At the Fenway Foundation for Friesian Horses, we often speak to owners of horses struggling with either an acute or chronic illness. Regardless of the reason for the horse’s decline in health, there is one question that frequently comes up in these types of conversations, and it’s a question that owners are understandably struggling to find the answer to – How do I know when it’s time to say goodbye to my horse?
Euthanasia is derived from the Greek terms eu, meaning "good," and thanatos, meaning "death". A good death would be one that occurs with minimal pain and at the appropriate time in the horse’s life to prevent unnecessary pain and suffering. Euthanasia can be a tricky subject in our culture, and without getting into that entire controversy, the vast majority of scholars and veterinarians believe that humane euthanasia is justified if the animal is suffering as a result of a debilitating disease with little hope of a full recovery. But knowing when your horse has reached the point of humane euthanasia can be very challenging for owners to discern.
We cannot ask our horses if they are in pain or if they are ready for their life to be prematurely ended. While there are often indications of pain or suffering, sometimes this is hard to gauge. Owners will often ask themselves questions like- How do I know if my horse is in pain all the time? How do I judge his quality of life? What if my horse has good days and bad days? What if I do it too soon? The truth is, the answers to these questions don't always come easy, and our emotions may sometimes cloud our judgment.
One distinction between humans and animals is that animals lack the capacity to imagine how the suffering they experience might give way to some relief. It is not possible for horses to reason whether or not they might be willing to suffer pain now for future pleasurable events. Likewise, they are incapable of understanding death on the same level as a human, which is a critical concept for horse owners to grasp.
Why can't horses understand this, you might wonder. It comes down to anatomy. The primary difference between a horse’s brain and a human’s is the size of the brain’s frontal lobe. This part of the brain allows such things as planning future actions, decision-making, strategy, abstract thinking, and many other things.
Simply put, a horse’s brain is primarily designed to respond to stimuli. When that stimulus is pain, one natural reaction for a horse to experience is fear. You might be thinking, well, I certainly would know if my horse was in pain or was fearful. However, previous studies have shown that humans actually do a very poor job of recognizing fear and pain in horses. While humans recognize overt behavioral signs of fear or pain, such as kicking, rearing, or running, they often fail to recognize the more subtle signs, such as tension in the face, avoidance behaviors, or hesitancy. So, if humans don’t do a great job of recognizing these signs, what are we to do?
The American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) recommends the below guidelines be considered in evaluating the need for the humane euthanasia of a horse. Your veterinarian can assist you in making this determination, and based on their experience, they can help you determine the degree to which your horse is suffering. According to the AAEP, a horse should not have to endure:
Continuous or unmanageable pain from a condition that is chronic and incurable.
A medical condition or surgical procedure with a poor prognosis for a good quality of life.
Continuous pain relieving medication and/or box stall confinement for the relief of pain for the rest of its life.
An unmanageable medical or behavioral condition that renders it a hazard to itself or its handlers.
Reading these guidelines may be straightforward, but contemplating how they apply to your horse’s situation can be emotionally challenging. I find that when speaking to owners who are considering euthanasia, they have usually already decided that humane euthanasia is the right thing for their horse somewhere in their subconscious. Still, they are reluctant to admit it to themselves or say it to others. In thinking about this for some time now, I have come to understand that what owners are primarily looking for in these conversations is not advice as to whether or not it is time to say goodbye to their horse- it's absolution from the guilt they feel about this decision.
You might ask why an owner would feel guilty about electing humane euthanasia for their horse, especially if their horse’s case clearly meets established guidelines. My perception is that this guilt owners feel stems from the deep-abiding love they have for their horses. Sometimes, we love our horses so much that we become overwhelmed with guilt when confronted with the decision to end their life prematurely, even if it is the most humane thing we can do for them. The more we love them, the harder this decision becomes. I have observed more than one owner wait to elect euthanasia for their horse and seen the decision made for them when their horse takes a turn for the worse. Actually, I have been that owner myself.
Years ago, I owned the most kind mare. She had lived her life as a broodmare and had an absolute heart of gold. I loved this mare so very much. She had given so much of herself to raising her foals, had reached a respectable age for a Friesian, and was enjoying her retirement. Several years before this, she had contracted Equine Equine Protozoal Myeloencephalitis, or EPM, and made a fantastic recovery. Unfortunately, the symptoms of EPM began reappearing, as they often do. My mare began having difficulty getting up from her morning naps in the sun, and her muscles had begun to atrophy. She was treated again for EPM but wasn't responding to the medication. Several times, we had to roll her over and set her straight, with her legs pointing downhill so she could hoist herself up. She was always quiet and patient while we worked and gave it her all when we encouraged her to get on her feet. I began to say to myself, it's probably time. But then there were so many days where she seemed fine that I kept thinking I needed to wait a little longer. I'd say to myself, maybe in a few months, or perhaps I'll wait until Spring and choose a lovely sunny day where she can be spoiled with all her favorite treats. But life had other plans.
One morning, I woke up and found her down, not in her favorite sunny spot, but under a tree, far away from the other horses where she'd never laid. I don't know for sure if she fell or just collapsed, but there was no sparkle in her eye that morning. While we worked to get her rolled over facing downhill so she could get her legs under herself, she just laid there, almost lifeless. She never attempted to rise, even with all of our desperate encouragement. I realized it was time... past time. I had done the one thing I swore I'd never do. I waited too long, and I had let her down. The vet rushed right over, and he reassured me that euthanasia was the kindest thing we could do for her, and so we let her go. For me, saying goodbye to her in this way, in a way that felt undignified and forced at a time when I wasn't emotionally prepared, was incredibly painful and still haunts me to this day.
In my conversations with owners, I try to reassure them that no one knows their horse better than they do. I encourage them to look at the situation objectively and speak to their veterinarian about their horse's condition, level of pain, quality of life, and prognosis. I usually close the conversation by emphasizing that the most important day in your relationship with your horse isn't the day you bought them or the day you enjoyed your most fun ride together or your best competition day- it is the last day of your horse's life. You owe it to your horse to show up and be counted on that day, and if at all possible, don't let the choosing of that day be forced upon you.
It is our responsibility as owners to make decisions in our horse's best interest because they cannot. Full stop. We accepted that responsibility the moment the horse entered our lives or was born into our hands. When the time to say goodbye comes, we almost always know it deep down; we just need to summon the courage and grant ourselves the absolution to choose this one final act of love.
AAEP. Euthanasia Guidelines. Online. Revised 2021. https://aaep.org/guidelines/euthanasia-guidelines
Regan, Tom. The Case for Animal Rights. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2004.
Rogers S, Bell C. Perceptions of Fear and Anxiety in Horses as Reported in Interviews with Equine Behaviourists. Animals (Basel). 2022 Oct 23;12(21):2904. doi: 10.3390/ani12212904. PMID: 36359029; PMCID: PMC9658478.