What it’s Like to Euthanize Your Horse.
- The first time I was present during the euthanasia of a horse, I had no idea what to expect. I knew the outcome, and a bit of the process, and random phrases like “holding the lead rope” and “going down”, but it was all new.
- Having gone through it, I want to share some things that I learned and have since considered so that the process may be easier for you. I encourage you to have a few things decided long before this is ever a choice to make. But do remember that the decision to euthanize can often result from a freak accident or sudden illness, and will require some tough decisions to be made quickly.
Things to know and decide about euthanizing your horse, regardless of his health.
Find the answers NOW so that in the moment you can focus on other things.
- How much it will cost.
- Where it can be done. Can this be done at your farm, or do you need to take him to a clinic?
- Can your vet’s office arrange for pick up, or is that your responsibility? This might depend on your choice of how he is remembered after he passes.
- Does your city/state/municipality allow for burial on your property?
- Other options for your horse after the procedure. You may be able to have him cremated, donated to a school, or rendered.
- Will you want ashes returned if he is cremated?
- It’s incredibly stressful and heartbreaking to make financial and logistical decisions in the moment. Know the answers before you ever get to that point. For more details on creating an end-of-life plan for your horse, this article can help.
- There are some cases in which your horse needs immediate euthanasia and the vet’s arrival isn’t soon enough. This needs to be discussed with your vet about what you can do long before it happens.
- It’s not unusual for horse owners to have sedatives and pain medication on hand. This can greatly help your horse in the interim and relieve some of your stress. Make sure they are not expired and you know how to administer them. In cases where a horse is panicked, have an intra-muscular option at the ready so you are not at risk of missing the vein. AGAIN – plan ahead with your vet.
The mechanics of euthanasia for horses.
Please skip this section if this is something you don’t want to know about or be present for.
- This is done by a vet, in a two-step process to give your horse an overdose of barbiturate. This is similar to anesthesia. Your horse is given a sedative first. When the barbiturate is given, he will become unconscious and unaware of anything going on.
- At this point, it’s similar to being anesthetized for a surgical procedure. He will collapse to the ground, not knowing or feeling anything. This is perhaps the most traumatic event for horse owners, as there is no way to control how this happens in the field. Rest assured that he is not in pain, nor does he have any knowledge of what’s happening in his unconscious state. The overdose of barbiturates will slow and stop his brain, his breathing, and his heart. As a reflex only, and not a conscious occurrence, there may be movement and gasps which do end. Your horse is not aware of these movements and reflexes.
- Some horses require an assistant to help the vet, in which case your horse may have weight on his neck. This may be hard to see, ask your vet ahead of time if this might be the case.
- Your vet will need to monitor your horse for the next several minutes. You may not want to see your vet remove any catheters or supplies used, so talk to your vet beforehand about covering up afterward and what you are willing to see and not see.
- Depending on the arrangements made, you may want to cover him up before the pick-up service takes place.
Things to think about surrounding the day of euthanasia.
- If you have an appointment scheduled, you may want to spend some quiet time treating your horse and you to your favorite things to do. Go for a graze, a trail, eat all of the apples, scratch all of the itchy places.
- You may want to have a friend drive you home. The sheer emotion that can overcome you can impair your driving. Have the car parked in a place where you don’t have to drive by anything.
- Pack tissues.
- Be mindful of what’s on the radio. Our brains work in mysterious ways, and the song playing may long be associated with this event in your life. This may work for you. I choose to have sports radio playing as a distraction, and since I never listen to it, I can never be suddenly reminded.
- Collect mementos from your horse long before the day comes. Shoes, browbands, favorite show halters, tail clippings, etc. are much less emotional to collect now.
- Communicate with the barn manager about how you would like all of your barn mates to help. Some of us want texts and calls and cards, others want silence and alone time. Your barn manager can hopefully outline your wishes to the rest of the barn for you.
- Do be prepared for a lot of emotions.
- Also ask your barn manager about sorting out your horse’s items, etc in a time frame that works for you. You may want help with this, you may not.
Do have a plan for reaching out if you need help.
- There are dozens of online and telephone resources for you. Many veterinary schools also offer helplines and online resources. Going through the euthanasia of your horse is a uniquely tragic and personal experience, sometimes with lingering emotions months and years later. Please use these resources for help.