I wrote the following article in the fall and winter of 2006, and it was published by Endurance News in February 2007.
Since then, it has been re-printed (with my permission and permission from EN) in newsletters for veterinary hospitals and equine rescue organizations. It was also recently posted at The Mugwump Chronicles blog. The photos were taken by Savannah Rae Kent and Jillian Zemanek.
Feel free to share this article with people and groups who will benefit from reading it--and if you'd like to include it in a newsletter or some other publication, please email me. I'm happy to give permissions.
Choosing the Right Way to Say Good-Bye
It took months for the lady to put her horse down.
The mare wasn’t old, but repeated bouts of painful laminitis gave her that fragile, worried look that is common among very old horses. She wasn’t a small horse, but she seemed to shrink as the pain took more and more of her attention during the day. Daily doses of bute were hurting her gut, and in the final month or two, the mare spent most of the day lying down in the soft shavings, with her eyes half-closed.
We kept trying to talk to the owner, but she wanted to make sure that she tried everything to cure her horse. In the course of a year, I probably saw every vet in the county and most of the farriers too, trying to perform some sort of miracle for the lady’s horse. The lady didn’t want to hear what the stall-cleaners were saying: that her horse was hurting all the time.
I guess it was the lady’s husband who made the decision. We almost never saw him before that, but that last day he met the vet and wrote the check. I never saw the lady again.
While the lady’s horse was waiting to die, everybody suffered. Not only the horse and the lady, but the rest of the people in the barn, and the other horses too. We were so sad, and frustrated, and angry--and powerless to help the mare.
A friend, who has worked with horses for more than 40 years, and worked with people longer than that, gave me the best advice:
“Sometimes,” she said, “the only thing you can do about a bad decision is to try to do better when it’s your turn.”
Years have passed. Now it’s my turn. I think of that lady, and that horse, and I’m determined to do better for my horse.
In May 2006, accumulated fibrosis in my 20-year-old Standardbred mare’s knee obstructed her joint enough to cause permanent lameness. The decision to retire her was a tough one: although never an elite athlete, Story had been a major participant in the riding scene at my barn for years; most of the kids—and many adults—took their first riding lessons on her.
I cried the day we removed her shoes, knowing that her situation was only going to get worse.
With that in mind, I enlisted help from my family, my horse-loving friends, the farrier, and the vet. Together we created a list of parameters that would help us keep track of Story’s level of comfort, so that I could make that difficult decision at the right time—not too soon, but more importantly: not too late. I didn’t want to wait until her only thought would be “pain.”
To monitor Story’s quality of life, we measured the swelling in the bad knee, the ability to bend and straighten the impaired leg, and the amount of stress visible in the foot tissue of her non-impaired legs. We kept track of her enthusiasm for rolling in the mud and getting her belly scratched. We set up some “attitude” measurements: her eagerness to eat, to walk out to the pasture, and to get into and out of the horse trailer. This last was important: I needed to trailer her to the vet hospital for euthanasia, and so I had to know when stepping up into and down from the trailer was beginning to challenge her.
All of this preparation was as much for me as it is for Story. Research done by the American Veterinary Medical Association recognizes that a horse is an important part of the lives of owners. “It is natural to feel you are losing a friend or companion” reads their informational flyer, “because you are.”
I researched euthanasia methods, and talked to my vet about my preferences. I put aside money in my savings account to cover the cost of the procedure. A professional photographer came out on the snowiest day of the year and spent 3 hours taking pictures.
Finally, we reached the parameter edge: the bute wasn’t easing her pain enough anymore.
Making that appointment at the vet hospital was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I think the conversation was held mostly in sign language and hand waving, because I certainly couldn’t talk coherently. I set the appointment two weeks in advance, and then the real work began: calling and emailing all of Story’s friends and students, to tell them that if they wanted to feed her an apple, it had better be soon. Some visited in person, others preferred to remember her happier days. Everyone wanted photos of Story in the snow.
She lived her last two weeks being stuffed full of carrots, apples, and cookies by her friends and fans. We revised an old trick called “fetch the bunny” where she would pick up the stuffed toy and shake it in her teeth in return for a treat. The last time she fetched the bunny was in the parking lot of the vet’s office.
This $500 racetrack-washout taught us all so much. She was my first horse, my first trail horse, and my first endurance horse. For many kids, she was the first to carry them at a trot. For many adults, she taught patience, balance, and courage.
Story lived as she died: a teaching horse. The vet interns used her body to practice administering a mylogram, a painful procedure for a living animal and not administered frivolously. By practicing the technique, our interns might be able to save a horse’s life someday.
I was determined to push Story’s life-lesson one step further: to write this article, and to urge horse owners to look ahead, to avoid waiting too long like that other lady did, and to plan a graceful exit for their beloved friends
I think Story would approve of that.
AFTERWORD: September 1, 2009
Less than a week after Story died, I got a call from Greener Pastures, the Standardbred Horse Adoption Society in Langely, BC.
"We heard about Story," they said, "You did the right thing. You were so brave....." blah blah blah. And then:
"We can't help noticing that you've got an empty stall."
I hadn't planned to get another horse quite so soon...but one of Greener Pastures horses was being returned by an adopter who had been recently diagnosed with a brain tumor. GP didn't have any room in their barn...all their pastures were full...and then they heard about me.
"Take her as a foster for the winter," they said. "If you like her, keep her. If not, bring her back in the spring."
Two and a half years later, Fiddle is still here with me.
Despite being Story's cousin, Fiddle isn't much like my first mare. She's much more challenging, much less patient. She has taught me a lot.
I think Story would approve of that, too.