Updated: Jun 17, 2019
Making the decision to have any pet or animal euthanised is always so utterly painful. I've been through it with our dogs over the years and it's never easy. Films like Marley & Me and The Purpose of a Dog always have me in floods of tears as they bring up memories of our own much loved pets. But losing a horse - making that decision to let them go, seeing it through and bearing witness to it - well - it just seems to take everything to a whole different level. That isn't said to belittle losing any animal we love and I'm certainly not suggesting that either. I'm offering my own personal experience here of losing my soul horse recently and the things I've learned which may be helpful to others.
Being a human guardian for a horse is - as any horse owner will tell you - incredibly time-consuming, expensive, and physically exhausting at times. My facebook feed is full of shared woes from horsey friends and folk the world over about the daily round of getting hay out during a winter gale whilst trying to stay upright through boot-sucking knee deep mud, or unfreezing water pipes, feeding, mucking out, rugging/not rugging, and the myriad of other day-to-day tasks. Whether we have a horse as a pet, companion, or for showing, competing or some other reason, we all love our horses. But whatever reason we have horses in our lives, the toughest time that we all have to face as an equine guardian is end of life care for the sick or elderly horse.
Chiquita was an Argentinian thoroughbred who came to me at 18 years old from playing polo. She had known no other life other than polo. Her previous owner once told me that in her younger days a Saudi prince had tried her out for his string of polo ponies but didn't find her fast enough. But she was certainly quick and sharp enough for me! I have never been interested in polo and was looking for a quiet 'happy hacker'. What I got was a little pocket rocket! Neck reining, polo spins, ultra responsive to the slightest shift in weight and always keen to go (and with a constant jog after a gallop), she had no understanding initially of going round field perimeters or sandschools! As we got to know each other, I became more and more interested in discovering and allowing her soul to shine. In the ensuing eight years that she was with me, I removed her shoes, rode her bitless, gave her healing, learned equine ethology and equine behaviour and forged a relationship built on communication between two souls. The final two years of her life, when I no longer rode her, were perhaps the most deeply satisfying of all. As she became increasingly arthritic, with signs of cushings and struggling to maintain weight, I was all too aware that an approaching winter might be her last.
Chiquita was finally set free from her physical body on 12th November 2018. As I stood in the field with her waiting for the vet to arrive, she and I shared a connection that was sublime. She placed her forehead against my forehead - and showered me with love and a deep knowing. She knew it was her time and was ready to go.
A little over two months have passed and I now feel able to share a few thoughts about what I've learned through the process of losing a much loved equine friend.
1. Being aware of behavioural changes. During what was to become the last couple of weeks of her life, I began noticing some very subtle changes in her behaviour. Chiqs had always been the lead mare and was invariably the one to keep her little welsh companion Star in check. She generally made the decisions about watering hole visits, mutual grooming, setting the boundary markers, demonstrating when Star had invaded her space or moving her away from specific hay piles etc. But during those final days I observed a subtle but distinct shift. Star was beginning to make decisions about what to do, when and where to roam, and even instigating mutual grooming sessions. Up until this point, Star always sought out reassurance from her elder, but now it seemed as though she was making decisions. Chiqs was relinquishing her status and for the first time I felt a sense that she was 'untethering' herself from her responsibilities.
2. The time is always right. No matter how much you prepare for it, the decision to have a horse pts is fraught with uncertainty about whether it's the right time. As prey animals, horses have a built in survival mechanism and are hard wired NOT to show when they are in pain. This can lead to a lot of angst about whether the decision should have been made sooner versus trying out more treatment. It goes without saying that having veterinary advice and/or diagnosis is of paramount importance. However, the decision remains yours as the owner. In our case we took the decision before we knew results from blood tests. We sat down and discussed the already known issues, and weighed this up with the quality of life. So by the time the vet rang the following afternoon with the blood test results we had already decided the best course of action. The blood test results confirmed that our decision was the right one. You have to trust that you've done everything you can and go with your gut feeling that the decision and timing is right.
3. Decide beforehand the method of euthanasia and disposal. We had had several discussions around the pros and cons of injection versus bullet, and whether to have her ashes returned. Because we had already discussed and agreed what we wanted, when the time came it was simply a phone call to implement the procedure. The last thing you want is to go through extra angst about how it will be done when the time comes to say goodbye.
4. Spend as long as you need saying goodbye. I have to say the vet and collection service were incredibly sensitive to my need to sit with her after, weeping quietly over her body, and stroking her. Allowing this time to say goodbye also extended to allowing Star time to adjust to losing her friend too. I'm not sure how long it all took now, but I do know that the professionals were standing quietly in the background and allowing it to happen. I think this is really important.
5. Be kind to yourself. Allow the grief and cherish the memories. It takes as long as it takes. In the first few days that followed I found myself bursting into tears each time I went out to the field - not seeing her standing there or hearing her whinny, or because I didn't have her poo to pick up, or not having to make her breakfast, or the myriad of other little things that became intrinsic to the day to day relationship with a very loved friend. I cherish that love, her wisdom and her knowing.. and so much more.
There is more to write about Chiqs that I'm sure will be covered in another blog. But I hope you can pass on some of these 5 things I've learned about losing a horse to friends or others you know who may be going through this really tough time.
You know, I was recently talking with someone who has a herd of several horses who has sadly recently lost her stallion. She asked if I believe it's possible to have an extra special relationship or have that 'one special horse' that stands out above others.
Yes, I said. I most certainly do.