by Marilyn Munzert
Preparing in advance by knowing your options means you won’t be faced with the grief of losing your horse while making the difficult decision of how to lay him to rest during this highly emotional and stressful time.
In the ideal world, senior horses live out their lives as happy retirees, roaming green pastures and then one day going to sleep under a shade tree, never to awaken again. However, it’s more realistic that the time will come when even the best low-stress life will become too much for the older horse.
How will you know when you need to consider euthanasia as the best alternative? There comes a time when you look into the horse’s eyes and see that they want to go. However, by that point they are generally clearly suffering. It’s better if you can spot the signs earlier and not let your horse get to that level of suffering. The decision is most difficult regarding horses that have been in a slow decline. The signs can be subtle but soon compound until the horse begins to fail physically.
Specific signs of declining health can depend on the challenges the horse is already dealing with, but here are general indicators to watch for:

  • Poor appetite
  • Loss of weight and/or muscle despite an adequate diet
  • Difficulty moving and rising; reluctance to lie down to sleep; weakness
  • Depressed/withdrawn attitude and isolation from other animals
  • Difficulty with temperature regulation; trouble handling extremes of cold or heat.

It’s hard but it’s in your horse’s best interest to honestly answer these questions: Are you keeping your horse alive for your own needs? Are you avoiding the inevitable because you can’t bear the thought of life without him? Do you feel euthanasia is too big and too powerful of a decision for you to make?
Remember that if medical intervention or surgery won’t cure your horse, you’re only prolonging pain and suffering. The biggest realization is that quality of life is what matters, and that ending your horse’s pain is a gift you can provide.
Another reality is financial responsibilities, with both older and younger horses the costs of some therapies may make them prohibitive. With the senior horse, there are even more considerations beyond the initial cost. Surgery is not only very expensive, but it can also include considerable risks and a long painful and stressful recovery period. The older horse is often less able to come out of this successfully.
Not being able to – or choosing not to – spend thousands of dollars on surgery or other treatments does not equate to being a bad horse owner. Sometimes, even if you can afford an expensive treatment, a humane death may be the best approach.
In cases of progressive chronic illness or lameness, you may be able to choose when and where to say goodbye.
Plan ahead and call your vet to discuss options. Your vet may come to your barn so your horse can be put to rest on a pleasant day in the environment where he’s most comfortable.
If it’s legal to bury your horse on your property, you can have the hole dug beforehand. Another option is to take your horse to the vet clinic. If he is used to trailering and doesn’t get stressed by different surroundings, this can be easier for you. The clinic will deal with your horse’s body in the manner you choose: burial, cremation, rendering or use for equine research.
Whether they’re faced with a crisis or have some time to plan, many people want to be there for their horse at his last moment. It’s especially important if your horse is being euthanized in a crisis situation or if he is not comfortable with vets or strangers. In these cases, your presence will be comforting. On the other hand, if you know you will be upset by watching the euthanasia, it may be best not to be there. No matter what, make peace with your decision, knowing that this is in the best interest of your horse. It’s your final gift in a long legacy of stewardship.
Dealing with a horse’s death is difficult under any circumstance. Planning ahead and making some decisions beforehand won’t make it easier, but it can help the process go a little more smoothly. Remember that while all life comes to an end, the legacy of that life is never-ending. Do your best to move beyond the death, and celebrate the life and the memories you shared.
The ways to memorialize beloved horses and celebrate their lives are as varied and individual as each horse. Some owners keep mane or tail hair and braid it into a bracelet or other keepsake. Others make an impression of a hoof or save the last set of horseshoes.
Another way to honor a favorite horse is to have a barn party for sharing memories or to make a donation to an equine research facility or nonprofit organization in the horse’s name.