Wednesday, September 21, 2011


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.


horsegenes said...

Been wrestling with the same issues here in the north too. I don't have an end all answer. What I have been thinking about lately is... Do horses know what is happening when they are receiving the drug? And since I have never had a euth done with drugs, is it quiet and peaceful? I think that if I felt like the horse just was "laid to rest" and it was quiet and peaceful it would make the choice a little easier.

Laura Crum said...

Oh kel, that's a tough one. I have been present for the"euthing" of maybe half a dozen horses, three of which were mine. None of mine struggled--the one who was standing (we tranquilized him first) fell in an instant, so though he did not suffer from the kill shot (I don't think) the effect was not one of "quiet and peaceful". The two who were lying down also died very quickly, with no struggle. I was relieved that they were done with their suffering--one had advanced cancer, one severe, inoperable colic, one had a stroke. One minute there, the next gone. I think the effects of euthanasia can vary widely. It hasn't happened to me, but I have heard of horses (and dogs and cats) reacting to the shot with fairly violent struggle, and taking awhile to die. This would break my heart. The times I've heard of this, it has been my impression that the animal wasn't "ready" to go. All the critters I've put down gave me clear signals they were ready to go. Which is why its being so hard for me with ET.

Anonymous said...

I've done a number of euths, and I don't think the horses know or suffer - they're heavily tranquilized first (if the vet is doing a good job) and drop very quickly - sometimes the legs twitch/thrash for a second or two but that's involuntary movements. There's no pain and it's very fast.

I faced the same problem with Noble, who lived until 30, but he went downhill very fast and the decision was clear, at least to me - he was unhappy when he'd been happy before. I'm a believer, if other factors don't enter in, in letting the horse make the decision - but it's important to pay attention to subtle signs and some people do wait far too long. It sounds to me like your guy is feeling pretty lively - have you had his thyroid tested? there's an easy supplement to help that if it's out of whack which can cause weight loss. I'm in no position to advise you - it's your decision and whatever your decision is it'll be fine - can you just put him down when he becomes less comfortable and tells you it's time, rather than doing it right away?

Laura Crum said...

That's the conclusion I'm currently going with, Kate. Waiting until ET tells me he's unhappy. Which may be the first winter storm. I am actually hoping for a clear sign from him, a loss of appetite, anything. But so far I'm not getting one, and I'm trying to pay attention. ET eats with gusto, moves around, gets up and down easily, is sound. We feed him all he'll clean up. And this particular feed has done a stellar job for dozens of older horses that I know of. Its just a tough one. I would be relieved if he did what your Noble did and showed a marked decline. But so far its the slow downhill slide--and he still has a perky attitude.

Anonymous said...

My old vet (now retired) always gave a sedative before the euth shot. It seemed very peaceful. My old TB, who always required extra drugs, needed two shots to stop his heart, but he was out of it, and in no pain.

As for "when" to do it, I'd say one hour before they begin suffering. It's a tough call. I always kick myself that I didn't do it sooner and avoid pain and suffering.

Linda Benson said...

Laura - You are such a kind soul to worry so over your old refugees. But I understand how hard it is to make that decision - what right do we have to play God? And yet I think it is part of our responsibility to not let them suffer, which like you said might happen at the first bad winter storm.

We put an old horse down last summer, and it was tough when the vet came and the sun shone bright and the grass was green and the old horse seemed to be enjoying the day. But as he dropped peacefully down into the grass as he ate out of a grain pan from my hand, we all said it would be a blessing to go that easily - to lie down in green pastures - which is exactly what he did.

Good luck with your decision, Laura.

Alison said...

Tough decision, Laura, and you weighed the pros and cons in your blog and they are coming out equal. One day, and it may be soon with ET, the pros will suddenly outweigh the cons. Since humans outlive their animals (except parrots!) we all have to make these decisions with our pets. It is a HARD one no matter the animal--we have more cats, dogs and horses buried on our property than I can count (don't tell since it's not legal!)--but as others commented, it is our job to make that decision in honor of the love/service they have given us (and others in ET's case). Good luck.

Gayle Carline said...

There's no easy answer, except the one you can live with. My old dog, who had to be carried outside to go to the bathroom, TROTTED to the car on the day I took him to be put down. Gah. I've had more than one friend watch their animal decline and the day after they make The Decision, the animal rallies and has the Best Day Ever. One thought is that they're not ready to go. Another is that they feel better because they are ready - they've been telling us for months they weren't well.

Who knows? Do you want him to have one last, great day, or do you want him to tell you he's done, to please put him out of his misery? As much as I try to listen to my animals, at the end of the day it's about how I "interpret" what they're saying.

Laura Crum said...

redhorse and Linda--I try to think what I would want, and I have to say that I'd want to suffer just a bit--to help me be ready to let my life go and welcome death. I have observed my animals, horses included, be ready to let go, and I have seen this in people, too. Its my impression that some degree of pain/discomfort is needed first. Who wants to let go of this life when we feel OK? So I guess that's where I'm coming from on that. But I surely don't want my animals to suffer in any deep, pointless way. I've tried to be very careful on where I draw the line--not taking their life before they are ready to let go/not putting them through too much-- and I have certainly had to make the choice for about twenty or so critters in the course of my life. Its never easy. But I did feel that the ones I chose to euthanise gave me a pretty clear signal they were ready, and that gave me some peace of mind. Its a huge struggle for me that I'm not getting that signal from ET--when logic indicates I should put him down.

Alison--I bury my animals, including horses, here, too. And it does give me some comfort to know that their bones lie on our property.

Laura Crum said...

Gayle--A friend of mine had the vet out to put her horse down, oh, maybe five times. And each time the horse looked so much better on the day the vet came that she just couldn't do it. I know someone else who did the same thing with her dog. Maybe I wait a little too long--I'll never be sure--but I haven't done that. So far, when I feel they've given me some kind of signal, I go forward, and it all seems smooth. Though still terribly sad. Death is very final. I guess that's part of my hesitation to deal it out too readily.

jenj said...

I've been blessed to have clear signals from all the animals I've put down. It sounds like that's what you're waiting for in ET's case as well, and you haven't seen it yet. As long as you're OK with continuing to wait for it, and you're attuned enough to him to recognize it (and it certainly seems like you are), then waiting might be the best option. As you said, he could tell you it's time at the first winter storm - or he might continue trotting around for another five years, lol!

The feed ET is on sounds fantastic, but if he's dropping weight, have you tried feeding soaked beet pulp? I have a hard keeper too and it doesn't matter how much hay or alfalfa I stuff into him, he still looks ribby. However, one scoop of beet pulp daily keeps him fat and shiny. The shreds are quite small and don't need to be chewed, it's reasonably priced, and one bag lasts me forever. Anyway, just a thought if you haven't already tried it.

Laura Crum said...

jenj--The feed we use has beet pulp in it--among other things. Its a complete feed--and its very palatable. As I say, it has worked wonders on all old horses I've seen. It is quite expensive, but my friend Wally can get it at wholesale price, which helps. We use it because it works so well, and ET cannot even chew pellets--but he can eat--and utilize--this feed. I am sure that I could supplement with beet pulp...etc, but the truth is that we are often trying to fit the "feed the pasture pets" chore into very busy days, and even one more step (like soak the beet pulp) can seem mind boggling. The Equine Senior Delight feed is simple and it works. I have thought about fiddling around with Et's diet...etc, but at this point I'm inclined to think that if he can't make it on free choice senior delight, which has kept every other old horse fat and shiny, then that's one way of him saying "its time". But I'm still waiting for that clear signal that says "now".

Leslie said...

Definitely a tough one, Laura. I have a similar situation with my cat right now. I know, a cat is small compared to dealing with our horses, but doesn't mean we take it any less hard.

Buddy, was a rescue.Short story, we fed and nursed him from a tiny handful, closed matted eyes, runt of the kittens in the box my son found.We didn't think he would survive to a thriving adult. He's nine now. He developed asthma over a year ago. He's been getting a monthly steroid injection. However, it's looking like even that isn't helping. The vet suggested a product similar to what people use, an inhaler type of device, but Hubby and I decided we might be able to get it on Buddy once, without a fight, and that would be it. Too much of a struggle for the cat and we didn't want to put him through it. The other option was the monthly steroid, but it would only prolong the inevitable.I decided to just let Buddy live in his own little world as long as possible. He has coughing spasms and wheezes but he still eats, drinks, and wants to go outside on the deck every day. As long as he seems comfortable, for the most part, I'm going to go with it that way.He may go to sleep and not wake up, like our twenty one year old cat did a few years back. But if he does need help, I'll take him to the vet to be put down.

A horse. Oh my goodness,I haven't had to deal with my own yet, but if you have them long enough, the time will come.

I honestly don't think there's a right or wrong for you. Either way, ET has had a good life with you these last years.

Our neighbor's horse recently died.Red was a BLM horse they'd adopted way back in the early 80's, so he was somewhere close to thirty.Hubby returned home one morning, because he forgot something,and said Red was laying out in the field,described the location. I'd been saying for a long time that Red wasn't looking too good. I'd watched him walk in the field a few times over the summer, and he was very stiff legged, very slow. I saw Red the two times I went in and out of our road that day. He was in the semi laying position when I saw him,never moved over a two hour period which meant he'd been there since at least 7:30am that morning, and I saw him the last time at 2pm.I have to believe he got down and couldn't get back up. It had been raining and chilly all day. I'd told Hubby to tell them, since the guy and his wife work at the same facility.Come to find out they'd known Red was going down and had already prepared a place. But,I thought it wasn't right for Red to just lay out in the rain all day if they knew what was going on. I don't know the whole story, so I'm not judging them, but I believe they should have had Red put down before he ended up in the field, unable to get up on a chilly rainy day, which basically is what happened from what Hubby gathered after talking to the owner.

You look after your horses enough,Laura,so that wouldn't happen to ET. I think you should just go with what you feel and you'll be at peace.

Laura Crum said...

Leslie--That is exactly the sort of thing I DON'T want to happen to ET. We feed every day around 7:30 AM, and Wally and I are very clear that if on any day ET is not right there, bright and eager to eat (which he is every morning) he'll be put down that day. As fast as we can get the vet out there. Given his age and overall slow decline, any sort of "offness" is going to be our cue. I would also choose to put ET down if I saw him moving as if he hurt, or having any sort of difficulty getting up and down. For me, those would all be signs it was time. So far, none of that is happening, but we are watchful.

HorsesAndTurbos said... get his weight up try adding soy oil to his feed. My rescue mini was not gaining weight...even on enough senior feed for a big horse, and someone suggested Cocasoya - and in one week I saw a difference. He's now fat and sassy and I'm going to be cutting him back. You don't need the Cocasoya - you can just use soy oil (I found that cheap by me) and just see if that helps him put on weight. If not, then maybe that will help with your decision process.

Good luck!


Mrs. Mom said...

Laura, Et has lived his life on his own terms. Steady, happy to work, happy in retirement. Reliable. When the time comes, I am leaning towards thinking he will tell you on his own terms too. It would not surprise me if you write one day and say, "We went out to feed this morning, and there by his feeder looking calm and peaceful was ET, having passed away sometime during the night."

You "asked" and he said, No, not now. Maybe soon- but not now. He'll let you know.

Breathe deep. The doldrums are affecting many of us in many ways. But know in your heart ET is in good hands, and you'll KNOW when it is time with him.

Laura Crum said...

Thanks Jackie and Mrs Mom--I appreciate the support and suggestions. And Mrs Mom--I so wish you to be right. I would love to have the old horse pass like this--but so far this hasn't happened for me.

Shanster said...

I'm sorry Laura - these things are never easy and only a decision you will feel comfortable making. The 3 we've put down clearly needed to be put down and I didn't have any guesswork to do - doesn't make it any less sad but I suppose it does make it a little easier.

I know you'll do what is best for ET and what a lucky horse he is to have such a champion for him in you.

Once Upon an Equine said...

No advice here, but just want to wish you well in your decisions. It sounds like you are very in tune to ET and have his best interest at heart. He's very lucky to have found a good retirement home with you.

Laura Crum said...

Thanks Shanster and Once Upon. I did come to a sort of conclusion. I upped Et's rations a little, and so far he is cleaning the extra up. And I moved Rebby into the one corral on the property so he can eat free choice hay and some equine senior delight, too. Tomorrow I will give each of them an extra worming--all the horses were wormed less than a month ago. It's a temporary sort of fix--Reb can't live in the corral all winter--it'll get too muddy. But at least for the moment, everyone's needs are being addressed. And Et still looks quite bright-eyed.