Friday, February 11, 2011

When do you know it’s time? The toughest decision of all

It's a subject that has come up recently on a couple of different horse bulletin boards that I frequent.  I had to make the euthanasia decision for my first horse and I thought a lot about it afterwards.  The questions and self doubt don't stop just because the horse is gone.  Our society tends to not talk about such things, and unless you're close to someone who's had to go through it, the average person really is on their own the first time. It's too easy to second guess ourselves and listen to people who "ought to know" that first time. There is a culture of trying to help preserve life and the automatic reaction of others is "it can't be that bad" and "have you tried such and such?" and in our inexperience we wait, or try something else.  Over time as I shared my experience the knowledge was distilled into three key ideas, with a few extra bits of advice.  I wrote it down and edited it over time, and when my second horse approached the end I came back to these lessons that my first horse taught me.  For this reason I now include the revised version in my second horse's blog.

I want to let my friends go on before they are enduring existence. Before every bone is showing. Before the depression or drug stupor takes over their life. Before they spend grinding weeks suffering pain and discomfort. I want them to leave knowing the sun on their bodies, the breath of warm air in their lungs, the half dance step of delight at going out or meeting up with a buddy. Knowing that I love them.


We all secretly want to walk out in the field one day (far in the future) and find our beloved equine flat out and already gone, but realistically that's not going to happen for most of us. We're going to have to make the hard decision. Long before I had my own horse those stories printed in the horse magazines about the heroic efforts people made to prolong the life of their aged equine, and the description of their descent and ultimate hanging-on-by-a-thread condition before the owner had the guts to admit that it was time to let go always made me sad and angry (for the horse's sake). I felt it was cruel to prolong a life with no real hope of recovery or any quality, and promised my first horse (when I bought him) that when it was his time I would give him the last summer and then let him go.

First of all - this is the biggest one - TRUST YOURSELF! YOU know your horse better than anyone else, YOU can see the little things sooner, better than ANYONE else in the world. Don't close your eyes; look, track, judge every single day you see your horse. What defines your horse's personality and characterizes your interactions? Watch for the slightest changes - not once, but if they are growing more frequent or worse, or you realize that X has become the new 'norm' it is up to you to work out why and what you can do to help.

Second - be real for your horse's sake. If she/he is not comfortable for any period and the vet offers something, be direct and upfront and ask the hard questions. Will it improve back to where it was? Will this treatment heal the problem? Will it just mask the problem? Will it create more problems? Will this be an ongoing always treatment? Can I afford it? Then go away and face the answers. Do you just want to prolong your horse's life because "I'm not ready yet"? Believe me, you never will be. Are you improving the quality of his/her life, or just increasing the time spent suffering?

One of my second horse's final gifts came to me about a month before he was euthanized in October 2009. The euthanasia had been generally planned for several months, and I was doing the usual agonizing even though I knew without a doubt it was the right time (thank you first horse).  I finally realized that while the answer to the question "could I keep him going through another winter or several?" is a definite yes, that is the wrong question. The real question needs to be "Should I?" and to that question I must reluctantly answer "no". He definitely deserves better than being forced to endure life simply because I'm not ready to let him go. I never will be ready.

Third - look for and project the factors that make your horse less comfortable. In my case my first horse had two months where he wasn't doing well in his last spring. Factors - weather, temperature. Projection - autumn, spring, even a warm spell during the winter. Two months is an awfully long time especially if you can see it is likely to repeat too often.

A good relationship with your vet is a real help. Mine simply asked me "Are you sure?" when I made the appointment for my first horse, and that was it. Six months later he told me that he doesn't like euthanasia and even tries to find new homes for animals if he doesn't feel they need it - but when I said it was time, he had no doubt that I did know. You don't want to be arguing with your vet at this time.

Close your ears to all your well-meaning friends who can't believe you are doing it and did you try such and such - you know your horse, you ARE right. You will question yourself every day, but keep going back to the first thing.

Make the necessary plans early - whether you are going to go spoil your horse, stuff him full of carrots and then go away, leaving him tied to the wash rack before the vet comes, or stay through the whole ordeal (or anything in between) you won't be able to do anything else on the day.

We cannot control our horses’ environments the same way we can for our small housepets. Dogs and cats can be kept in a warm environment, with limited forays into the cold. We can medicate them more easily and frequently. We can feed them special diets more easily. Horses by their very size and nature limit how much we can do for them. These limitations must be acknowledged and accepted when we decide on treatments for our horses’ ailments.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

One Year Later

One year ago today the vet came and euthanized my second horse.  It's a sad anniversary made all the more sad by the loss of a friend four days ago.  She was young, and one of those people who were full of life and managed to poke fun at any situation.  Taken too soon by a careless driver, she leaves a husband and young son behind.

It was my horse's time to go last year, but he was robbed of time by whatever accident caused that chipped bone in his hock.  My friend should have had many more years with her family and friends.  Time taken away from her by another person's poor decisions.  That the other person died too is no consolation.

My uncle died five days ago.  He lived a long life, surrounded by family and many friends.  Another person full of the joy of life with a grand sense of humour.  He will be missed just as much, but there is a sort of peace or conclusion that is lacking in the death of my friend.

Death is an inevitable part of life.  But sometimes it seems to come too soon and we struggle to come to terms with the loss, and grieve for what will never be.

Friday, October 15, 2010

A Shock in the Mail

I got home today and checked the mailbox as usual.  In the bunch of flyers was an envelope from some animal agriculture company I'd never heard of.  I wondered what they wanted, and how they got my address.  It's not the sort of thing that routinely appears in suburban mailboxes.  As soon as I got in the door and put my stuff down I ripped it open.

It's from the parent company of the dead stock company that picked up my horse's body last October.  They want to assure me that contrary to rumour they will be continuing to pick up dead stock, and that they are reducing their fees for dropped off dead stock immediately...

I'm already having a little trouble with the leaves changing colours and the bare branches appearing.  Even the frost rime on the grass in the morning takes me back to last fall.  I really didn't need this kick while I'm down.

I wonder... are they still in the dark ages?  Surely they could mark single horse clients as non-contact.  Surely they could notify the area vets who will be advising the single horse clients...

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Two weeks

Two weeks from today will be one year without my horse.  He's been on my mind a lot lately.  I'm remembering last fall and the sight of the trees changing colours, losing their leaves, the grass fading all brings back the sadness of those last days.  I have no regrets.  Not about helping him go, nor about the time we had together.  No regrets about buying him.  He taught me a lot in our years together.  I'm glad we had that time.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Memories of my Friend


I can't believe it's September again already. Those few trees that always start to change colour weeks before the rest are going yellow and orange and red. It was about this time last year that I made the decision to let my horse go before the winter. Telling the barn owners was tough - that was the first time I'd shared my decision with anyone.


My horse has been on my mind a great deal lately. I finally managed to start the little 8"x8" memory scrapbook for him at the end of June. It's almost done, only two more pages to go. Some of the pages are okay, but others turned out really well with the colours just coming together with the photos beautifully. The whole book will have a total of 40 pages, bigger than I'd planned, but it's what I needed to have. Many of the pages have one 5x7 photo, some have a mosaic of small images covering the whole page.

One page is a mosaic of shots of him looking at me as I went to get him out of the field. He had a distinctive way of turning to look with both eyes, ears up and poll slightly below wither level. It wasn't at all a dull look as one might expect from the low head position, nor was it suspicious, but rather a bright eyed and interested expression. The pics are various sizes and cover the full range of our life together.

There's a two page spread for his dressage career. Those are two of the pages that turned out beautifully. The colours are just perfect, and really pull the four photos together. I deliberately chose to keep the scrapbooking design very simple to keep the focus on the photos and journaling. The embellishments are limited to some fancy edged matts and a few very simple stickers. The colour palette was mostly greens, blues and browns with some yellow (mostly accents). I did get a couple of purple pages and one orange (with browns) but no red. I never thought of red for this horse, it just wasn't him.
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Overall I'm quite pleased with the result. It's full of the little tidbits about his character and characteristics that made him an individual, along with the odd incidents from our life together.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

The Next Phase


It's been really hot and humid here in the past few weeks. While the tack room is much cooler, it does tend to hold the dampness in the summer and with that dampness comes the inevitable fuzz of mold growing on the unused tack. My QH's bridle being one of those unused items. I have decided that my two year old will inherit the bridle, but it's going to be a few years before his head is big enough to be anywhere near fitting. Since it was too hot to be any fun for riding, I spent some time today cleaning and conditioning bits of tack, including that bridle.

I have also finally started on the little "Who Was He?" scrapbook. Oddly enough the last pages, those photos from his final morning with the poem I wrote for him, were the first I did. After that came random photos from the pile paired with memories of him that seem to fit with the pictures. For example I had a photo of us going through knee deep water and I remembered that water never bothered him. In our first year I rode him into the pond in his field one day, and even though the mud was a bit sticky and he had to heave to get his feet out, he wasn't the least bit worried about it. The time I asked him to walk through a deep puddle that was covered by floating chunks of snowy ice gave him pause as they all moved when he did, but once he'd had the chance to look and I encouraged him, he did cautiously continue through the water. This isn't meant to be a "story of our life" book, but rather a collection of anecdotes showing his character and the little things that defined him.

One page, one or two photos, one memory at a time. I'm ready for this step now. Perhaps I will be ready to put his shadowbox together soon too.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

It Is Almost Time


Almost time to start putting together his scrapbook - the little one answering the question "Who was he?" I went through the hundreds of photos from our years together and pulled out many that I thought I might use. In the last week or two I've gone through those stacks again and again, trying to thin them out, to choose only those photos that show him the way he was.

I did try out the photolab's collage software about a month ago. I took a lot of the close up photos and a few "normal" pictures of him and put together an 8x10" collage. I found the software limiting in some ways, but the result is quite nice. I arranged for it to be laminated and just got it back last week (some difficulties with a new transport company caused quite a delay). It's really nice and will go up on my wall shortly.
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I almost cleaned his halter the other night too. Eight months later and I'm almost at the point of being able to put his memorials together. Time heals, and healing must not be rushed.