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On Aging Horses and Choosing Euthanasia

I want you to imagine with me our “average” client. She/he lives in an urban area and they board their horses at very well managed stables. However because of land prices turnout at these stables is limited. After years of competing he/she feels her horse has earned the right to live out their days being a horse, free to move around with his friends on large, well managed pastures preferably in a temperate climate. The client contacts us, comes to visit, falls in love with the farm and our program and sends their horse to us. Years go by and when they visit they see just how much their horse is enjoying retirement. The horse looks a bit older at each visit but aside from minor changes the horse’s physical condition never seems to really change. We all get used to the idea that this situation is going to continue indefinitely. Unfortunately years of experience tell us that this is seldom the case.

One day nearly all of our clients are going to hear from us. What we’re going to say to them is that we’ve begun to notice some subtle changes in their horse’s overall condition. This may be the beginning of an end of life situation but a much more likely outcome is that this is the manifestation of one or more of the clinical signs of aging. Perhaps the situation is easy to diagnose. The horse’s teeth are mostly worn out and his body condition score is beginning to drop. Perhaps it’s more difficult to diagnose and we’ll need to call the veterinarian to begin doing some diagnostics to figure out what’s going on. Possibly the horse has Cushings/PPID. Either way, something is almost certainly going to need to change with regards to their horse’s care and the cost of providing the care is going to go up.

As you might imagine when our clients are already spending thousands of dollars to retire their horse in comfort these are not words that they want to hear. Everybody, us included, wants the situation to go back to what it was before. Unfortunately that’s not the way it works. Sometimes the client gets off relatively easy and a dose of daily medicine does the trick and the horse goes back to normal for at least a little while. More often some daily changes in management are needed, such as stalling to allow a horse with poor dentition to eat a hay cube mash each day. Sometimes both daily medication and a management change are needed. Typically several relatively minor interventions are required over a short time frame which, when added together, equal a not insubstantial increase in cost to our clients. The horse goes back to a new normal and quite often they are able to maintain this new normal for several years.

Eventually we reach a point where even more interventions are called for. We again consult with the client…this is, after all, still their horse. It’s often the case that we all reach a point where we have to measure the horse’s quality of life against the mounting pressures of time and costs associated with additional interventions and treatments. There is truth to the statement that if you throw enough money at the problem you can sometimes extend life for a long while, However eventually the time comes when all the money in the world is not going to provide the horse with a reasonable quality of life.

When we can see that this is where the situation is headed we work with our clients to set some criteria for a planned euthanasia. Our goal at this point is to end things before an acute crisis takes place. Whenever you can spare a horse a true end of life crisis it is a very kind thing to do. Sometimes a crisis happens with no warning, but other times you have advance notice that the situation is building to a critical point. Sometimes the horse in question rallies and the conditions for euthanasia aren’t met for months or even sometimes upwards of a year. More often the conditions for euthanasia are met relatively quickly. We set a date, the vet comes, and the horse is quietly put to sleep either in or very near his pasture with his friends and us standing close by.

Just as people age and require more interventions and medicines to maintain their quality of life so do horses. I wish they could all be so lucky as to drop dead in their tracks one day after a long, full life but this rarely happens. It is our job to help them die with dignity and in peace before their quality of life drops to crisis levels whenever possible.

For the great majority of our clients this represents an accurate progression of events from the time their horse comes to live with us through the end of their life. We are contacted several times per week by people who are interested in having a retirement farm. They have very unrealistic expectations as they daydream about petting the pretty horses. Realistically there are a lot of decisions that need to be made, many of which require a deep base of knowledge, and some of which are very hard to make.

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