“It’s very final — and very difficult,” says Rachel Andrews, recalling the moment two years ago when her home-bred youngster Ava was put to sleep after colic surgery. “I’m familiar with the process through my job as a World Horse Welfare field officer, but that doesn’t make it any easier.”
Rachel recently lost another horse, this time in different circumstances. When her eventing mare Misty (pictured, below) suffered a deterioration in her health, Rachel was left in no doubt that euthanasia was the kindest option.
“I was mentally more ready when Misty died,” she explains. “I was lucky to have had the chance to do the best thing for her. If you own a horse, you have to be prepared to have your heart completely broken at some point.”
The stark truth
Rachel’s experiences, sadly, are not unusual. A recent project co-ordinated by Advancing Equine Scientific Excellence (AESE) and supported by World Horse Welfare and The Donkey Sanctuary revealed that only one in eight horses, ponies and donkeys in the UK die of natural causes.
“This means most owners will be faced with making an end-of-life decision,” says AESE study co-ordinator Dr Georgina Crossman. “The research also highlighted that end-of-life considerations are not just for older animals. The number of horses dying aged between seven and 10 years was found to be similar to those dying aged 26-30 years.”
Despite these stark facts, the study found that around two-thirds of owners who had not previously lost an equine had made no end-of-life plans. According to Rachel, some prior thought definitely helped.
“Misty had various ongoing issues over the years, which were carefully managed,” says Rachel, referring to the part-Connemara mare’s melanomas and foot issues. “I’d retired her from competition last year aged 17, and had been keeping a close eye on her as she seemed to be ageing a little quicker than expected. Cushing’s tests came back clear, but she was checked regularly by the vet.”
When Rachel brought Misty in from the field in September for a hack, the mare had taken a noticeable turn for the worse.
“Her back end wasn’t moving properly,” recalls Rachel, who suspected a neurological problem. “She was dragging a leg and looked unsteady, so I called the vet and also asked her previous owner to come and see her. Misty had played such a big part in our lives. I had it in my head that I’d see what the vet said, but I knew she had issues and wondered if we were reaching the end.”
Rachel’s vet and physio confirmed that the problems were neurological, probably due to spreading melanomas that were pressing on an internal structure.
“There were various things we could have tried, but the procedures would have been massive,” says Rachel. “I never wanted to keep Misty going just for me, or risk her going down in the field with no one there. She was a stoic, with the heart of a lion. I wanted her to keep her dignity.
“With these things in mind, we decided to have her put to sleep there and then. She was at home and the sun was shining — and I held her until the last moment.”
With a plan in place, Rachel could concentrate on giving Misty the best possible end.
“It’s good to have things written down,” she says. “I knew, for example, that she wasn’t needle-shy, so she wouldn’t be worried by the injection. I also knew that I didn’t want her ashes, but I kept some tail hair to have a bracelet made.”
Rachel was also able to request some sedatives for Holly, Misty’s fieldmate of many years, and arrange for a new companion to help ease the loss.
“The removal of the body afterwards is the worst thing,” she adds. “You can’t do any more for your horse at that stage, so it’s good if someone else can deal with that.”
Breaking the taboo
Georgina points out that vets and yard owners don’t necessarily want to bring up the issue of death with their clients.
“It’s too often a taboo subject,” she says. “But if you’re not at the yard when an accident happens, others may have to make decisions on your behalf. Do they know how you’d like things to be handled?
“It’s not a nice thing to talk about, but it’s necessary. Making a plan for your horse is as important as writing a will for yourself.”
Rachel’s decision was clear-cut, albeit painful. However, reaching that point is not always so straightforward.
“Older horses are more likely to start going downhill, but younger animals can also suffer ongoing illness or lameness,” says Georgina. “Once a horse stops exhibiting normal behaviour, such as galloping around the field, rolling or lying down, his quality of life may not be what it was. An owner who sees him on a daily basis may not notice the decline.”
According to Roly Owers MRCVS, World Horse Welfare chief executive, a forthcoming “wellness checker” tool should help. “The tool will give an owner a framework within which to plot objectively where a horse is,” he explains. “If his quality of life then deteriorates, they can take action.
“Delayed death has long been a key welfare problem facing the UK’s equine population, partly because people close themselves off emotionally to what’s happening with their horse and also because of the rising cost of euthanasia,” he adds. “If something is wrong with a horse, some people would rather sell him on than do the responsible thing.
“It’s an owner’s responsibility to give an animal a good life and a good death. It’s never easy to think about the end of a horse’s life, and it never should be, but we need to face up to it.”
Making a plan
A horse can have an accident any time, any age, so it’s never too soon to make a plan. Particularly when the horse’s owner isn’t present, it is imperative that the vet has definitive confirmation of the horse’s identity, preferably in the form of a passport, which can be checked against a microchip. If your horse is insured, check your policy details as the insurance company may require notice of euthanasia in advance if it isn’t an emergency.
“It’s far easier to research end-of-life options without emotion, while your horse is healthy and happy,” says World Horse Welfare’s Sam Chubbock, who suggests the following points to consider:
- “It helps to know what to expect with the different methods of euthanasia,” says Sam. “The cheapest option is usually the knackerman; most can euthanase a horse with a firearm and collect the body. Other options include a bullet or an injection administered by a vet. The fact that your horse is needle-shy or head-shy might influence your choice, but be prepared to be guided by a vet as to the most appropriate method in an emergency situation.
- “Keep relevant phone numbers for services to hand, including out-of-hours contact details.
- “Disposal options include the hunt kennels or the knackerman. Horses can be cremated individually or as part of a group, or can be buried at home in certain circumstances. Bear costs in mind, which could exceed £1,000 for euthanasia by injection and individual cremation. It’s also worth knowing how much you could afford for emergency treatment not covered by insurance. Is there a bottom line for vet fees?
- “Keep one copy of your plans and give another to the yard owner, reviewing them once a year. Include details of someone who could act on your behalf if you can’t be contacted.”
- World Horse Welfare offers a “Just In Case” pack containing guidance and an owner’s plan to complete, plus an end-of-life helpline. worldhorsewelfare.org/just-in-case How capable are newly qualified vets?
Ref Horse & Hound; 7 December 2017