horses as they were once able, and not all horses are suitable for rehoming. Unfortunately, the countries rehoming and rescue centres are bursting at the seams with neglected and abandoned cases, and therefore often don’t have space for private rehoming.
The decision making, and subsequent emotions and grief felt by the owner can vary greatly if the loss was sudden and tragic (i.e. in an accident) or involved a gradual deterioration, allowing the owner to come to terms with the decision needing to be made. The decision needs to be made when quality of life has deteriorated, whether this is gradual or sudden. It can be difficult to assess this, but talking to your vet and friends and family can help.
Should You Be Present?
This is a personal choice, and only you can make this decision. Many people choose to be with their horse right until the end, however plenty choose to hand them over to either a friend or professional, and try to remember them as they were before the procedure. The process can be distressing and there is no shame in not being present.
BHS Friends at the End
The British Horse Society are running a campaign to help and support owners through this painful time. They provide practical advice and information, via ‘Friends’, and can even attend the euthanasia to provide extra support should you wish.
Information can be found on the BHS website, or you can contact them directly: