Senior Horses: When it’s Time to Let Go

“Letting Go” has sort of become a popular subject in all sorts of context. Letting go of expectations, letting go of your children, letting go of convictions or patterns that don’t serve us well. Anything from “Letting go of attachment” (Zen) to “Letting go of love” (Dr. Phil). And if you’d like see this thought expressed in a song, there is anything from Lynard Skynard (Free Bird), over various relaxation tunes to hip hop.

But what does it mean in the context of horse ownership? Having had to face the topic of letting go in various situations recently—including one very important horse related situation lately—I’d like to explore this topic a bit deeper. Note: This is a NOT a gloom and doom article! It’s all about life. 😉

A beloved senior gelding
A beloved senior gelding

Convenient solutions?

As we Americans (with or without German accent…) are a convenience-addicted society, we include death in the spectrum ‘servicable’ life occurances. With servicable I mean, “Please let someone else handle it!”. We don’t really want to have anything to do with it and let service providers such as funeral homes handle most aspects (generalization, of course). As many Western societies, we do not include death as part of life as it is the case in many other cultures. Furthermore, we cannot influence the date and time that death occurs, making it an unpredictable occurrence that we’d rather not think about.

One exception is pet or horse ownership. Here we have the responsibility of deciding when is the right time to let our companion go, meaning confront ourselves with the inevitability of death and bringing it about for our beloved companion. What could be harder, especially when there seem so many medical options to prolong life available today?

(I purposely want to exclude the topic of ‘death decision evasion’ by those horse owners, who decide to sell their senior horse at auction and thus letting someone else (the meat buyer, the slaughter house) make the tough decision.)

A little mare—and a big lesson

I recently worked on a little Arabian mare in Germany, who—for the sake of privacy—I will call ‘Dusty’, since she seemed like a bit of fairy dust to me. Sometimes you encounter animals (or people) who clearly live beyond our plane of everyday existance and just seem to have something quite extraordinarily etheral about them. And Dusty, 28 years old and riddled by arthritis and the long-term effects of old injuries, was such an animal. I was called to perform bodywork, nothing unusual, even on a 28-year old horse. Anticipating a quiet and gentle bodywork session for a reportedly ‘cranky’ elderly horse, I did not expect anything out of the ordinary. It turned out to be a very extraordinary experience where I learned so much about the horse, our human agenda, and the profound effect of the type of interactive bodyworkI have been fortunate enough to learn.

Dusty during bodywork

In the end, the owner and I looked at a little horse with the biggest heart, who now felt open to simply let go of any braveness and who—after some very gentle bodywork and encouragement—felt free to express her physical discomfort and general exhaustion with her condition. It would go too far to explain what happened in detail. But on that day and during the following week, Dusty taught me and her owner a big lesson: Horses often try much harder than we think to please us and ‘do a good job’. If that job is defined as “I need you to hold on longer for my sake”, the horse will try to do that, no matter how strong the pain or how great the odds may be. This is a reminder that we need to learn to differentiate between our need to keep a horse around for our sake and the horse’s situation and quality of life. We need to answer the question: Do I ask my horse to hold on for my sake or for his/her sake?

Dusty’s owner sent me several updates after the session and reported that Dusty’s demeanor had changed considerably. She was no longer hiding her discomfort and was very affectionate to her owner, following her around and just trying to stay as close as possible. She had to be removed from the herd to stay safe and spent some quality time closer to her owner. Her owner had to come to terms with the reality that letting go and ensuring a peaceful transition into the next realm (if that is what you believe, I do) in the company and with the support of the caring owner is imminent.

It would be a hard decision. Her owner had spent 25 years with this horse, met her when she was still a kid. Vets, friends and barn personnel gave various advice from “put her down” to “try this medication or that treatment”. But on that day, it became clear that Dusty had reached the point where holding on was too much to ask.

Here an excerpt of her letter to me after her’s and Dusty’s last day together. It was very inspiring to me and hope you will feel the same way:

“We put Dusty down last Thursday after she had continued to show pain symptoms even after being put on the highest possible dose of pain medication.

It was a sunny morning, not too cool, just the kind of weather that Dusty liked best. Everything was real peaceful and Dusty was completely calm. My sister, who is also a vet and just happened to be visiting [from out of town] was also there and assisted my vet. My husband was also there to say good-bye to Dusty and to comfort me.

My husband and I went to the barn early in the morning so Dusty would have some time to graze with her chubby friend Labiroun on the big pasture. I stayed with Dusty the entire time and followed her around the pasture. After two hours, Dusty stopped eating and I sat down with her and listened to her breathing. She positioned herself over my body as if I was a foal that needed protection and pressed her muzzle against my head. Then, slowly but surely, Dusty went to the spot where the barn owner and I had agreed that we would put her down. She went there all on her own. 15 Minutes before the vet came, Dusty stopped at exactly that spot as if she knew what this was all about and as if she wanted to express agreement.

When the vet came, Dusty took a small step towards her. I was so afraid that I was trembling but when it counted, I was very calm because it was more important than anything else not to put any more stress on Dusty than she already had. Labiroun did not notice anything, she continued grazing with the black pony a distance away…”

Her owner’s favorite picture of Dusty

I am very grateful to Dusty’s owner that she agreed that I could share this report with you. My hope is that all who find themselves in a similar situation will feel encouraged to create a similarly peaceful and loving atmosphere around this last service to their horse.

On that note…

Life is for the living, and those we love and we have shared wonderful times with continue to live in our consciousness and hearts. At the same time, letting go is part of life. It pays to think about that part of life before it occurs and come to terms with your own beliefs and even think through steps you would take once the time comes.

Reminder:

  • Enjoy every moment you have with your horse while you are still walking your path together!
  • Don’t sweat the small stuff and see if you can make your relationship a genuine exchange.
  • ‘Listen’ to your horse. If you have a good rapport with your horse, you can be sure: Your horse is trying, up to his last minute.

Be well and enjoy your horse

 Stefanie Reinhold

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11 thoughts on “Senior Horses: When it’s Time to Let Go

  1. This is a great post, Stefanie, that I’m sure many can relate to. I had similar situation with a three-year-old this year. He was special in so many ways. As is typical, we spent a ot of time treating horrible symptoms without knowing the cause in an effort to ‘save’ him. I finally acknowledged what he had been trying to tell me (I knew, but my vet, who is wonderful, wasn’t ready to give up). I finally said no more. When we opened him up his lymph nodes in the large intestine were the size of cucumbers. This poor little kid had been working so hard to keep my spirits up, he was concealing much of his suffering. I miss him terribly, and of course, would have made different decisions with the knowledge I have now, but am glad he’s no longer in pain. Of course, it’s so sad this horse well never be able to realize the incredible potential he had – or maybe he did? It’s always a hard call but sometimes being kind is letting go, as you point out.

  2. Excellent blog Stef. I used to think “if only they could live forever” but I realize now that the horse does not want to live forever any more than we do. Indeed, quality of life is the main issue we need to address with our four legged friends – always. They are depending on us to make the right choices.

  3. We, as pet owners, be they dog, cats, horses…, are their champions in life and in death. Making that difficult decision for your pet is the most unselfish act of love and respect you can do for your pet. I’ve been faced with it 7 times, and each time is as emotional and difficult as the first. A different pet, a different history of companionship and friendship with that pet, a different set of circumstances, which require you being the pet’s advocate, rather than concentrating on your own loss…Great article…God bless responsible pet owners and their pet caregivers who see beyond ‘self’.

  4. Nearly 30 years ago, my best friend, Sita, my German Shepherd was dying of hemangiosarcoma. As my vet was injecting her with the medication that would end her life, she had a huge nasal hemorrhage. It was a horrific scenario and my heart was breaking but Sita’s (totally unexpected) gift to me was to somehow fill me with the joy of being freed. I know my vet was puzzled by my shit-eating grin as I was taken by the experience. Since that time I have had several horses, dogs and cats that I’ve allowed to end their lives when their pain became too much and have never had that all-encompassing sense of joy. When my own pain at the loss of my friends sweeps over me, I remember Sita’s joy and know that their relief is more important.

  5. I have been there a few times. One morning my gelding (who had ringbone) looked at me and said very clearly through pain in his eyes and entire being…..I’m done, it’s my time. My mare also (foundered many times before she came to me). She laid her muzzle on my forehead as I was sobbing in her stall because I knew she had just asked to be let go.

    Death with dignity is every living being’s right. No matter the pain we have to endure at their passing. If we can’t give them that, then we should not have animals!

    Shared this on my page at http://www.facebook.com/whytheycry

  6. A timely post as I am struggling with “is it the right time yet” for my 25 year old mare. We have been together for 21 years. Thanks for an enlightening post on the difficult subject of letting go.

  7. Thank you so much for your lovely blog wich i just found yesterday. You have such a good and clever way of telling and sharing, that i look forwards to read it all and follow you.

    I Finally came to the point, where I could let go of my wonderfull white Apaloosa
    ( a Knabstrup in Danish) mare. She became blind allready 5 years old and now she was so tired of beeing scared all the time, that she asked for it to end. I didnt realy understand, but different very sensible people told me. I send for a clairvoyant woman who could speak with her. She confirmed she couldnt live this way any more.

    The day was chosen, and the last couble of days she and I spend very peacefull together, my pain calming down too.

    I chose to use a lokal very animal loving butcher to “shoote” her, believing this to be the best and fastest way of sending her to “the other side”. We had to go 10 minutes in a trailer to the right place. She had been in trailers only three times, but this day she, beeing blind, jumped into the trailer, jumped out of it again, went so fast, not beeing led, over to the right spot in front of the sweet guy, never having met him before or been to this place she could not se at all – lovered her head to him and his special gun – and left us !

    Breathtaking beautifull how she wanted to GO.

    I am glad to read about others having had this experience of a horse wanting so bad to go – it has been wery difficult to understand all by my self.

    She was such a sweet horse, and new horses went to her for comfort, untill they became at home. Then they all began to mob her for not responding right to all the horse language she couldnt see.

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