When the time comes to say goodbye to a much-loved equine friend and servant, there are various avenues available and time should be spent considering the options before the day arrives.
For decades, the preferred option has been to have the horse put down at home, usually by hunt staff, and then send it to kennels for the hounds to enjoy. Most hunts continue to offer this service and hunt staff are practised at coping with horses and empathising with owners.
Nevertheless, burials and memorials for equines have been around for centuries. The Duke of Wellington’s brave charger Copenhagen — who protected his owner at the Battle of Waterloo — was buried at the Duke’s home, Stratfield Saye, in 1836. His grave remains there today.
New regulations, though, often make home burial impossible, so more owners are turning to individual cremations and other options. And businesses are cropping up to help owners deal with confusing practicalities.
In theory, burial is still permitted for horses if the local authority considers them pets and regulations such as proximity of the grave to watercourses are met. But in practice, attitudes vary and in an emergency, some authorities may not give a decision in time.
The newer options do not come cheap, though: at an average cost of £500-£700, individual cremation with all the extras, such as the ashes returned in an engraved casket, could be condemned as anthropomorphism — attributing human characteristics to animals — gone crazy. However for some owners, including those with children, having a casket returned and being able to stage a ‘funeral’ of some kind can help the grieving process.
The International League for the Protection of Horses (ILPH) offers a way of remembering a horse — or person — through its Trees in Tribute Scheme. For a minimum donation of £85, you can plant a tree that not only bears a commemorative plaque, but also gives shelter to ILPH horses in the fields: so far, there have been more than 800 trees planted and there is room for many more.
Grief can hit some owners hard, especially if they do not have anyone who understands the depth of the emotions. The Blue Cross’s confidential pet bereavement support service has helped several horse owners and works by putting them in touch with trained befrienders via e-mail or telephone.
Licensed pet cemeteries usually take only small animals, though Penny and John Lally’s Rose Farm in Cornwall has a special horse cemetery. Each grave has an apple tree with a slate memorial plaque.
Cremation is a preferred option for many and may be essential if euthanasia is by injection. The Association of Private Pet Cemeteries and Crematoria says owners worried about what happens to a horse’s body should check that the operator is not a renderer and that the animal will be cremated whole.
But is it wrong to place so much significance on what happens to a horse after death? Vet Karen Coumbe says that reactions vary and that there is no right or wrong response. She also feels it is often best for owners not to be there when their horse is put down or taken away — for everyone’s sake, including the animal.
“An owner is inevitably distressed and horses can pick up on it,” she says. “It can also make the vet’s job more difficult if they’re having to worry about the owner at the same time.”
Whether your horse’s last journey is to a corner of his field, a crematorium or the kennels comes down to personal choice. If it helps you cope, it’s the right one.
This feature was first published in Horse & Hound (14 September, ’06)