I have come to believe that often a horse knows when he will die. As a vet I have put down hundreds of horses and with only a few exceptions the horse seemed prepared and accepting. In most cases, the horses I put down were old but a few also had life threatening injuries or illness.
Owners of a horse often ask me how they will know when it is time to let a suffering horse go and I tell them to let the horse decide. A horse that is ready to die will often stop eating or lay down for longer and longer periods. You may also see a change in the herd dynamics as one horse approaches death.
I knew my donkey, Lady, was ready to go when I saw my mule, Tess, starting to spend more time away from her. Tess and Lady had been extremely close and Tess would get very upset if she could not see Lady at all times. If we wanted to trim Tess’s feet we had to make sure Lady was close. One morning Tess was standing at the gate to go into the pasture with the other horses. Lady was standing nearby. I opened the gate for Tess and with that Lady walked straight into the barn and laid down in an open stall. It was clear she was not going to get up and we put her down that afternoon. Tess stood across the fence while we buried Lady and then she went and joined the other horses.
Another memorable case was a horse named Leggs. Leggs was living at my clinic after being donated to me by his owner. He had severe laminitis and I had tried every method I could find to help him. It was with Leggs that I found how beneficial therapeutic doses of antioxidants were for laminitis. I think that was the lesson Leggs came to teach me. Unfortunately, the damage to his feet from the laminitis was too severe for Leggs to recover and live pain free. One morning I went to feed him and instead of coming in to the barn he stood at the back of his pen. He seemed to say clearly to me that his job was done and he was ready to go.
I also believe that some “accidents” are instead a horses way of intentionally dying. I have seen old horses get hung up in fences or trees after years of living in the same pasture. I have been called out for old horses found down in a deep ravine or mired in mud in parts of the pasture they normally would not go. I have been present when a troubled horse bolted from his trainer and ran full speed into another horse with such force that he was killed and the other horse severely injured.
In all the horses I have had to put down or been present when they died, I only remember 2 who did not seem ready to go. One was many years ago and he was a healthy horse that was positive on a coggins test for equine infectious anemia. This was a pet horse and the owners had no way to isolate him from other horses in the neighborhood. The family made the painful decision to put the horse down. When I arrived the kids were crying and everyone in the neighborhood was gathered around. When the horse was led out he took one look at the crowd and panicked. I did not have any understanding of animal communication at this stage of my life but I took the horse’s lead and explained the situation to him. He immediately calmed down and allowed me to give him the injection.
The other case of a horse reluctant to be put down was a horse that was so happy with his home that he was willing to remain even if it meant severe discomfort. Once I explained to him that he could still remain close to home in spirit form he was happy to let go of the pain.
Horses seem to know when it is their time to die and they accept this without fear or sadness. Of course, we still miss them. Madalyn
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