This is a discussion of a very sensitive topic that elicits powerful emotions. Just stay with me ’til the end, it’s important. We’ll get through this together, I promise.
We’ve all reached the crossroads (or will eventually) when your horse can no longer do what you ask of them, or you can no longer commit to the level of horse ownership you once promised them. Maintaining optimum health in aging horses often means more treatment—more bills.
You made a promise to each other: together ’til the end. But what happens when life forces you to break that promise?
Everyone at some point in time will be impacted by the unforeseen—job loss, divorce, loss of a family member, medical catastrophes, etc.—no one is immune. And horses, as much as we will fight to the death to defend their status as more than just property or livestock, are simply a luxury hobby for many of us that sometimes we can no longer afford, even if through no fault of our own. We’ve always been a good home—a forever home—but this year it might be the horse, or the house.
We all wish we had endless amounts of money.
We all wish we had access to unlimited pasture space.
We all wish we had friends willing and able to take your horse in.
We all wish our local rescues had endless resources and were not already filled to capacity.
But not everyone is afforded such luxuries and we all know how unpredictable life can be.
As horse owners, we are ultimately responsible for what happens beyond this crossroads. A good retirement home is not always guaranteed, so we are often left to ask someone else to take our horse in. Occasionally it works out, but other times it’s just a burden you transfer to someone else, which is unfair to them and the horse.
We’ve all read the horror stories about the “free horse” listings online. A stranger comes by, tells you a nice tale about the horse they just lost and are hoping to replace for their kids. They show you pictures of their lovely property with lush pastures and ’round the clock care. Then they haul that piece of your heart away. A few months later you check in. Text after text, call after call, emails and pleas for responses and updates go unanswered. He’s vanished. It hits you hard and you try not to think about where he might have ended up; perhaps a slaughterhouse across the border, sold by the pound?
By the pound. Doesn’t that just make you sick? By the pound is how you shop for grain at the feed store. By the pound is how you buy steaks for the grill. By the pound is how you measure success or failure of a new diet. By the pound should never be how you measure your horse’s life and it certainly can’t be the measure by which your horse dies. But that’s the risk you take when you give up ownership.
So what can you do besides giving your horse away to strangers when friends or retirement homes are not an option?
Create a Local Horse Community Network
No horse person should be alone. A local equine network will come in handy when you need a tractor fixed, or a last-minute haul, or to rehome a horse. This network might even crowdsource funding for feed if you’ve fallen on hard times. You don’t have to be alone in times of medical and/or financial distress.
Visit the local rescue groups and learn how to spot potential kill-buyers. They know the area and have the experience of the good ones vs the bad ones, and could potentially provide pictures and frequent aliases of the known offenders in the area.
Ideally, you will find him a trusting, loving home.
Passing the burden
Horses need a job. Sometimes their job is simply to transform hay and carrots into fertilizer and just be a nose to nuzzle for people with the resources and desire to give them a safe landing and a long, happy retirement. Sadly, there is only so much space. Even if it’s just being barebacked around a barnyard a few times a year, a horse needs to be consistently healthy enough for even a small job.
When a horse can no longer perform the job or stay healthy, he is at risk of being re-homed. If he can’t, and you just give him away, you’ve just burdened someone else with that problem.
Did you know some horse rescues often bid on horses at auction knowing that horse will not get adopted out? It’s called a compassion pull—they buy the horse out of the auction pipeline, and out of the slaughter pipeline. They are spending money they don’t have to do what the previous owner should have done. They are buying the horse to give it a soft landing, a safe place to eat and be out of danger for a little while before giving them a peaceful passing. To purchase the horse at auction (roughly $300), a vet assessment to determine the next course of action ($200) and if necessary, euthanasia and disposal ($400); you’re up to almost $1,000 to put down a lame horse. That’s money that could have been spent helping an adoptable horse.
That’s why in certain instances the best option might very well be to give the horse a humane conclusion to a life well lived.
What?! How Dare I Make such a suggestion!
Euthanasia is an emotionally charged word and downright taboo to talk about it certain circles. But it’s also a hard reality for any animal lover. Sometimes, in my opinion, it’s the best option. You can send the horse to auction, or have him re-homed, and suddenly his welfare is out of your hands. Is he in pain? Safe? Suffering? Losing weight? Cold? Shivering? Neglected? Underfed? Sometimes you do need to quantify your horse in terms of dollars and realize that, as callous as it sounds, if you are unable to justify keeping this horse anymore do not expect someone else to value him either (except, maybe, by the pound).
Our horses deserve better than that. They all deserve to be valued until the last moments of their lives by the value they gave to us over a their lifetime.
Make it the last item on the list of options, which should not include giving him away on Craigslist to a stranger, or sending him off to auction.
Some people might look at you as the bad guy, but you’re not. Think of how much better off that horse will be if he never comes close to getting in the wrong hands.
A loving home can also be a final home
You have control over him in life. You owe it to him to have control over his death, on your terms, in your loving arms, with your tears on his cheek. Because that is what they deserve—nothing short of a loving home on his very last day. With you.
Schedule that last day, have a party. Give him anything he’s ever wanted. A bucket full of carrots. Eating straight out of the grain bag.
It’s downright uncomfortable to talk about and anticipate the emotions that come with euthanasia. You’ve been there with a dog or cat, and never considered re-homing them in their twilight years. Same goes for your horses. You might say they deserve it more because instead of getting free meals and sleeping on the couch like your dog, your horse had to cart you around mile after mile, jump after jump, barrel after barrel.
Let your love and compassion and commitment to your horse be the peaceful end to a glorious life you two shared together. You are a good home, be a last home as well.
You know the right thing, when all other options are exhausted, is euthanasia. You just don’t want to say it out loud so I’m saying it out loud for you. Lay them to rest peacefully. Honor their life by loving them until their last day.