Saying Good-bye... what you should know,
but don't want to ask.
Saying good-bye to a friend is never easy. Euthanasia isn't a
subject you want to think about, much less read about. Although
the life expectancy of a horse is 25 or 30 years, your
three-year-old could face life-threatening colic tomorrow, or Old
Reliable could sustain a severe injury in a misstep on his last
As unpleasant as it may seem, having a plan will save both you
and your horse unnecessary suffering if he has to be put down.
The decision will be all yours. Few veterinarians will tell you
when your horse should be put down -- that's not their job. When
your horse is very sick, badly injured or perhaps facing
emergency surgery, your veterinarian is responsible for clearly
communicating your horse's condition, including statistics on the
odds of it surviving or recovering, so that you can make an
Most veterinarians seem to feel a horse should be put down if
there is no chance of relieving its suffering, or if it has
become a danger to itself or to the people around it. Under these
circumstances, a veterinarian may offer euthanasia as an option,
but the ultimate choice still rests with the owner.
Some veterinarians may refuse to put a horse down at the owner's
request. Many cases fall into that gray area, "loss of use." A
horse may not be sound enough to use, but can live comfortably
turned out to pasture. Some owners do not want to bear this
expense, so the veterinarian must often weigh the horse's
prospects for humane care and quality of life before refusing the
owner's request for euthanasia.
Not only can a veterinarian refuse to euthanize an unsound but
otherwise healthy horse for ethical reasons, but he may also
refuse to try to save a horse when he believes death is
inevitable and treatment will only prolong suffering.
This can be difficult for a distraught owner to comprehend when
faced with the prospect of losing a valued companion.
If your horse is insured, the insurance company makes it more
complex. Read and understand the coverage you have on your horse.
Insurance companies usually want to know about a problem before
euthanasia becomes an issue. You could save your horse hours of
suffering if you are familiar with the terms of your policy
before an emergency situation occurs.
Although you don't have to wait if you can't reach the company in
an emergency, companies want to authorize anesthesia. In a
serious situation, you may have to call them after the horse is
in surgery. They will often authorize the surgeon to use his best
judgment and report back the next business day.
However, you may be required to get approval from the company
before you can put your horse down. Do everything to keep the
insurers informed, because many will not pay if you "neglected
duties of prior or timely notification."
There are two best-case scenarios for putting a horse down. A
horse undergoing surgery can be euthanized by barbiturate I.V. if
it becomes obvious during the surgery that it has no hope for
Beyond that, the most common is an intravenous barbiturate
overdose administered by a veterinarian. It is comforting to know
that consciousness is eliminated as soon as the drug is given.
If your horse is in pain or badly injured, it may be dangerous or
impossible to use an injection. A horse experiencing shock may
lack the circulation necessary to distribute the drug to his
brain or heart. For this reason, veterinarians may need a backup.
A .22-caliber pistol is a good choice.
The gun should be placed perpendicular to the forehead in the
center of an X formed by drawing a line between the horse's right
ear and left eye and left ear and right eye. If done correctly,
death is instantaneous.
To make sure the horse is dead, the veterinarian will listen for
a heartbeat and may check the eye for a reaction by touching it.
Horses have a very sensitive corneal response. If there is any
sensation, it will be felt in the eye.
If a horse needs to be put down during transport due to illness
or a trailer accident, it's best to call the state police. They
can put you in touch with a local veterinarian, or in extreme
emergencies can shoot the horse to end its suffering.
Most large competitions have a veterinarian on the grounds for
emergencies, but some smaller ones do not. In the latter case,
competition management can put you in touch with a veterinarian,
and if he must euthanize the horse, he can give you the best
advice on removing the body for burial or disposal.
You must decide about being present when your horse is put down.
Your veterinarian will probably advise against it, with good
reason. Anytime, but particularly in stressful situations,
euthanasia of such a large animal may not go as planned.
Complications may be dangerous or unattractive. Unless you accept
that fact, don't be there.
After you recover from the shock and sadness of losing a friend,
you still have to deal with the body of your dead horse.
If your horse dies or is euthanized at an equine hospital, it
will probably provide this service for a fee. Otherwise, you will
have to make the arrangements.
Delay in disposal is an unpleasant and disheartening situation.
Once rigor mortis sets in--about two hours after death--it will
be difficult to remove your horse from his stall, and a much
deeper and wider hole will be needed to bury him. It takes about
a day for rigor mortis to wear off, and, unfortunately, it might
also take that long to find someone with a backhoe if you haven't
done your homework in advance.
Talk to other owners in your area and learn the name and number
of a reliable backhoe operator. If you board your horse, the
manager at your barn might be able to offer you a plan.
There may be ordinances that prohibit burial of large animals, so
check with the local county administration, and be prepared to
haul your horse to another locality.
Removal services may also be available. If you know in
advance--this doesn't work in emergency situations, of
course--have a spot picked out and the hole ready before your vet
arrives. Be sure to choose a location that doesn't drain toward a
well or water supply. If other horses are pastured on a burial
site, it is safe as long as you are certain the earth is packed
hard. If your horse has died from a communicable disease, it is
best to bury him in another location or dispose of him in a
manner approved by your veterinarian.
If burial isn't an option, there are rendering services in some
areas that will pick up the carcass, sometimes free of charge.
County landfills may also accept animal remains, but you'll have
to arrange to get them there. Equine veterinarians are a good
source of information as to what's available in your area.
The service is generally more readily available for small
animals, but it is possible to have your horse cremated rather
than buried or hauled away.
For example, Doc's Pet Cremation in Rocky Mount, Va., will accept
horses and other large animals. Dr. R.E. Flint recognized a need
and offers cremation services to large-animal owners as part of
his veterinary practice.
Flint recommends owners contact their veterinarian when a horse
must be put down. If the owner wants the horse cremated, the
veterinarian can euthanize the horse in the trailer, and the
animal can be taken to the cremation site.
At the owner's request, once cremation is complete the ashes are
placed in a decorative container and returned by mail. The ashes
produced by cremation of the average horse weigh 40 to 45 pounds.
Along with the ashes, the owner receives a certificate stating
that the ashes received are those of the horse.
Cremation costs about $300, or about the same as the cost of
backhoe service for burial.