Putting Down Your Horse - Planning Ahead for a Good Death

Finding peace through knowing what to do when making the most difficult of decisions.
Finding peace through knowing what to do when making the most difficult of decisions.

Anyone who owns horses will eventually face the mind-numbing task of deciding when, how, and where to end the life of a horse. In the worst-case scenario, due to a sudden, severe injury or the onslaught of severe transmittable disease, an owner may have to make a quick decision regarding whether to spend huge sums of money without knowing the potential outcome, or working with a veterinarian to euthanize the horse in a humane manner.

By thinking ahead and doing some planning for the inevitable, owner will be able to make rational decisions and have time to share the plan with others who may become involved if the owner is not on the scene when the final decisions have to be made. In any case, this is a task that demonstrates ultimate respect for the horse.

Euthanasia may be considered under a wide range of serious circumstances:

  • Severe injury
  • Undue suffering because of illness or chronic lameness
  • Debilitation because of age or progressive disease
  • Foals born with genetic or other serious defects
  • Inoperable colic or other health conditions
  • Severe transmittable disease
  • Behavioral traits that endanger people, other animals, or the horse itself

In each case, the right choice is the one that is in the best interest of the horse and the people who care for the animal.

Having a veterinarian involved in making the decision is important, especially if the veterinarian has a history with the horse and knows how it will respond to treatment or other compounding factors, such as the amount of pain involved as a result of injury or illness.

Establishing a plan

One of the responsibilities of horse ownership is making advance preparations, both for what may occur and what will occur. The death of a horse, whether from natural causes or euthanasia, should be addressed and planned-for so everyone involved with the horse knows what to do when the time comes. Compiling a list of the steps to take and posting it in a convenient place will save stress and time. The list should include the following information:

  1. Name and phone number of veterinarian, with an alternate to be used in an emergency
  2. Name and phone number of nearest horse trauma center or hospital
  3. A written emergency euthanasia plan with acceptable methods to be used as a guideline for humane euthanasia of animals on the premises
  4. If the horse is insured, the name and phone number of the insurance company, along with access to a copy of the policy with important guidelines of the policy highlighted. (Note that in many cases, an insurance company will want a second opinion before an insured horse is euthanized.)
  5. A copy of any local, state, and federal regulations relative to disposal or burial of horses and information about burial sites, rendering services, professional disposal services, and possible sources for cremation of the horse's remains, depending on what best meets the needs and desires of the owner
  6. The names and phone numbers of reliable backhoe operators that can be called to move the horse's body to a burial site or the phone numbers of removal services. (Your veterinarian probably knows about resources available in the area and may have recommendations for you.)

Making the decision to euthanize a Horse

The decision to euthanize a horse may be made in an emergency on the racetrack, at the scene of an accident, in the corral, or on the trail. Some accidents do not allow any leeway as to when and where because the horse's condition and degree of suffering do not permit transport to a convenient or special facility.

If the decision to euthanize a horse is the result of a chronic progressive illness, debilitation because of age, dangerous behavioral traits, or because the caring of a sick or incapacitated horse is too much of a financial burden, the timing and place of the euthanasia is under the control of the owner and the veterinarian.

A veterinarian can provide medical information and the horse's prognosis along with options, comfort, and support, but the horse's owner has the responsibility for determining that it is time to euthanize the horse. Many veterinarians prefer not to have the owner and family members present during euthanasia because complications may occur that are unpleasant, dangerous, or distressing to those who have had a relationship with the horse.

In the ideal scenario, most veterinarians choose to administer an intravenous barbiturate overdose in a setting familiar to the horse. When the drug is given, the horse loses consciousness and experiences relief from pain almost immediately, breathing stops, and then the heart ceases to beat. This method is very similar to the process people undergo when administered general anesthesia and is accomplished without panic, pain, or trauma.

Confirmation of death may be through the absence of breathing, heartbeat, or a corneal reflex, as tested by the veterinarian.

In any case, planning ahead and knowing what to do can be a source of comfort to all involved in this most difficult time.

Somewhere in time's Own Space
There must be some sweet pastured place
Where creeks sing on and tall trees grow
Some Paradise where horses go,
For by the love that guides my pen
I know great horses live again.
~Stanley Harrison

About the Author

Flossie Sellers

Author picture

As an animal lover since childhood, Flossie was delighted when Mark, the CEO and developer of EquiMed asked her to join his team of contributors.

She enrolled in My Horse University at Michigan State and completed a number of courses in everything related to horse health, nutrition, diseases and conditions, medications, hoof and dental care, barn safety, and first aid.

Staying up-to-date on the latest developments in horse care and equine health is now a habit, and she enjoys sharing a wealth of information with horse owners everywhere.