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.
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.