by Laura Crum
I’m currently facing a very difficult question. I’m sure you all can guess what I mean. Among my retired/rescue herd, ET, who is 31, is going downhill. Those of you who have read this blog for awhile will know that I have written about this exact situation before. But every time (and there were several), ET pulled out of it. I would worm him at a two week interval, up his feed, and in a month he’d look better and on we went. But this time the situation is a bit more complicated.
I have six pasture pets on this property about fifteen minutes from my home. Four live in the “big” pasture—about forty acres that grows pretty good grass year round—we feed hay from Sept through December in an average year and the horses usually look fine. The two oldest horses, both 31 right now, live in the two separate smaller pastures (about five acres each) and are fed year round equine senior delight (this is not Purina Equine Senior, but a complete feed made by a small mill around here that works wonders on all old horses I have tried it on), in the amount each needs, which in ET’s case means free choice, as he can no longer chew hay up, or graze much (no teeth). And this has been working pretty well for several years.
I have agonized over putting ET down off and on, as the horse will, for no reason that we can see, sometimes start eating less and losing weight, or not eating less but still losing weight, but every time, as I wrote above, I have been able to turn the trend around and he looks better. This is all complicated by the fact that as old horses will do, he seems to have lost much of his sight and hearing and at times seems a bit confused. For several years now, every fall, I wonder if its right to take him through another winter. This fall, he once again began to get thinner, and my friend Wally, who helps care for the horses with me, insisted it was time and we should set a date.
We both felt sad at the thought, but lets face it, ET is very old for a horse who was ALWAYS a hard keeper. Were it not for our willingness to pump a lot of very expensive feed into him, he would be dead long ago. Neither Wally nor I are wealthy people and the financial burden, though not the bottom line, is a factor. But both of us really want to do what’s right for ET. The cold, wet storms are coming and though we blanket him, and there is shelter, he often stands out in the rain looking miserable. Is it right to try to keep this skinny old horse going through another winter? Is it in his best interests, even leaving our best interests out of it?
And then there is Rebby. Rebby is part of the group that lives in the big field and he is in his mid/late 20’s now, and is no longer keeping his weight on in the pasture. In order to take proper care of Rebby, we really should put him in one of the smaller fields and supplement him with the senior feed. But we can’t put him in with either of the two older horses as he’d be dominant and would take the feed they need to survive. If ET were gone, Rebby could have that field and be able to thrive.
If we lived out there, or had endless free time, we could bring Reb in and supplement him, and then put him back out. But Wally and I have busy lives and we don’t live there and its all we can do to make it out there every morning to feed, with the occasional extra trip to blanket, or meet the farrier…etc. We divide these chores between us and periodically moan over the money and time we spend on these perfectly useless horses, but we just keep doing it. We’ve been caring for the horse herd in this pasture for over ten years. In that time we’ve euthanized two horses due to the maladies of old age, and both were pretty clear cases. One had gotten so crippled he could hardly hobble without major pain killers twice a day, and one went down with a stroke/seizure and couldn’t get up. Of course, nature abhors a vacuum, so these two horses were promptly replaced by two others, one of which was ET.
ET makes no sense at all. He was never my personal horse. He was a team roping horse that I saw at many ropings, being traded from cowboy to cowboy. Nobody ever cared much about him that I could tell, but he gave good service to many. He was perhaps the oddest looking horse I’d ever seen, and yet a very effective performer. He was also dog gentle, little kid gentle, and endured several very abusive owners without protest. Just kept doing a good job. But he kept being put on the market—I suppose because he was so odd looking, and each time he was older and the price was less. The last time he was 18 years old, and it was easy to see what his eventual fate would be. So I bought him.
Yep, I am not the sharpest knife in the drawer. For awhile I was able to farm him out as a kid’s horse, but ET was always a terribly hard keeper. One home returned him because they couldn’t afford to feed him, and the second, as I discovered, after a few years lost a job and didn’t feed him enough. When I saw how thin he was I took him back and put him in the field where I had a vacancy due to an old horse that had died. And I have kept him and cared for him ever since.
But even with all the equine senior feed in the world and a good pasture, it was hard to keep weight on ET. He’s a long skinny snake of a horse by nature (with short legs and a very long neck and one eye). He looks a little like a dachshund crossed upon a giraffe. Honest. I’ve done a pretty good job keeping weight on him, but it ain’t easy.
So, OK, I sadly agree with my friend Wally that maybe we ought to put ET down this fall. And the next day I go out there to have a good long look at the horse and see what he tells me. Well…
My son and I walk out in the field, where ET is standing, looking pretty content. Its sunny, with a breeze, and I note that ET still has plenty of equine senior in his feeder. He polishes it off in a leisurely way, over the course of a day. I walk up to the old horse, talking to him, and he swings his one eye around so he can see me and snuffles the hand I hold out to him. That one eye looks pretty bright to me. I note that I cannot actually SEE ribs or hipbones, though I can darn sure feel them. ET is getting fuzzy with his winter coat, which helps. But I don’t think he looks that bad. I rub on him a little while and then walk off to check the water.
ET watches us go and then, after a minute or two, he ambles towards his feeder. And then, who knows why, he breaks into a trot. And gee whiz, the old fart still trots sound. Rickety but sound. And he looks comfortable.
My son says tentatively, “ET looks pretty good.”
“Yeah,” I say. And I know right then I am not going to put this horse down. Not until he looks like he needs it. Which he does not at this moment. The idea of walking out into that sunny pasture and catching this sweet old horse and leading him out to get the green needle fills my heart with revulsion. ET is not suffering. He may not be exactly thriving but he looks content. He sure doesn’t look like he needs killing. And I, quite frankly, can’t bring myself to do it.
BUT. The other reasons still apply. How am I gonna feel when I walk out there this winter and see him looking miserable in the rain? How about if he goes down and lays there some cold nasty night unable to get up and we don’t find him until morning? Am I going to wish then that I’d had the heart to put him down now?
I’ve heard it said that its better to do it a day to soon than a day too late. But what if you are six months too soon or a year too soon. Is that doing them a favor? Aargh!
Let alone that I want to act in ET’s best interests, it is still totally impractical for me to be stretching us financially just to keep this one very old, borderline OK horse going, especially since I need a way to properly take care of Rebby. Practically speaking, I SHOULD put ET down. But I can’t. It feels wrong.
So when is it going to feel right? After he’s suffering? Is that a good idea? Burt and Pistol (the two old horses we euthanized) clearly needed to be put down. But ET seems to be on a slippery downhill slope and I don’t know where to draw the line. I just know I could not have led him out to the vet for the kill shot on that sunny day when he looked at me with a bright eye and snuffled me gently, then trotted over to his feeder. But when exactly am I going to feel right about it? The proverbial day “too late?” After he’s already gone through too much?
My other 31 year old horse, Gunner, looks fabulous—nobody who sees him believes how old he is. He has pasture, gets a heavy flake of alfalfa every morning and half the senior feed ET gets, and he’s doing just great. And my previous horse, Burt, survived into his late thirties in very good flesh and spirits on this same diet—right up until the morning he had his stroke. ET is just a VERY hard keeper. I guess its possible that I could devise a diet that would be more ideal for ET, but to what purpose exactly? Wally and I both feel maxed out on the amount of time, energy and money we are putting into our pasture pets already. (And for those who read my last month’s post on “Good Enough—Or Not?”, we did end up rebuilding the worst section of fence—at our own expense.) And its not as though I can make ET young again. No matter what, his inevitable end is drawing near.
Argh! I am frustrated and worried, and I have to admit, if you gave me a magic wand I might make that whole lot of old horses disappear. I have enough on my plate just caring for the four horses here at home. But there is no magic wand. There is the kill shot, and if I do not have the heart to kill a horse than I must keep taking adequate care of him. But what is adequate care in this case? I cannot afford to spend more money on ET than I am already doing, so diagnostic vet work is out of the question, and I don’t really think it is appropriate at this point. I don’t have a cushy box stall to put him in for the winter, even supposing he would care for that, which I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t. The horse is sound and not in obvious pain—he’s failing because he’s getting very old and always had a tricky metabolism. No magic pill from the vet is going to fix that—at least in any significant/permanent way. And nobody is going to take this problem off my hands. In the springtime, when I see all these old guys grazing on green grass in the sunshine and looking very happy, my heart just fills up with joy and it all seems so worthwhile. Heading into winter storms with an old horse that is slowly going downhill it seems like a very heavy burden to bear. Whatever I choose is wrong. Or at least not right.
Its easy to say ET is old and failing and a burden therefore its OK to put him down. Its easy to say that’s the best choice for him. It’s a lot harder (at least for me) to look him in his kind, bright eye and decide to kill him here and now when he doesn’t seem to be suffering. I’m stumped.
OK—anybody have any insights? I am pretty worn out with worrying about this and a bit, OK more than a bit, depressed over it, as I’m sure you can tell. Or maybe its just the autumn doldrums, which others have referenced on their blogs. Whatever it is, I feel sad and confused.