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.
I have a stronger pragmatic side when it comes to aging animals, but your conversation (which I loved) shows that the emotional side should win at this point. Gunner will tell you when he's ready. And perhaps bad weather (too hot/dry this summer, too cold this coming winter) will also play a stronger hand.
You know horses. You know your horse, especially, you've had him for decades. If you're still able to argue with yourself about it, it's not time. You'll know.
I do the same thing, every day, with my old guy. It's not easy, and I don't have any answers other than trust your instincts. You'll know, and when you do, you'll be certain.
Many hugs from those of us at Wyvern Oaks.
I've learned (the hard way, of course) that pragmatic is best...for me, and for my life. The loss of a friend is traumatic enough if it s a quiet, planned event, surrounded by friends (the vet is a friend) when I have time and energy ready.
Loss is much harder for me when it's an emergency. Sometimes, maybe, I've chosen to let a friend go a day or a week early, in order to avoid an urgent "get here now" emergency. I don't think emergencies do anybody any good. You've managed to dodge emergencies thus far, since you say that you've always been able to know "exactly when." That's lucky. I hope your luck holds forever...but I'm too cowardly to take that chance.
I have always believed that the kindest, most loving thing we can do for our horses is be brave and smart enough to make the decision to put them down before they lose their dignity. The very last thing on earth I think a well-loved horse needs is to suffer, even the slightest at the end.
And Yes, I have made the decision, many times...sometimes if feels like too many times already in my life, to put a horse down that maybe could have had another 6 months or a year of a decent life. But at what cost to them? Horses don't think about end of life like we humans do.
My personal consolation is that I would rather be 6 months too early, rather than one day too late.
We owned a Tennessee Walking horse that was at least 35 when we finally put him to sleep. The vet said that he was "as old as dirt." :)
The thing is.... Sometimes I wish that we had put him down before we actually did. He had always done good, kept good weight, was happy,etc. But two weeks before he died, his arthritic legs did cause him to fall. And while he got up, he was very different. (The vet suspected a stroke after the fact.) He still ate, still acted happy, but he stumbled more, and was much stiffer than he had been.
The day we had decided to put him down he let us know that he was ready by laying down two hours before the vet was slotted to arrive, and not getting back up. When the vet finally showed up, it was all over within five minutes.
It was so hard, but I will also be honest... I was also so relieved. That makes me feel so heartless, but I spent so much time worried about him, not wanting to go anywhere in case he layed down and couldn't get up, or in case he was extra stiff one day. I missed his presence, and his personality, but I did not miss the worry and stress...
He was not the first of my horses that we have had to put to sleep, but he the only one that I feel that we waited to long.
It makes me feel better to remember that horses don't view death like we do. They don't fear it. I think if I were to go back I would put my horse down, before it got to the point that I HAD to.
You have the knack of describing things so well and I'm sure this post struck a chord with loads more people than just me.
I've gone through this internal debate with our dogs and with one cat, but never with a horse. It's so difficult to make the call, but I do agree with Brown-Eyed Cowgirl that it's better to be too early than too late. How much too early is up to you... but it sounds like it's not time yet for sure. Maybe you'll see him struggling with the heat & the flies in the summer and that'll help you make the decision.
Whatever you do, and whenever you do it, I hope it goes smoothly and peacefully for your sake as well as Gunner's.
From what you have described, B should still be winning. If you do not believe Gunner is "telling" you it is time, do not second guess that instinct. When he stops eating, no longer greets you,etc, then it will be time. Just be sure to have a vet on call for when the time comes so it can be fast
Thank you all for your comments. I really appreciate your insights.
Aarene--I haven't actually dodged emergencies--Flanigan's colic, Burt's stroke and Toby's need to be euthanised that day were all emergency calls to the vet. However, I guess I feel differently about that context. For me there is comfort and rightness in knowing for sure that my loved animal is ready to let go of life--and that usually involves a sudden decline of some sort, which pretty much means an emergency call. I'm also very proactive when I'm sure. Both my old dog Jojo and our pony Toby were scheduled to be put down on the day that they were actually euthanised, but when I felt the timing needed to be different--in one case sooner, in one case a little later that same day--I called the vet and made the change happen.
In the long run it's not about me and what's more comfortable for me. It's about the animal and what I think the animal wants. I do my best to give them what I would want for myself.
I also believe--and I don't know this for sure nor do I wish to imply that others should believe this--that animals let go much more easily when they are ready to go. I have actually never had an animal (after many, many cats, dogs and horses) fight the drug. But I have known of several cases where this happened and every single time it was an animal that I would not have chosen to put down, feeling that the animal still enjoyed his/her life.
BEC--I respect your point--that's the part of me that argues for "A."
Paige--I understand what you are saying. I have to say, though, that your horse's end sounds about right to me. I have had two horses lie down like that and it seemed to be very clear that they were ready and it gave me much comfort to know this. It is also much easier on horses if they don't have to fall (so says my vet--and based on my own observations I completely agree). I would be at peace if it worked out for Gunner as it did for your horse.
I also know my own life will be much less stressful when Gunner is gone. I will miss him very much, but my day-to-day life with the horses will be very much easier. I cannot find it in my heart to let that be my primary guide. It's a part of what I understand, but for me the choice needs to be based on what I think Gunner wants.
Martine and Alison--I thought that I would put Gunner down this past winter because he would be unhappy in the storms and mud, but we had a very mild winter and he did well and actually gained weight. But yes, if he looks miserable this summer, that will be the tip off. Having him at home means I can easily put fly spray on him every day and such, so it is easier to give him a good quality of life. If he were still in the pasture where I used to keep him, he would have had to be put down this last fall.
Robin--Yes, I have vets on call. And just as jenj and ChristinaRae also said, I am going to follow my instincts. I have learned over time that this is the bottom line.
Thank you, all of you. I appreciate your thoughts.
Aches and pains are part of growing old, the crone stage of life as it were. He doesn't sound like he is ready to let go of this life. Wince with him but let him enjoy his time until he is ready.
oooooh I feel every word you said. I am not looking forward to the time I have these same thoughts and wonder about the right answer with my horse.
- The Equestrian Vagabond
There is no right thing - there is only the best you can do. You are a knowledgeable and caring horse owner, and whatever decision you make, and whenever you make it, it will be OK.
Thank you, Pattie, Merri and Kate. I know you understand. I do feel, as Pattie says, that Gunner is enduring the aches and pains that old age brings humans as well as horses, and, as my vet said, "I have a bad knee that hurts, too, and I don't want to die because of it. I don't like to put these old horses who are bright-eyed down because they are a bit gimpy."
I've seen several horses kept alive too long - and not by people like you, Laura. You've been around horses a long time, think hard about what is right, consult others, and aren't afraid to make a hard decision. It's the people who 'collect' horses and think that putting them in a field is enough that concern me. And the people who always 'know best'.
When I had the old stallion put to sleep, he'd become less mobile over a period of weeks and began to lose muscle condition on his bad leg. I was able to make a judgement that his quality of life had deteriorated. Until then, although unsound, he had what I can only call (trying not to anthropomorphise) a positive outlook.
WHP-Yes, Gunner still has "a positive outlook." I had him out for a while today to groom him and let him graze and he is quite perky. But he is getting more lame. I really do struggle with "when."
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