Vets will tell you that “better a week too soon than a day too late” is the best policy when it comes to putting an animal to sleep.
But concern that this does not always happen — which can result in much-loved horses becoming welfare cases — inspired the British Horse Society (BHS) to set up its free Friends at the End scheme in January.
“Sadly, many of the welfare calls we receive are about old and much-loved horses who have been left to go on for too long and are now suffering,” said BHS head of welfare Lee Hackett, who has overseen the training of around 100 Friends at the End volunteers.
“I have lost track of the number of people who, after the event, say they wished for the horse’s sake that they had done it earlier.
“We launched the scheme to make a horrible time easier for people and horses.”
The scheme provides support for owners making the decision to euthanase their horse in non-urgent cases. It is seeing a significant uptake, helping more than 50 people so far this year.
Friends at the End is designed to give owners support, ranging from counselling and information given over the phone to a volunteer being present while a horse is put down.
Feelings of guilt
Emma Ball said the service helped her deal with the feelings of guilt she experienced when deciding to euthanase her 10-year-old novice eventer, who was suffering from navicular syndrome and unsuitable as a companion animal.
“Lisa [a BHS friend] made me feel less guilty and that it was OK to make this decision, which was hugely comforting,” she told H&H.
“I still felt like I was murdering my best friend, but the actual process was compassionate, dignified and peaceful, with no trauma or stress for my horse,” she added.
More than 100 BHS volunteer welfare officers have undergone the training to be “friends”.
The training involves sessions with a clinical vet, to discuss the euthanasia options available and a counselling skills course with a non-clinical vet, who specialises in bereavement.
Knowing when to say goodbye
David Gibson used the service after contemplating for six months whether to euthanase his mare Lady Jane, 26, who was lame.
“She was my first horse and we had history,” he told H&H. “She wasn’t terribly lame, but it was sad watching her struggling to keep up with the other horses and I didn’t want to wait until she was crippled.
“Friends at the End supported me a great deal psychologically, so I knew exactly what to expect.”
Mr Gibson was supported by BHS friend Lisa Draper — who attended Lady Jane’s euthanasia. She feels that many owners are unprepared for the experience.
“People become alarmed when they see the carcasses in the truck if they have no experience,” said Ms Draper.
“Preparing owners for things like this or the noise of the gun can be reassuring. And sometimes it’s not just about losing a horse — it’s a whole network of friends, activities and lifestyle.”
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The full version of this story was first published in Horse & Hound magazine (20 June 2013)