(Part 2 of a 3-part series on equine end-of-life planning.)
Understanding the process may alleviate some anxiety.
By Gail M. Staines, Ph.D.
Founder, The Senior Horse
In part 1 of this 3-part series on saying good-bye to your horse, I provided information on making end-of-life decisions for your horse as well as an Equine End of Life planning document. Part 2 provides information about euthanasia – what to expect and what to plan for. Part 3 offers ways to celebrate your horse’s life.
Euthanizing your horse, or any horse, is difficult to imagine and challenging to watch. It may seem more dramatic simply because of a horse’s (or pony’s) size. Compare the size of a dog or cat to a horse or pony. Most times when a dog or cat is euthanized it may appear that they are just going to sleep. A horse’s or pony’s reaction and euthanasia process may involve the equine “collapsing” on to the ground simply due to its’ size and weight.
Equine Euthanasia: Making the Decision
The American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) has published guidelines regarding euthanizing equines. Euthanasia should be a choice of last resort when all other viable options have been explored. According to these guidelines, a horse or pony should never have to live with:
Continuous or unmanageable pain that is both chronic and incurable.
A poor prognosis for a quality life from surgery or a medical condition.
Being confined for the rest of its’ life in a box stall and/or on continuous pain medications to relieve lifelong pain.
A medical or behavioral condition that is unmanageable, making the animal hazardous to itself and to humans.
A veterinarian can work with you to determine if your horse or pony falls under any of the above categories.
Equine Euthanasia Options
AAEP Euthanasia Guidelines list 5 methods of euthanasia:
An overdose of barbiturates given intravenously.
Lidocaine hydrochloride 2% (intrathecal – into the spinal canal) when the horse is under general anesthesia.
A concentrated solution of potassium chloride (given intravenously) or magnesium sulfate, also given intravenously.
A gunshot to the brain after the horse has been sedated.
A penetrating bolt to the brain with a bolt specifically designed for euthanasia and after the horse has been sedated.
The following items are taken into consideration when selecting a technique used to euthanize an equine:
A veterinarian’s training and experience with specific techniques.
Availability of drugs used for euthanasia.
The option you selected for your horse after it is deceased. (See Part 1 of this series for more information.)
Laws and regulations where the horse is to be euthanized.
According to Holly Mason, MS, DVM, (2019) veterinarians primarily administer an overdose of barbiturates intravenously. Tracy Turner, DVM, (Beckstett, 2019) offers more specific information regarding euthanasia options. Turner notes that veterinarians are not trained in vet school on methods using a gun or a bolt; and barbiturates are an environmental issue. This class of drugs can leach into groundwater and soil. Most landfills, composing companies, and renderers will not take a deceased animal’s remains for this reason.
Turner recommends the use of anesthetics because the horse or pony becomes unconscious. Once unconscious, the animal is given other drugs (as listed above). It is estimated that death happens in about 3 minutes.
What to Expect
This is what to expect if your horse is euthanized with a lethal injection.
First, pre-plan where (location) you will have your horse euthanized. The location should be determined well in advance. A pasture away from other horses, and people, is a good choice. In a box stall is difficult since it will be challenging to remove the carcass from the stall. In an arena (indoor or outside) may be an option, but be aware that horses that will use that space after another horse has passed away may react by sniffing the area, running around, even whinnying. (See Part 1 of this series for more information.).
Also, pre-plan the day of week and time of day. For example, do you want to have this done on a weekend? Do you prefer early morning or late evening? Consider your own life obligations as well as how you anticipate dealing with grief.
Lead your horse to the specified location with your veterinarian, who will probably bring along a veterinary assistant to help.
The veterinarian will administer a sedative, rendering the horse unconscious. At this point, the horse or pony will most likely, and slowly, fall or collapse to the ground. The veterinarian will then administer a combination of lethal medications that will stop your horse’s heart. Sometimes you will see the horse’s muscles twitch. This is a natural process of dying. The veterinarian will stay with you and your horse, checking its’ heart rate until it stops.
At this point, it is perfectly acceptable to stay with your horse for a while. Many horse owner’s will cut off the horse’s tail at this time (or prior to euthanasia) as a reminder of their precious equine. Veterinarians and veterinarian assistants received training not only about the process of euthanasia, but about the owner’s grieving process. They should be caring and supportive of you at this difficult time.
Do You Stay During Euthanasia?
Each individual needs to make their own decision on whether to stay with your horse during euthanasia. To put your answer in perspective, think about the following:
Your horse has been there for you for however long you have been together. The connection you have made by grooming, riding, and just hanging out in the pasture is strong. You have told this animal your hopes, your dreams, your challenges, and your secrets. This animal knows everything about you! In honor of this special relationship, it is this author’s opinion that you are with your horse until the very end. Your horse knows what you have done for them and will be looking to you for comfort in their final hours.
This quote from The Eighty-Dollar Champion: Snowman, The Horse That Inspired a Nation captures the strong bond between horse and owner:
“Now as he [owner Harry de Leyer] stood next to his horse, he also saw the undeniable truth in his eyes. He was a good horse and he had lived a good life. He was ready to go…Everyone understood that Harry did not want to be there…But, when it came time to lead the horse from the barn, the old horse would not move. He stood there, waiting, as though he had decided long ago that only one man would lead him to his destiny…Harry lead the horse out to his beloved pasture, haltingly, step-by-step. The vet waiting under the pine trees. As the big gray closed his eyes for the last time, Harry was there, stroking him on the neck.” – (pages 275-276).
One of the reasons I wrote this 3-part series about saying good-bye to your horse is because of my own experience. The photo in this post is of Comet. Comet was a Thoroughbred, a great riding camp horse and lesson horse. I rode him in my first ever horse show and won my very first class!
Several years later, Comet showed up at a barn where he was used for riding lessons. One day, I saw a large truck heading down the driveway off the property. I asked where Comet and another horse were going. I was told, “You don’t want to know.” But, I knew. Comet was only 18 years old and perfectly healthy. I was only 14 years old at the time and I promised myself then that I would be there for any horse when the time came.
American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP). (2021). Euthanasia Guidelines. https://aaep.org/guidelines/euthanasia-guidelines
Beckstett, A. (2019). Vet: Practitioners Need Alternative Methods of Euthanizing Horses. https://thehorse.com/166167/vet-practitioners-need-alternative-methods-of-euthanizing-horses/
Blue Cross for Pets. (n.d.) Euthanasia and horses. https://www.bluecross.org.uk/pet-advice/euthanasia-and-horses
Letts, E. (2012). The Eighty-Dollar Champion: Snowman, The Horse That Inspired a Nation. NY: Ballantine Books.
Mason, H. (2019). Being prepared for equine euthanasia. The Horse. https://thehorse.com/165493/being-prepared-for-equine-euthanasia/