Although some horses (like some people) have the good fortune to die peacefully in their sleep of old age, most horses will eventually reach a stage (due to severe injury, disease or incapacity) where the most humane action is to put them down. For the horse owner, this can be a very difficult and painful decision, in terms of when a horse should be put down, as well as how. This article is the personal view of one horse owner on this subject.
Is now the time?
If a horse is in a lot of pain and distress, due to an incurable injury or disease, the only correct action is to put it down as quickly and as humanely as possible. However, in some cases the decision is not as clear.
For example, a horse may be in permanent pain but quite capable of happily living with it. This was the case of a draft horse pensioned with us, who had a chronic case of laminitis which made walking painful (especially over hard surfaces). As an elderly horse, he also had dental issues which made chewing uncomfortable. However, by supplementing his diet with soft food and giving him maximum time on soft pasture, his discomfort was minimised. He was a stoic horse, who seemed little bothered by pain, and obviously enjoyed life. He would trot around the pasture with his head held high and come to us for cuddles. Although retired, he was active in the pasture and obviously enjoyed life despite the constant pain in his feet and when he ate.
For me, the question is not how much pain the horse is in, but rather is he still happy and enjoying life. One can tell this not only by how the horse behaves at the moment, but also how his behavior has changed in response to injury or illness. When life changes from a pleasure to a burden, that is the time for the horse to be put down.
Aside from illness and disease, many horses are put down for financial reasons, such as:
Although the economic pressures are real, there are alternatives:
One may not always be able to find a solution for every horse. However, before putting down a horse which is still enjoying its life, remember that there are alternatives.
When your horse has reached the point where it needs to be put down, the question is no longer 'when' but rather 'how'.
The normal methods are by injection (sedative overdose) or by a slaughter gun which fires a bolt directly into the brain. In both cases, this should be done by a professional. In particular, the use of a slaughter gun should be done by an experienced person, as inexperienced people have been known to shoot the horse without killing it on first attempt, resulting in terrible pain until the mistake can be corrected. Whatever one might see in western movies, the use of a hunting gun is highly questionable, due to the risk that the bullet may not penetrate the thick skill and immediately end the horse's life.
If the horse is at home when the decision is make, it is kindest to the horse to put it down there (e.g. have a veterinarian come out and give a lethal injection). If the horse is severely injured or ill, transport to another location adds to its suffering. Furthermore, unfamiliar surroundings may cause it distress (particularly if taken to a slaughterhouse, where the horse may panic in response to the smell of blood). The main obstacle to this approach is the difficulty of transporting the body afterwards, so prior to putting a horse down one needs to consider whether it is necessary to first move it to a more practical location.
For personal safety, if the horse is standing up, one needs to either lie it down prior to euthanasia or be careful that noone becomes trapped under the horse if it falls while being euthanised. Professionals (e.g. a veterinarian) should have the experience and sufficient detachment to consider such practicalities.
Unless one personally knows and trusts the person performing the euthanasia, one should remain with the horse until the end, to ensure that your wishes in this regard are properly carried out. For example, it has been known for professional slaughter staff to transport horses to the location which is most convenient for them, even though it meant additional suffering for the animal. Staying with your horse allows you to ensure that your horse ends its life with minimum distress.