What you can do to make your horse comfortable.
Gail M. Staines, Ph.D.
Founder, The Senior Horse
Many horses will pass away naturally. They are not in tremendous pain, so euthanasia is not required. Senior horses (like other animals, including humans) get old. There are easy ways for us horse owners to help ease the transition -- for both your horse and you.
What do senior horses mostly die of?
According to Miller, et al. (2015), horses 20+ years of age mostly pass away due to issues with the digestive system including gastrointestinal impact or rupture, as well as urinary tract disease, pituitary gland disease (i.e., PPID), locomotor system issues, or nervous system maladies.
We cannot know exactly when our horses will pass away on their own, but there are some signs that provide clues to a potential timeframe. And, there are some things that you can do as a horse owner to make the natural aging and dying process easier.
Observation and Possible Signs
Most of us know the habits of our horses – where they like to take a nap, favorite grazing spots, the best places for a good scratch, etc. We can tell when they are healthy and when they are in pain. Observing horses provides you with a substantial amount of information! It also gives you a benchmark by which to compare when your horse is acting out of the ordinary.
There are some common signs senior horses will exhibit when they are near death including:
Lack of interest in food and/or water
Laying down more than usual
Having difficulty getting up
Wandering without purpose
Seeming to not be present in the environment around them.
Note that each horse is different. Some senior horses will not look so well one day and seem perfectly fine the next. If you are ever concerned about your horse’s well-being, contact your veterinarian immediately and explain what you are seeing that has you concerned.
Making Your Horse Comfortable
Hospice care for horses is a relatively new concept. According to Cumby-Dallin (2014), the goal of hospice is “intensive caring” as opposed to “intensive care.” This is a special time for you to support your beloved equine and making them comfortable is easy.
Walby (2020) shares some ways we can make our horses more comfortable:
Offer food, water, and shelter. Allow your horse to decide what they want, if they want it, and when. And, allow your horse to freely go where they want to go -- in the pasture, corral, stall, etc.
Give your horse their favorite treats.
Gently groom them and/or itch their favorite spots. (Note that your horse may pin back their ears or give you other signs that they do not want to be touched. That’s ok. Offer what they like and let them decide whether or not they want to partake.)
Essential oils, like lavender, can be calming. Place a few drops on their forehead, between their eyes.
Every time you visit with your horse, say ‘hello.’ Spend some quiet time with them. Talk to them. Sing to them. Share your love. When you need to leave them, tell them it is ok to let go, but that you will return.
While searching for information about this topic, I came across a powerful and beautiful story about a horse owned by Mary Walby. (2020). It is a story well worth reading as she takes you on her journey of the last days with her horse Carro.
No one wants their horse to pass away, but it is a part of life. Instead of worrying about the end, take the time to share it with the horse that you love. They will know.
Cumby-Dallin, D. (2014). Horse hospice. Equine Wellness Magazine. https://equinewellnessmagazine.com/horse-hospice/
Miller, M., et al. (2015). What’s new in old horses? Postmortem diagnoses in mature and aged equids. Veterinary Pathology, 53 (2): 390-398. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0300985815608674
Walby, M. (2020). Comfort care for horses in hospice. God’s Window Senior Horse Rehab. http://seniorhorserehab.com/comfort-care-for-horses-in-hospice/
Walby, M. (2020). Horse wisdom: Lessons in hospice care. Listen to Your Horse. https://listentoyourhorse.com/horse-wisdom-lessons-in-hospice-care/