Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The End of the Road?

by Laura Crum

I’ve written on this blog before about my collection of retired/rescued horses that I keep in a pasture near my home. Among these horses is thirty year old ET—a horse I rescued when he was seventeen and had become a “trading horse” who was headed for nowhere good. I bought ET partly because he was sweet horse who needed a friend and partly because he was so unusual. He wasn’t named ET for nothing. You never saw an odder looking horse. His resemblance to the extra-terrestrial of the old movie is striking.

ET is a registered QH with a good pedigree—he’s by a son of Two Eyed Jack and out of a Blondy’s Dude mare. ET himself is about 14.3 and despite being a team roping heel horse all his life until he was twenty is still perfectly sound today. So his confirmation, if odd, was/is certainly functional. More than that, ET was a very good team roping heel horse, winning many dollars and awards for many tough young cowboys. But nobody ever kept him, nobody ever got attached to him (except me). Why? Again, he is the oddest looking duck you ever saw—I would guess that’s the reason.

ET looks like a cross between a giraffe and a dachshund. He has a long, thin, neck, and holds his head very high—not just when ridden—its his natural head carriage. He also has a very, very long back—the top half of him somewhat resembles a sixteen hand TB. Underneath this are his very short—but well made—legs. Add to this that the horse is missing one eye (said to have been lost in an accident—he looked like this the first time I ever saw him), and is slightly Roman-nosed, and you have one odd looking critter.

ET has always been a hard keeper—he’s a long, skinny snake of a horse by nature. When I first took him on, I gave him to a friend who roped and had little kids. The friend roped on ET and his kids rode the horse. Everybody was happy. The guy kept ET turned out in a large pasture—it seemed ideal. But about the time ET turned twenty this friend returned the horse to me.

“He’s getting too old to rope on,” he said, “and it costs too much to feed him.”

ET couldn’t get by on the pasture any more. And my friend said the horse was stumbling a lot. We wondered if he was losing vision in his one good eye, or just had cordination problems due to getting older.

I took ET home and gave him to a woman whose horses were all really fat. She kept them in little pens and fed the heck out of them. She didn’t ride, but she got the horses out every day and hand grazed them, led her kids around on them…etc. She always kept two horses and she had just lost her mare to colic. ET seemed like the perfect choice.

“You can’t make him too fat,” I said. “Go ahead and feed him all you want.” I told her the horse should be fine for leadline work at the walk, but advised against riding him any faster, because of the tripping issue.

Again, at first all was well. ET was plumb gentle. The woman’s kids loved him. When I went to see him not a rib showed. She took good care of him. We were all happy. I checked on the horse regularly for awhile and then I began to trust that it was a good situation and ET had found his forever home. This was a mistake.

ET stayed there about five years. I took to calling once in awhile to see how things were going, rather than visiting. Another mistake. One day I called and she said she was having trouble keeping weight on him. She fed him all the hay he would eat and some grain. I told her to start him on equine senior delight—this is not the equine senior most people mean, but a feed that is produced by a small mill around here. It had done wonders for my old horse, Burt, who lived into his late thirties. Well, this gal said she would do it. I trusted her. Mistake number three.

About six months later, the friend who had first taken ET came to visit. His kids, teenagers now, wanted to see the old horse. So we went by. What an eyeopener. ET was thin—way too thin. He looked as though he hadn’t been out of his small (and muddy) pen for a long time. I asked the gal what was going on. Wasn’t she feeding the feed I recommended?

Turns out she’d lost her job, had no money, her kids were older and uninterested and she had a new boyfriend who was taking all her attention. She had discontinued feeding ET the senior feed because it was “too expensive”. I picked the horse up the next day.

So now I had this very skinny twenty-five year old horse. I put him in a pen, wormed him, and fed him free choice equine senior delight. Three months later he looked fine, and I turned him out with my herd of retired horses, who were all fat on lush pasture. ET was in heaven. You never saw a happier brighter-eyed old horse. But it didn’t last.

By mid-summer the other horses were still fat and ET was too thin. I took him out of the pasture, and put him in a small field next door and kept him on free choice equine senior delight. It worked. ET rebounded, and was once again slick and shiny. But he moped, missing his friends. So I gave him my old horse, Gunner, for company.

Gunner and ET are the exact same age—they’re both 1980 foals. And Gunner, too, could no longer get by on pasture. I figured I’d feed them both equine senior delight and they’d be happy. Expensive, but workable.

For awhile it worked. ET was dominant, so he ate what he wanted. But Gunner was a chowhound. He cleaned up whatever equine senior there was left and when ET returned to eat more it was all gone. Gunner got fatter and fatter and ET, predictably, got thin again.

I had one small field left. I moved ET there. He could see Gunner and the other pasture horses. He had three acres of lush green grass. He got free choice equine senior delight all day long. Once again he rebounded and began to thrive.

OK, I thought, this is how he has to live. He still gazed longingly over the fence at his buddies, but overall he seemed reasonably content. And this situation has worked for some years. ET turned thirty this spring, and I was pretty happy with how he looked. For the hardest keeping horse I have ever known, at thirty years old, he looked pretty darn good. But…

A month or so ago, ET started to lose weight again. Nothing had changed in his situation, he still ate about the same amount of feed, but he was failing. I wormed him, and upped his equine senior delight, but it didn’t help. And he began to behave aberrantly. He had always been gentle, but now he began to shove over the top of me when I came to feed and spook away violently when I tried to blanket him. I couldn’t/can’t be sure if he has lost most of the vision in his one eye—and/or his hearing-- or if he is getting a form of “senile dementia”. My old horse, Burt, lost a lot of his vision and hearing near the end of his life, and sometimes seemed a bit dazed and confused. I never knew exactly why, I just took it for granted. Old people get like this, too.

But now I am faced with a hard choice. How far do I let this go? I am not going to invest money in diagnostic work, treatments..etc. This may sound harsh, but the horse is thirty years old. I have done my best to give him the retirement he deserved. But I have ten other horses to care for, let alone my family and other critters. I’ve been down this road before. Realistically, if ET can’t live a decent life with the conditions I’m providing, its time to let him go. It is not a time for pouring a bunch more money into him, or putting him through any stressful procedures. I am not hauling this old horse anywhere, ever again. When it is his time to go, I will have him euthanized in the field where he is now living.

What I struggle with in these situations, is where to draw the line. Usually I feel the horse himself will let you know, and I am waiting to get the message from ET. And yet, I don’t want to wait until he is suffering. Yesterday, when I tried to put a horse blanket on him (which I have done many, many times) and the old guy freaked out and almost ran through a fence, I began to think maybe the time has come. I remember another horse blogger, I’m not sure who, that had an old mare with similar problems, and I remember that she eventually chose to put her down, partly because she was becoming a danger to people. I think we may be getting there with ET.

Anyway, if any of you would care to chime in with your advice on how/where you drew the line in a similar situation, it would help me to hear your stories/insights. Thanks--Laura


Mrs. Mom said...

Well, you have gone above and beyond with ET Laura- more than once. He has had an amazing life, and he still has his dignity. IMO, if you choose now as "The Time", you can do so with a peaceful heart. Give the old boy a rub from me please. I'm a sucker for older horses as well.

Anonymous said...

My old guy - Noble - will be turning 30 next month and we've gone through some of these issues with him, and also with Blackjack, who's in his mid 30s. It turns out that Noble was suffering from low thyroid and also some metabolic/insulin resistant issues. He's on thyroid medicine and also a chromium/magnesium/selenium/vitamin E supplement and has made an amazing turn-around. Blackjack has almost no teeth left and is on a 2x day senior feed/soaked beet pulp combo in very large quantities and is also doing well.

All that said, that doesn't mean that your guy doesn't have issues that will lead you to make that hard decision - only you will know for sure. Best wishes to you and him.

Unknown said...

I don't have an old horse, but have gone through this with many a dog - it's always arthritis. I feel when quality of life - and mental state counts - deteriorates to the point that it changes an animal's personality, you are prolonging the suffering for your own self.

I did that to one dog, and will never do it again. If ET is emotionally disappearing, it's time.

Laura Crum said...

Mrs Mom, Kate, and Breathe--I appreciate your insights. I'm really mulling this situation over and any input is helpful.

Breathe--"emotionally disappearing" is a good point and a phrase that I hadn't thought of. Burt, my horse who lived to be 37, remained very much himself right up to the end. I'm not sure what's going on here with ET. He does not appear to be in pain.

Shanster said...

Oh such a hard decision and not one to make lightly which I know you would never do Laura.

We had a 30+ TB mare who came to live with us in her 20's. She also began wasting away... she was getting senior feed with beet pulp 2x a day in a mash and toward the end when she was losing so much weight she wouldn't eat much of it.

She hung her head and looked at it - nibbled at it but never really dug in. During the day she was on green grass pasture. She was vaccinated, wormed, and in one last ditch effort we pulled blood to see if anything obvious was going on.

I also was not willing to do much investigative work because we all have to go sometime and I think she was 32 at the time... she had a good, long life and had been happy at our place.

Nope - there was nothing on the blood draw our vet could see.

This mare, Jess, would shadow my riding mare... at her side 24/7 head low and with this blank look in her eye.

My riding mare began having trouble staying awake. I know that sounds weird but I'd have her tied and would be grooming her and she'd fall asleep, waking up with a start as she began to collapse.

My thought was that taking care of Jess was taking it's toll on her.

We kept Jess blanketed on cooler mornings and in the evening because she was so rail thin and I began to worry about someone calling to report me.

She just didn't seem to be IN there and she was clearly unhappy. Besides that, she would NEVER make it through another winter. Our vet confirmed the situation...

We decided to put her down one morning at home... fed her cookies up until the shot and I cried like a baby.

She went very easily and I feel like I let her go too long. I keep a close eye on my old gelding who is 32 this year and I hope I have the wisdom to end it sooner for him before he is so far gone.

As hard as it is, a friend of mine told me we have to look at it like we are helping them out of this world in the kindest way we know.

It's so true. I'll be thinking of you and ET. Take care - Shanster

Gayle Carline said...

Laura - he may not be in physical pain, but it sounds like he might be in mental/emotional distress, in that he no longer recognizes the blanket, or even his own space. I haven't been thru this with a horse, but I have with a dog. It took an infected tooth for the vet to point out the "quality of life" of my 17-year old mixed breed. I was finally able to see clearly that he didn't know where he was, didn't know who he was, didn't care, even had to be carried outside to go to the bathroom. That made it easy.

Shanster said...

Breathe - I totally agree. I let a cat go too long once and I think I let the mare above go on too long. I vowed I wouldn't do it again.

It's so hard to know when... and sometimes there are little glimmers of a good day or their old personality and so you think - one more day and I'll watch them...

But one leads to two and all of a sudden it's the end and you know it's gone on too long.

I think next time I think I'll keep a visual calendar so the good and bad days are in black and white and not a skewed view in my brain!

Beth said...

I agree with everyone else. I don't think it is wrong to look at this guy and say, he is 30 and just not thriving anymore. Nobody in their right mind would fault you for letting the old man go with dignity. He has seen a lot and touched a lot of people's lives. I think that letting them go sooner rather than too late is often the kindest thing.

Joy said...

never easy decision to make. I let my dog wait one day too long and it was horrible. My mare, well the light went out her eyes and she was not living but surviving. And she wouldn't have made it through a muddy winter. We've all been there and understand. Whatever you decide, you'll make the right choice I'm sure.

Laura Crum said...

Joy, Beth, Shanster and Gayle--Thanks so much. It really does help to get your take on it. I, too, kept my old dog going perhaps too long--I know what you mean. At the same time, I'm reluctant to take their lives if I'm not sure that they're ready to go.

little K said...

I think sometimes what makes it so hard is when historically the animal has bounced back before. Our family cat was like ET and a few times I thought to my self "ok, I'm going to make a vet appointment tomorrow" and would wake up the next day and she would look better. So I'd postpone that call to the vet and another day would go by and she'd improve some more. We had biannual scares like that for a good 7 years before we finally made the choice to euthanize her. And it was so hard because we still wonder if she would have bounced back. But in the end I think ending a suffering animal's life a little too early is better than a little too late. It sounds like ET had a pretty good go and every time you write about your gang of retirees Laura it makes me so happy to know that some horses get such happy endings.

Mikey said...

Tough decision to make. You know though, when it's a quality of life issue. That's how I always judge it. Are they still happy more than 50% of the time? If it's an illness, I ask myself, will they recover and be happy?
Tough tough times. Hugs to you. It's not easy, but it is the responsible thing to do. 30 yrs is a long good life.

Brenda said...

Let him go. If he was mine since day 1, I would think it is time. I kept putting off letting go of my old girl. She lost all the light in her eyes. Her own son would kick at her and stay away in the pasture. She was really already gone. The day she walked through the fence and was in a ditch I knew it had gone too long. She had served me too well for a lot of miles to let her suffer. Not an easy decision. Take Care

KB said...

I think you've given him a lovely retirement, and it's time to let him go before these changes really effect him. He's had a good run, which is all any of us can ask for, you know?

stilllearning said...

I'd like to offer my sympathy, too. It's a hard decision, even when you know it's the right one. I agree with the others that making it slightly early is better than too late.

Best wishes.

Aske said...

Hi Laura,
I've got an old horse too... 30 years old and slowly moving along in live. I know that one day it could be that I will be facing the same decision to make... I can't tell you what to do but it sounds you did your upmost to make sure ET could enjoy his old age... I think you'll know what to do when the time comes... if 'the time' is now or not... well that's up to you and ET to decide.
All the best and lots of strenght!

Laura Crum said...

Little K, Mikey, Brenda, KB, stillearning and aske--thank you so much. I wormed ET again yesterday, as worming him two weeks apart helped him the last time he got thin. My friend, an old horseman, was with me, and though ET did nothing obviously aberrant, we both got a weird feeling from him. Like he wasn't really "there" any more--I think it was Shanster who used that phrase. I am going to try to keep a close eye on him, and if he doesn't obviously rebound in the next month, I will probably put him down before summer (around here, the green grass turns dry and the flies get annoying about June). Hearing all your input makes me think that waiting until he is stumbling around in a daze would be a bad choice. My old horse, Burt, did seem a bit confused near the end, but was always bright-eyed, eager for food, very much himself until the morning he dropped of a stroke in his late thirties. And Pistol, my friend's great old horse, had to be euthanized at twenty-five because his arthritic issues had become too painful for us to manage. So, I know every old horse's path is different. I'll try to pay attention to what ET is telling me.

Enjay said...

From what you've shared I think it's time to let him go. He may not be a danger to humans at this point, but he is a danger to himself. Were he my horse I would probably put him down now with dignity and peace of mind because if I waited and he did run through the fence I'd then have to struggle with the guilt of his being in pain too.

Laura Crum said...

Enjay--That was exactly what I was thinking about. If I wait, and this old horse gets in the fence or something like that, I am really going to wish I hadn't waited. That's a good point.

Deered said...

I believe that waiting until "the light goes out from their eyes" is leaving it too late. For that to happen the horse is really, really miserable.

We must never forget that horses are a prey species and they will "hide" a lot of pain so they do not appear to be easy pickings.

With ET, you have my sympathy, it sounds like he may have the equine eqivalent of human senile dementia - or old age brain, where people just start to forget things. I think his biggest risk is himself - he may spook at something and scare himself and then get into trouble in a fence or any other "non hazard" that horses can turn into a hazard. Also the weight issue may be because he is stressed - often a stressed animal will burn more energy and drop weight - and I cannot see from what you have said how you could further reduce is stress levels.

Sometimes we have to take action earlier than we are wanting to in the best interests of the animal. Acting a couple of weeks or a month early is preferable to having to act after an animal has had a severe acident.

Again you have my sympathy - I've just lost my cat, and I waited too long with him and I still feel dreadful, I can't go back, but I wish I'd acted the week or even a few days before I did.

Laura Crum said...

Deered--I put my old dog down a tiny bit too late--I know. But I comfort myself by knowing that when I took her life she was really ready to let go of it. I always put myself in their shoes. As long as I get some joy out of life, I'm willing to put up with some misery. I think there is a point when an animal says "let me go." I have experiened previously stand-offish animals putting their faces under my arm-many times. I'm always starting over--every time--when I try to work this sort of decision out. I thank you for your input. I value every comment.

Cleone said...

This is always the hardest decision to make in the life of an animal you love! Like you, Laura, I wouldn't spend anything for testing - the horse is just very old! Whether or not it's his time right now, I can't say, but your post made me think there may be two lines to consider here. One, of course, is the "quality of life" line. But the other seems to be, "Danger to himself or to others" and it sounds to me as if E.T. may be nearing that line, if he hasn't already crossed it. I know letting him go will be hard (someone asked me once if I'd want to be the kind of person for whom it WOULDN'T be hard - no, I wouldn't want to be! Nor would you, I think), but it sounds as if it would be the kindest thing for E.T. Please give all your old guys a pat or scritchie from me!