by Laura Crum
This would be us. After months of no rain and lots of whining about drought, we got five inches in one week. I am not complaining—we needed that rain. Still, it has created a new problem for me. Because the drought was what was allowing my 34 year old horse, Gunner, to make it through the winter.
The sunny, seventy degree days and the dry ground were stress free for my old horse, who has severely arthritic knees and is pretty shaky and fragile overall. He was eating well, not too lame, seemed quite content. And then the storms blew in.
Overnight we went from sunny and dusty to our usual winter conditions—cold, wet and muddy. And the obvious solution-- put Gunner in a run with a shed--won’t work. Gunner’s anxiety and old-horse dementia has gotten more pronounced and he gets very upset if ANYTHING is changed. He is only comfortable if he is in his big, open corral, with Plumber on one side and Henry on the other. If I change anything, Gunner worries. If I catch Plumber to have him trimmed, Gunner begins running around in a panic, afraid that I will remove his friend. It’s becoming very difficult to cope with.
Because if I let Gunner run around these days, particularly in the mud, he always falls down. And falling down is how he tweaked his already arthritic knee last spring and transformed himself from a sound old horse to a lame old horse. Not a positive change. Ever since then I have had to manage his lameness issues, along with his lessening appetite and his old horse dementia. It’s a challenge.
I don’t in any way begrudge the time, energy and money that I give to taking care of Gunner—I do stress when I worry that his quality of life just isn’t good enough. If he is too lame, too thin, not happy…well, there comes a time when it is kinder to put him down. I am walking a line here, and I want to try very hard not to err on the side of keeping Gunner alive when his life is no longer any pleasure to him. On the other hand, I don’t want to take his life until he is ready to let go of it. I try to do for him what I would want done for me.
So I double blanket Gunner and check on him endlessly as the rain pours down—to be sure that he is warm and dry under his blankets and his eye is reasonably bright. I worry that he eats about half of what he was eating before the storms started. I worry that he is miserable and that this is no life for an old horse. But I know from experience that he will be even more unhappy if I put him in my small covered shed where he would be out of the weather. If I change anything it upsets Gunner. I cannot put Plumber in the covered shed because I can’t move him or Gunner freaks out, so I blanketed Plumber, and then Gunner was upset because his buddy looked different with a blanket on. It really is getting very difficult to manage.
And yet, I just lost my old dog a couple of weeks ago—I don’t want to lose my old horse if I can help it. My son was so sad when Jojo died—she’d been part of his life ever since he was born. The same is true of Gunner. We love him very much. So I persist—doing the best I can to take care of him, and worrying that it’s not enough.
I know that those of you with older, much-loved horses will understand. This is a hard path to walk. But…and I always remind myself of this…it’s a far better path (in my view) than losing a young horse unexpectedly, or a horse in the prime of life. Gunner has had a very good, long life, even if he dies tomorrow (which I hope he doesn’t). Just like our sweet old dog. And that’s a good thing.
Gunner and Plumber last summer.
It's so hard to have to make a decision to end a life. I've been there many times - both with horses and cats. I've always thought it would be so much better if they could just lie down and cross the the Rainbow Bridge peacefully in their sleep, but it doesn't usually work that way. I truly believe he will let you know when he's ready to cross that bridge. It's not an easy road when animals get old and start to fail, but we always muddle through it somehow and hope we're making the right decision when the time comes. My thoughts and prayers are with all of you.
Thank you, Mindy. My thoughts are much like yours. I look at Gunner every day and think no, not yet. He still seems engaged by life. And, of course, that in itself is stressful--the constant monitoring and worrying. But, I am so happy that my old horse is still with me (for 31 years) that it is more than worth it.
It is so worth it. I went through much of the same with Gypsy, my 31-year-old mare. She had Cushings and had foundered from it, along with severe breathing problems. I worried about her constantly, especially since I was boarding her. Luckily, everyone at the barn kind of kept an eye on her for me. Much like your Gunner, she had good days and bad days and on the good days, I was able to ride her - not for long and I always rode bareback as she got older. I was fortunate in that the founder didn't permanently lame her, but it was a rough road as Cushings back then was fairly new and difficult (and expensive) to treat. I had so many days when I wondered about her quality of life, but in the end she let me know when she was done fighting. Hang in there . . .
Sigh. You will do what's right for him, to the end. Thinking of you.
Thank you, both. Going to spend some time grazing Gunner today and just hanging out with him, as it's sunny and the grass is coming on (thanks to the rain).
Lousy. Lousy, lousy situation. I'm so sorry. :(
You're still in my thoughts.
I lost my wonderful TB 8 years & 4 days ago to colic, lost our first dog & my cat to cancer.. I'd WAY rather have lost them all to old age.. but really, can't medical science increase their lifespan just by another 20 years or so??? :(
Whatever you decide will be the right thing, & there is no doubt in anyone's mind that you're doing the right thing for Gunner.
Horsehabit--Yeah, just let's add twenty years to all their lifespans...I like that idea. Thank you for a sweet comment. I do question sometimes whether I am right to keep Gunner going--I know many horse owners would have put him down awhile ago. The more practical types, especially. But so far he still seems reasonably content, so I am just walking that line.
Old horse dementia is what led us to help a friend put down her beloved old mare. Zari was still outwardly healthy, but her dreams were scaring her--you would see her in the field, asleep, and then thrashing like some monster had grabbed her. Not a seizure--she would leap to her feet in terror, still really asleep, trying to see where the predator was (also, she couldn't always get up easily, which scared her even more).
Zari was spending increasing hours in this state of fear, and that's when Jennifer made the difficult decision. Being in pain is one thing--we can numb pain with drugs. But we don't have good tools to alleviate fear. And sometimes fear is worse than pain :-(
Aarene--I am keeping an eye on this aspect. So far Gunner does not stress very often, if I don't change his surroundings. A night or two ago the pickup was parked in a different spot and he got upset about that. But I watched him closely and he was more "alarmed/concerned" than terrified. Head up, snorting, trotting around. In an hour, he was over it. He displays this same behavior when the vet shows up--connecting the vet to past trauma, I think--and my vet says its a good sign that he feels good enough to act this way. However, if Gunner ever seems to spend too much of his life being fearful, then it's time. Today I had him out to graze and groomed him for an hour and he seemed pretty darn perky and happy, so we're still on the right side of that line. Oh, and you cannot feel one rib on him...made me happy. With his fuzzy winter coat its hard to tell how his weight is doing just by looking at him, but a careful grooming made me realize that he really is in reasonably good shape for such an old guy.
The old horse dementia is SUCH a challenge to deal with. If I change any little thing, it sets Cash off for DAYS. He won't eat, paces the fence line... I swear, it gives ME ulcers worrying about him. I too am struggling with when the time will be... not yet, but it could be any day so each day is precious.
Here's hoping that Gunner will pull through this wet winter to enjoy another golden summer, and that he won't put you through too much stress in the process!
jenj--I was thinking about you and Cash when I wrote the post. I know we have talked about the old horse dementia thing before and how hard it is to deal with. Like you, I know that any day could be the day...but so far we are hanging in there. I wish the same good things for you and Cash--may you have more happy days together...and may he not stress you out too much worrying in the meantime. One thing about Gunner, he does have days, like today, when he seems quite content. I hope that Cash does, too. But yeah, it can be tough to watch them pace--I'm right there with you.
i haven't been able to join conversations about this topic but maybe now i can finally say something.
worry was such a part of my daily life when my horse was old, first thing every day i checked to make sure he was still alive.
through the horrible pain of losing him, over time i became aware of something missing - the daily worry. as the pain started to decrease a little, there was this hole where the stress used to be.
i never wake up anymore and check to see if my animals are alive, i assume they are. given a choice i'd rather have him and the worry (like you said, it's worth it to have gunner there), but it is one tiny comfort in the loss.
He will let you know when it's time, Laura. I spent many visits with Promise agonizing over the same things, but ultimately, she was very clear about when she was ready.
lytha--I have been reluctant to talk about this, because I'm afraid it sounds callous, but thank you for bringing it up. Having lost quite a few old animals in my life, I have learned the truth of what you say. When my first old dog died, many years ago, I was astonished that along with the pain and grief and missing him, was a huge relief at no longer worrying and stressing about him (he had struggled and been ill for awhile before he died). Just exactly as you describe it.
And having just lost a much-loved and very old dog recently, yes, I have much the same emotions. I am not worrying about her quality of life and (in her case) I'm not constantly washing bedding. I miss her--I don't miss the endless washing and worry.
So yes, I do know...and there are times when I actually acknowledge this...that there will be many ways in which my life will be easier when Gunner is gone. It is totally worth it to me (as you said) to have the worry and stress now, in order to still have Gunner in my life. But I do understand what you are saying. It is one comfort when we lose an older and much-loved animal. And the other comfort, I find, is knowing that there will always be other animals that need our love...and they will find us and have their own place in our hearts.
Thank you, Promise. I think you are right, but somehow the agonizing part still happens.
People thought I was crazy when I put my 38 mare on anti-anxiety drugs but they worked well for her until she passed from colic.I'm horseless now and I miss both her and my gelding terribly but can't afford another. Sometimes it seems like a lifetime ago that I was feeding/medicating 4x a day and on others like yesterday...
Anon--That's a good point--I hadn't thought of anti-anxiety meds. I am so sorry that you are horseless and missing your horses. It makes me sad to think of it.
Weather and horses is always a challenge! We've had mud, too, but Belle, who is getting older, has had more trouble with the uneven, frozen ground. Now she is shedding in weird patches, so thyroid might be an issue.
Hang in there with Gunner. You are so perceptive with your animals that you will know.
Alison--Shedding in weird patches is often a sign of Cushings. Our older pony, Toby, had Cushings, which is relatively common in older horses. Toby got oral med for this disease, which he ate quite readily in a scoop of senior feed. I'm told, though I don't know from first hand experience, that if not treated Cushings can result in founder. Good wishes to you and Belle.
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