WRANGLING ON THE RANGE #134
FROM HORSE AND RIDER - SEPTEMBER 2011
WHEN IT'S TIME TO SAY GOODBYE
BY BARB CRABBE, DVM
People always ask me how I do it. "Isn't that the hardest part of
your job?" they wonder. Sure, it's hard. And sad. But honestly,
when I euthanize a horse I often feel like I'm doing a great
kindness - especially when I know that it's a beloved horse whose
owner has agonized for days, months, or even years about making
the decision to end that horse's life. It's a choice that doesn't
In this article, I'm going to help you through the process of
ending your horse's life with veterinary-assisted chemical
euthanasia, beginning with a hard look at the scenarios you're
likely to face that would cause you to consider that decision.
I'll help you decide when it's the right time, and will outline
the planning steps you'll need to take. Finally, I'll explain the
euthanasia process, step by step. Although it's never easy to
undergo, if you understand the steps, it'll be less traumatic for
you than learning about it as it's actually happening to your
Making the Decision
These are the three most common scenarios you'll face that might
result in a euthanasia decision: sudden severe illness or injury,
slow decline in condition that causes quality of life to suffer,
or temperament problems that cause a horse to become dangerous.
Scenario #1: Sudden severe illness or injury.
Picture this. The owner of your horse's boarding stable calls in
a panic. Your horse has been kicked in the pasture and his leg is
broken. You race to the barn and arrive at the same time as your
vet, who tells you that the large bone in his upper leg is
fractured. Even worse, it's penetrated the skin, making it a very
severe and likely untreatable injury. Your horse is in incredible
pain, and you must make a decision: Do you want him humanely
In this situation, there's only one decision you can make, and it
has to happen soon so your horse won't suffer. While
euthanasia-as-the-only-choice can be the most stressful of all
scenarios in the short term, in many ways it's the easiest
because you really have no other choice.
Scenario #2: Slow, steady decline.
Your 30-year-old mare has been a part of your family for years.
Recently she's lost a lot of weight and looks stiff and sore
walking around the pasture. Your vet has done an exam and run
some lab work; everything looks fine, and your mare's just old.
You can't help wondering if it will soon be time to say goodbye.
This situation can be agonizing, keeping you wondering for months
or even years about your horse's quality of life. Here's what I
believe: If you're wondering, it probably isn't time. Most horse
owners in this situation will have some event that occurs to make
the decision clear. The beloved oldtimer can no longer get up
after lying down to sleep or roll, lameness becomes so severe
that he or she can't move around the pasture, or sudden illness
strikes and causes a sudden change. I usually tell people "you'll
know," and they do.
Scenario #3: Dangerous.
You've rescued a horse, only to discover that he's extremely
unpredictable - in fact, downright scary. You can't turn your
back on him for a minute or he'll bite you with ears pinned flat
against his head. If you don't pay attention every minute, he'll
spin and kick. He almost killed your vet when she came to do a
simple exam, and you can't imagine how you'll ever provide even
the most basic care.
The hardest decision you'll ever make is to end the life of a
horse because of temperament. You'll be judged by others who
don't understand, and you may find yourself embroiled in a
political controversy at your barn. However, if you truly believe
your horse is dangerous to you or others-and you've taken the
right steps to try to solve your problems-euthanasia may really
Before coming to this decision, it's important to make sure there
are no training options that could help you overcome the
behavioral issues you're experiencing. Consult with a qualified
trainer who's experienced with problem horses, and consider
putting your horse in training with this person for a period of
time for an accurate evaluation. Your veterinarian can also help
you assess your situation-and may have suggestions for an
alternative to euthanasia, such as donation to a veterinary
school or other research program.
If you do reach the point where euthanasia seems to be your only
choice, make your decision with the support of your trainer and
veterinarian, and try not to listen to opinions of others.
The Planning Process
Once you've made the decision to euthanize, there are planning
steps you must take. Where and when? Should you be there? And
what do you do with your horse's remains? Most of these questions
can be answered with a single call to your veterinarian.
Owners often wonder whether they should be present during the
euthanasia process. Some prefer to have their veterinarian
perform the euthanasia and arrange for handling of the remains
while they stay far, far away. Others want to be there for the
last minutes of their horse's life. It's really a personal
When an owner mulls this decision, I always offer a warning that
a horse's euthanasia doesn't always go as easily as euthanasia of
a dog or cat, simply because of the animal's large size. Realize
that your horse will most likely be standing when the medication
is administered, and it can be hard to watch him fall to the
Once the euthanasia has been completed, you'll need to have plans
in place for his or her remains.
Three basic options are available: rendering, burial, or
This is the most popular and often most practical option. You
simply need to call a rendering company that will send a truck to
haul your horse's body away to the rendering plant, where it will
be used for making products such as animal feed additives, soap,
lubricants, and glue. When possible, it's best to schedule the
rendering truck to arrive an hour or two following your
appointment with your veterinarian. This way, the body can be
removed before it has a chance to bloat and begin to decompose.
Cost for rendering ranges between $100 and $300, depending on
your location; distance from the rendering plant; and whether
your request comes as an emergency, with no ability to plan
If you own land, you may want to have your beloved horse buried
on your property. To do so, you'll need to find out the laws for
your area. Some counties prohibit burial, and if they allow it,
they often have strict requirements about the placement, depth,
and size of the hole, and how the body should be handled.
If you think you might want to bury your horse on your property
"someday," it's best to find out these answers well ahead of
time, so you'll know whether it's even possible. If you find you
can't bury your horse on your own property, there are rare horse
cemeteries that offer burial services. Ask your vet whether this
is available in your area.
Cost of burial will depend on availability of the equipment
needed to dig the hole. If you don't have access to one of your
own, a hired backhoe with operator can usually do the job for
between $300 and $600.
It's becoming more popular these days to have your horse
cremated, and equine cremation services are becoming more widely
available. With a simple phone call, you can arrange to have your
horse's body picked up and cremated. The remains can be returned
to you if you request a private cremation, or will be disposed of
by the crematory if you request general or "communal" cremation.
Cost for cremation is usually calculated by the pound, with a
minimum charge of around $500. Expect to pay between $1,000 and
$1,500 for cremation of a typically sized adult horse.
The Euthanasia Event
With your decision made and plans in place, it's time for the
actual euthanasia to take place. If you decide not to be present,
your vet will usually arrive with a technician or, assistant to
help hold your horse. If you want to hold your horse while the
medications are administered, your vet will give you careful
instructions about what to do and what to expect. It's very
important that you pay close attention so that you'll stay safe.
Keep in mind that a 1,000-pound animal falling to the ground can
be dangerous and unpredictable.
If your horse is nervous or agitated, your vet may decide to
administer a sedative prior to the euthanasia solution. This can
help calm not only your horse, but is also likely to make you
feel more relaxed during such a stressful time. The vet will then
administer the euthanasia solution, most commonly a medication
called Sodium Pentobarbital. A fairly large volume of the
solution (between 80cc and 120cc) is given as rapidly as possible
in a vein.
If you watch your horse carefully after the injection has been
completed, you'll see his eyes glaze over, usually within 10 to
20 seconds. I always want owners to know that from the time you
recognize that look, your horse no longer knows what's happening.
From that point forward, it's only hard on you.
Your horse will stand for several seconds, begin to sway, and
then will drop to the ground. In an ideal situation, he'll go
down softly, although in reality he may hit the ground hard - a
disturbing thing to watch when you are already upset. Again,
remember that your horse doesn't know what's happening - it's
only hard on you.
Finally, because of a horse's large size, it may take a while for
his heart to stop beating. Your vet will listen to his heart, and
may check his corneal reflex by lightly touching the surface of
his eye to determine when he's really gone. Be aware that even
after his heart is no longer beating, your horse will make some
reflex movements that can be hard to watch if you're not
prepared. He may suddenly take a deep breath, move a leg, or make
a loud snorting sound. If you want to be with him at the end, be
ready for these things to happen so they won't upset you.
It's never easy to make the decision to end a beloved horse's
life, and it's never easy for your veterinarian to administer
that final injection. Just remember that when the time does come,
euthanasia - a merciful death - will be one of the kindest things
you can do for your horse.
When you are in the middle of a difficult euthanasia decision,
it's easy to forget about some of the simple things that
can help create lifelong memories of your equine friend. Consider
some of the following suggestions.
Lock of hair: In our practice, we always cut a handful of tail
hairs from every horse we euthanize. We wash and condition the
locks, and braid them with colorful ribbons to send to our client
as a memento. You can even have your horse's hair braided into
fancy bracelets or fired into pottery pieces.
Shoe: If your horse is wearing shoes at the time he's euthanized,
ask your vet to pull one for you to keep.
Name plates from halter/bridle: If your horse is wearing a halter
with a nameplate at the time of euthanasia, and you wish to keep
it, be sure to remove it before the rendering truck arrives.
Nameplates from halters or bridles are wonderful ways to remember