by Laura Crum
I have a dilemma. It’s been this way for over a year now. And I am not finding a solution. I don’t think there is a solution. But it bugs me every single day.
You see, I have a 34 year old horse that I love very much. This is Gunner. I have owned him since he was three.
I broke and trained this horse myself and competed on him at many events. He’s been with me for over thirty years.
Here he is last summer—not looking too bad for 33.
But every day now I go through a roller coaster ride of emotions concerning Gunner. There are two “sides” arguing in my head. It’s not good horse owner versus not-good horse owner—it’s more like two types of good horse owner. Let’s call them type A and type B. They never shut up in my mind.
A: “You should put that poor old horse down. He’s limps every step he takes. He’s old and frail and it’s just a matter of time till he goes down and can’t get up. You should put him down now.”
B: “How can you put him down? He’s bright-eyed, eager for his meals, has gained weight in the last few months. The painkillers keep him reasonably comfortable. Yeah, he’s lame, but he still breaks into a trot voluntarily and he moves around his corral very freely. He gets down and rolls and gets up again every day. He doesn’t look unhappy. Why would you put him down?”
A: “Sure he trots, but you can’t stand to watch him do it. Because half the time when he trots he stumbles on that arthritic knee and almost goes down. You’ve watched him go all the way down half a dozen times and it almost killed you. It didn’t help him, either. He always walked off lamer. Even when he stumbles and catches himself he walks off lamer. Put him down before he falls down once too often and breaks his leg and suffers.”
B: “But he doesn’t want to let go of his life yet. Every time I go down to the barnyard he spots me and goes to his gate and bumps it with his nose to let me know he wants me to let him out to graze. He loves his grazing time, he likes being groomed and getting attention, he’s cleaning up as much senior feed as he ever has. He’s not ready to quit.”
A: “But maybe it’s time you made that choice for him. He’s got a lot of heart and he keeps trying, but do you want him to try and try until he CAN’T do it any more? Why would you put him through that?”
B: “I guess if it were me I wouldn’t want my life taken until I was ready to let go of it. And maybe he would rather keep trying as long as he can. Gunner doesn’t limp any more than our 80 year old friend Wally, and Wally can look pretty frail and shaky, too, walking along—and you’ve seen Wally stumble and fall several times. But Wally still enjoys his life very much—why would you suppose that Gunner is different? The last time I had the vet out here, thinking maybe I would put Gunner down, that old horse trotted away from the vet at a pretty brisk clip. I swear he could read my mind. And the vet said, ‘I don’t think he’s ready.’ That’s just it. I don’t think he’s ready. And I have to wait until he tells me he’s ready.”
A: “Are you going to think you made the right choice when you come down to feed one morning and find Gunner lying on the ground…and you know he lay there for hours in pain?”
B: “I don’t know. I know I have not yet felt it was the right choice to pick up the phone and call the vet and end Gunner’s life. Not when the old horse looks as bright as he does.”
A: “But you are afraid every time you go down to the barnyard. Afraid that Gunner will be dead…or worse. For every time that you smile when you see him playing with his neighbor, there are three times you wince when you see him take a bad step.”
B: “But he does still play with his neighbor. He does still enjoy life.”
A: “He’s a huge management headache. You can’t turn his neighbor/friend horse out to graze because Gunner freaks out. If Gunner weren’t here, all your other horses could be turned loose to graze virtually every day and they would have a MUCH better quality of life.”
B: “That’s true. But I can’t put Gunner down because he’s a management problem. I owe him more than that, and I love him.”
A: “Maybe you should make the hard choice out of love for him.”
B: “Dammit, I would, if I thought it was the right choice. But how can I give up on him before he’s ready to give up?”
And so it goes, on and on. Type A is the pragmatic, logical side of me and type B is the more sentimental, intuitive side. So far type B is winning, but it’s a struggle. I know there are valid points on both sides.
The thing is that I have never put one of my loved horses down until it was a clear cut thing. Flanigan colicked at 21 and didn’t come out of it after being treated for over 24 hours. He wasn’t a candidate for surgery because he had a diaphragmatic hernia. And if we weren’t going to attempt surgery it seemed clear that it was time to end his suffering.
Burt had a stroke at 35 and was down on the ground twitching and I couldn’t get him up. When we still couldn’t get him up after an hour of trying and the vet’s help (and the vet was clear she thought he wasn’t coming out of it), I had no questions about what to do.
Toby was diagnosed with a tumor in his kidneys. He’d had two previous run-ins with cancer. When I decided against surgery, I kept him as comfortable as I could with painkillers, and when he quit eating, refused treats, and began grinding his teeth, I had the vet out that afternoon. Again, I knew it was time.
I’ve always waited until it was clear. I’ve never arbitrarily drawn a line in the sand. I watched my friend Wally do this with his good horse, Pistol, and though I understood and did not feel it was a wrong choice, I’m not sure it is the choice I would have made.
So yeah, I don’t know what to do. I muddle along, day by day, waiting for Gunner to tell me. So far it hasn’t happened. But I look away when he trots, afraid that he will fall again. I wince when he takes a bad step. I walk down to feed every morning looking anxiously for Gunner, hoping that he is OK.
Yes, I smile when I see him playing with his neighbor horse, or dozing companionably alongside his old buddy, muzzle to muzzle. I try to get him out to graze as much as I can, and it’s clear that he is very keen to do this. I’m happy that his spirit is strong and he’s cleaning up his feed. I watch him roll and get back up and think, well, OK, then. I’m very grateful that he’s still with me and still bright-eyed and willing to engage with me and the other horses. But still…I wonder. I wonder if I am doing the right thing.