Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Geriatric Ward: What To Do With Your Old Timers And Thinking About End Of Life Options

This is a topic we all have to face sooner or later when we have horses and it's twofold: What to do with those who need to be retired for whatever reason, and when to make the horribly painful decision to lay our beloved equine companions to rest.

All horses age, and most of us find ourselves faced with the reality sooner or later that we've got to make a determination when to retire our faithful mounts. With some, it's fairly obvious as health or soundness issues begin to plague them. When lamenesses become chronic you know you have been delinquent in giving that hard working steed a much deserved rest.

This is something I fear I will be facing within the next few years, though my own aged gelding is still sound, healthy and looks far younger than his birthyear suggests. A few years back I even sought out the folks at Guardian Aftercare (pet cremation service) during Equine Affair and spoke with the local animal cemetery about costs and logistics as well.

My fondest wish is to be able to retire my favorite old man to a beautiful, lush pasture when he chooses his time someday. Looking out my front window to see that lovely, spry old grey horse does, however, lend me hope that such a time is a long ways off. With a good diet and the very best of care, he looks like a horse far younger. On his 20th birthday we showed him at a local open competition and, upon placing him first in the Hunter Hack class, I told our judge it was a fitting tribute for that milestone. Her jaw dropped! I know for sure it is not a decision I will take lightly or enjoy making.

What are your equine retirement options? Ideally, most would choose the perfect pasture solution, without a doubt. But those choices can be limited both by where you live or your budget. If you are located (or know someone who lives) in a well irrigated region with the optimum climate for seeding and growing pasture land, you have it made - as long as you can afford the water bill. When you reside in an arid desert with little rainfall, such costs are astronomical. That leaves the stalling or dry lot option, which certainly can be suitable, if not optimum. As long as your horse is happy and remains healthy, with enough exercise, excellent feed and all other needs met, there is nothing wrong with such an arrangement.

Now that brings us to when we need to say goodbye. Doubtless there are instances where the time is near and others where the quality of life deteriorates suddenly, leaving us shell shocked. Far too often I have had to either make that decision myself or counsel a client on what is best for our four legged friends, but it never gets any easier... and over the course of nearly forty years I have only personally had to be in those shoes four times for horses of my own, and it was still too frequently.

Probably the best thing we can do is be prepared. However, no matter how much preparation we do, nothing will make some things easier.

Go hug your horses today. They deserve it.



  1. As you say, this is a decision we will ALL have to face and regardless of the circumstances--illness, injury, loss of quality of life, ??--when the moment comes, it is devastating.

    Being compassionate and making that decision is one of the most (if not THE most) difficult tasks we as animal owners and lovers face.

    I have made that last trip for assorted dogs, cats, and horses more times than I care to count and it doesn't get any easier, though I have a "scene" in my mind where their spirits go and I am absolutely certain we will all meet again. (What a stampede that is going to be ;o)

    Having a plan is important for all contingencies. The one thing I fear is that something will occur on a weekend or during a holiday--or God forbid, "after hours"--when no one is available. For situations like that, it is very difficult to know what to do or where to turn. I will have to "make a plan."

  2. Here is a quote I received from a friend who lost her geriatric cat to either wild dogs or coyotes in Las Vegas: It is by Irving Townsend:

    Fragile Circle

    We who choose to surround ourselves with lives even more temporary than our own, live within a fragile circle, easily and often breached.

    Unable to accept its awful gaps, we still would live no other way.

    We cherish memory as the only certain immortality, never fully understanding the necessary plan.

    Been there, done that. Too many times. My heart is filled with memories.


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