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Being Present at the End

A common topic for discussion that often comes up with our clients is about being with the horses at their last moments when they are euthanized. Since many of our clients live either hundreds or thousands of miles away, some even live on another continent entirely, it has never worked out for the owner to actually be present when we have had to euthanize a resident.

We hear a lot of guilt expressed about this. “I owe it to my animals to be there for them at the end.” I’m going to have to disagree with this for many reasons. I’m going to start with the most logical reason. The horse has no idea that he/she is going to be euthanized, and therefore what is NOT going through their minds in their last few minutes is “why isn’t my owner who professed to love me so much holding my leadrope right now in my final moments?” In fact depending on the circumstances the horse is either seriously ill and could care less, and sometimes is not even aware, who is or isn’t around. In those circumstances all involved, the vet, us and the horse, are just hoping for a quick and easy passing, period. Or it is a planned euthanasia and the horse is happily being fed a few treats while the sedation and euthanasia are administered, typically either in the field with their friends or just outside the field with their friends nearby. In that scenario it feels like any other day to the horse.

In the daily life of the horses on this farm all of their needs and wants are met. They have ample food, good shelter and compatible company. Their owners have delivered the trifecta of the top three needs and wants to their horses. It has been proven over and over again that the number one thing that is most important to a horse is food, followed closely by companionship and feeling safe. This is why the horses will follow strangers around in the pastures when they are here visiting. The horses learn very quickly that stranger in the pasture = very high chance of treats.

I always feel the worst for the owners whose horses are not even swayed to be polite and act interested in their presence even when being offered treats. Instead all they do is walk away, or scream for their friends. To add insult to injury other horses, just not theirs, may be gathering around with eager expressions on their faces saying “forget your horse, we’ll happily take the treats!”

What goes through my mind is “can’t you at least pretend to be grateful for to your owner for providing you with this wonderful life for five minutes?” Unfortunately for some of the horses here the answer to that question is no. Thankfully for most of the horses here the answer is yes, although with a few of the horses five minutes really is when their timer goes off, and all pretenses of a happy reunion are dropped at that point. My point being is the horse has already been given everything they deserve and more. Again what isn’t on their list of important things is their owner, or honestly any person, being with them at the end.

I’ve even had this conversation with a few people who ask about what we do. They are always very fascinated by the idea of a retirement farm. They ask all about the horses and their backgrounds and what they used to do. They are often surprised when they learn that we have horses retired with us from 15 states and two countries. Given that we do run a retirement farm the questions inevitably lead to how the end is handled. A couple of times I’ve had to listen to people act horrified that someone would send their horse away. They usually announce with an air of smugness “I would never do that with one of my animals, I love them too much.”

Usually that statement makes me want to slap the person (I’m just being totally honest here). I typically subscribe to the mantra that the less said the better when it comes to talking with people who have totally different views from me, be it about horses, politics, religion, etc. One time I just couldn’t stop myself and I launched into a lecture with this stupid woman (again I know that sounds harsh but I’m being very honest about my thoughts here). “People send their horses to us because they love them THAT MUCH. Instead of being selfish and keeping them close to them, they chose to send them farther away to a situation that was better for the horse. Some people are too busy being martyrs and telling themselves how great they are to realize that their horse might be happier somewhere else. Our clients are also savvy enough as horse people to realize that the companionship that counts most to a horse is that of other horses. Even though we all want to think that we have a special bond and relationship with our horses, and most of do have that with our horses, in the end the most meaningful bonds our horses are going to have are with other horses. Period. The end.”

I have no doubt that that most of my commentary sailed right over her head. I also have no doubt that she thinks I’m a witch and I’m fine with that. My point in this rambling post is that being a great horse owner has nothing to do with being present when your horse passes. Being a great horse owner has everything to do with what happens before that day comes. Anyone who has a horse with us has earned the distinction of outstanding horse owner and deserves to be applauded. They’ve had every reason under the sun to abandon their horse. The mares could have been given away as broodmares. The geldings could be given away as “companion” horses.

Many of them have gone through the emotional and financial nightmare of trying to diagnose and rehab their horse, only to have a retired horse to show for all of their efforts. Often they have people telling them to give the horse to a rescue. Didn’t you know there are all these rescues out there with too much money and not enough horses to care for? Or they are told to give the horse away as a companion, because again, didn’t you know there are people just lining up to support your no longer rideable horse so you don’t have too? Instead they chose to keep the responsibility, and with that responsibility comes the bills, money being spent on a horse that isn’t “useful” anymore.

For anyone who has ever beat themselves up over not being there at the end, or who worries about that possibility, this should be the last thing on your mind. The horse could care less if you are there or not, but they do care a whole lot about all of the decisions you will make in their lives prior to that day. So judge yourself by those decisions because they’re the ones that count.

**Melissa now steps down off her soap box.**

I hope everyone had a nice weekend!




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