Monday, August 31, 2009

Mouthy Mondays

I learned two things this week-end.

1.Turns out I still have a pretty good seat, contrary to my fear I was losing it from being stuck in front of a computer most of the time.

2. Whoever said a horse can't buck when he runs up hill is a liar.

This story comes from Aarene,

Get out your box of tissue.

It took months for the lady to put her horse down.

The mare wasn’t old, but repeated bouts of painful laminitis gave her that fragile, worried look that is common among very old horses. She wasn’t a small horse, but she seemed to shrink as the pain took more and more of her attention during the day. Daily doses of bute were hurting her gut, and in the final month or two, the mare spent most of the day lying down in the soft shavings, with her eyes half-closed.

We kept trying to talk to the owner, but she wanted to make sure that she tried everything to cure her horse. In the course of a year, I probably saw every vet in the county and most of the farriers too, trying to perform some sort of miracle for the lady’s horse. The lady didn’t want to hear what the stall-cleaners were saying: that the horse was hurting all the time.

I guess it was the lady’s husband who made the decision. We almost never saw him before that, but that last day he met the vet and wrote the check. I never saw the lady again.

While the lady’s horse was waiting to die, everybody suffered. Not only the horse and the lady, but the rest of the people in the barn, and the other horses too. We were so sad, and frustrated, and angry--and powerless to help the mare.

A friend, who has worked with horses for more than 40 years, and worked with people longer than that, gave me the best advice:

“Sometimes,” she said, “the only thing you can do about a bad decision is to try to do better when it’s your turn.”

Years have passed. Now it’s my turn. I think of that lady, and that horse, and I’m determined to do better for my horse.

In May 2006, accumulated fibrosis in my 20-year-old Standardbred mare’s knee obstructed her joint enough to cause permanent lameness. The decision to retire her was a tough one: although never an elite athlete, Story had been a major participant in the riding scene at my barn for years; most of the kids—and many adults—took their first riding lessons on her.

I cried the day we removed her shoes, knowing that her situation was only going to get worse.

With that in mind, I enlisted help from my family, my horse-loving friends, the farrier, and the vet. Together we created a list of parameters that would help us keep track of Story’s level of comfort, so that I could make that difficult decision at the right time—not too soon, but more importantly: not too late. I didn’t want to wait until her only thought would be “pain.”

To monitor Story’s quality of life, we measured the swelling in the bad knee, the ability to bend and straighten the impaired leg, and the amount of stress visible in the foot tissue of her non-impaired legs. We kept track of her enthusiasm for rolling in the mud and getting her belly scratched. We set up some “attitude” measurements: her eagerness to eat, to walk out to the pasture, and to get into and out of the horse trailer. This last was important: I needed to trailer her to the vet hospital for euthanasia, and so I had to know when stepping up into and down from the trailer was beginning to challenge her.

All of this preparation was as much for me as it is for Story. Research done by the American Veterinary Medical Association recognizes that a horse is an important part of the lives of owners. “It is natural to feel you are losing a friend or companion” reads their informational flyer, “because you are.”

I researched euthanasia methods, and talked to my vet about my preferences. I put aside money in my savings account to cover the cost of the procedure. A professional photographer came out on the snowiest day of the year and spent 3 hours taking pictures.

Finally, we reached the parameter edge: the bute wasn’t easing her pain enough anymore.

Making that appointment at the vet hospital was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I think the conversation was held mostly in sign language and hand waving, because I certainly couldn’t talk coherently. I set the appointment two weeks in advance, and then the real work began: calling and emailing all of Story’s friends and students, to tell them that if they wanted to feed her an apple, it had better be soon. Some visited in person, others preferred to remember her happier days. Everyone wanted photos of Story in the snow.

She lived her last two weeks being stuffed full of carrots, apples, and cookies by her friends and fans. We revised an old trick called “fetch the bunny” where she would pick up the stuffed toy and shake it in her teeth in return for a treat. The last time she fetched the bunny was in the parking lot of the vet’s office.

This $500 racetrack-washout taught us all so much. She was my first horse, my first trail horse, and my first endurance horse. For many kids, she was the first to carry them at a trot. For many adults, she taught patience, balance, and courage.

Story lived as she died: a teaching horse. The vet interns used her body to practice administering a mylogram, a painful procedure for a living animal and not administered frivolously. By practicing the technique, our interns might be able to save a horse’s life someday.

I was determined to push Story’s life-lesson one step further: to write this article, and to urge horse owners to look ahead, to avoid waiting too long like that other lady did, and to plan a graceful exit for their beloved friends

I think Story would approve of that.


  1. You warned me it was a tear jerker. But I trudged on... Dang, hoping no one walks in my office right now! This lesson may help more horses be as lucky as Story was in life & in death.

  2. Aarene...thank you very much for writing this story. Excellent advise for everyone.

  3. Our 2 beloved mares ages 26 and 22 have their plans in place.Both are doing fine now but both have serious issues that could drastically alter their quality of life beyond what vets, meds,care and prayers can do. I love these 2 more than I can put into words.I will not fail them when they need me the most.I know they will tell me when it's time.

  4. Awh....

    Now I know what to do with my two when the time comes. Hopefully that is years away since both are 9, but since you never know, I think it's important to be prepared.

    I'll be giving the vet college here a call and see if they will take them after....


  5. Thanks for sharing that! What a great way to make sure a loved animal is taken care of to the best of the owner's ability. The markers for pain and mobility are a very good idea. I will make a note of that tip for sure.

    I have been setting aside money in my savings account under the guise of being frugal, but with this piece, I was able to admit to myself that it is really for my 19 year old gelding...who is fine at the moment, but you just never know...

  6. I think Story was much loved and was treated with enormous respect - I think sometimes people forget that it's about the horse and not them and that the horse's comfort comes first. Sometimes owners wait too long because they can't deal with it and the horses are the ones who pay the price. Aarene put her horse's interests first.

  7. I vowed when I got Mika that I would end his life before things got too bad.

    The BOs were out of the country and I was left in charge of the barn for all but four days of the holiday break. The girl left in charge of the barn for those days had horses for years, was a riding instructor and was assumed to be knowledgeable.

    The day I left, Candy hadn't eaten a lot, but it was a warmer winter day and he was a picky 19yo TB so I wasn't that worried about it. I just told her to keep an eye on him. Four days later I got a phone call from another polo club member, a a friend of mine, that my horse was dead and no one knew why. At that point I was told he'd been totally fine and just was found dead in his stall for no apparent reason. I had the university do a necropsy because we worried that he might have contracted something contagious and was just the first to fall since he was older and probably had a compromised system (starved, abuse before I got him).

    Result: Twisted intestine that had ruptured. He slowly died over the course of the days I was gone from the toxins leaking out into his system.

    Later the real story leaked out. He didn't eat for the entire time I was gone. Anything - not a bite. He was apparently also acting loony, running around wild eyed and pawing a lot when he'd been turned out those last few days. I didn't get a phone call. I was 30 minutes away. Everyone knew that horse was the love of my life and I would have gone to the ends of the earth for that horse if I knew he'd needed me. There was also a standing order written on his stall to not hesitate to call the vet for any reason if I was unreachable. The vet had a standing order to do whatever Candy needed - including euthanasia if it was deemed appropriate and I couldn't be reached.

    Now, I'm under no delusion that I could have saved him had I been there. I was fully aware of the realities of having an older horse that had been starved off and on for a number of years, but at the very least I could have ended his life peacefully. He did NOT have to die the way he did, alone and freaked out in his stall. He deserved more than that.

  8. Of all the stories here, I wish I had a way to stand up and applaud this one.

    I too often saw those owners she first spoke of. First at the vet school, cases that were a testament to the strength of slings, fork lifts and other means of moving horses who were no longer mobile. Then I watched it at a 'regular' ambulatory equine vet practice. It amazed me how some owners desperately clung to the hope some miracle would save their baby. The tired pain in those equine eyes, the willingness to use everything they had just to stand... I still salute the courage of many of those horses.

    I could not have said it better. Thank you for this - post it on every forum and blog you can.

    Sometimes the kindest thing you can do is let go.

  9. Candy'sGirl - *shiver* Your story is THE reason boarding scares the ever living sh*t out of me if I think too much about it. It's what makes me head to the barn at LEAST every other day if not daily, even if I just peak in on him on the days I'm not riding.

    I'm sorry your boy had to go that way. You had done all you could and it's a shame that someone let you both down. I'm very sorry for what you both went through.

  10. Candy's Girl - I feel so bad for you. What an awful situation.
    The friend who has my horses in Kiowa has a tendency to call for every tiny thing.
    I have had to make the 80 mile drive for mild gas pains, a scrape on a shoulder, a bite (only hair gone, no blood) and have been asked to drive out to put fly spray on them when she's out of town.
    After your tragic story I'm going to quit complaining.

  11. Aarene..thank you for showing a dignified path to take when the time comes. Setting parameters was wise; our judgement gets cloudy when it hurts. Hope I'll be tough enough to decide soon enough when it's my old tb's turn.

    Candy's Girl: I'm so sorry.

  12. Aarene, thanks for sharing this. I am not looking forward to making that decision but, like you, I plan to put my horses and their feelings & quality of life ahead of my own.

  13. Aarene, you did a tremendous thing for us all by sharing your story. You gave Story a great life and the best kind of death. You made me realize that I need a better plan in place for my aged arthritic gelding, still comfortable and useful but on very light duty. Thank you so very much for sharing that.

    Candy's girl - I'm so incredibly sorry. You lived my worst nightmare.

  14. That was the worst Christmas ever (he died the 12/27/05). I generally don't hold a grudge and am a pretty forgiving person, but I'm still every bit as mad about it today as I was then.

    When Mika (my 4yo) was boarded, I made it clear to everyone - BO's, boarders, the property owners that if they even thought he *might* need a vet to not hesitate to call one. I'd deal with the bills later. The BO called and told me about every little bump and scrape he got...and there were plenty - young, idiot colts tend to play rough! It was definitely overkill, but made me happy.

    Now that he's at home, the neighbors (retired with horses so they're around all the time) have instructions to call the vet at any time they think its necessary. The vet has standing instructions to do what he needs to do - including euthanasia if it comes to that even if I cannot be reached.

    I'm determined that Mika's death WILL be different. Some of my horsey friends and I have a pact that if anyone sees one of our horses going downhill, we will speak up so there isn't any needless suffering due to clouded judgment.

  15. p.s. mugs, glad your seat (and head!) are still intact. must be that exercise ball :)

  16. All y'all,
    Thank you for your very kind comments. I credit Story with every bit of grace and gentleness I currently have, because she was that kind of horse.

    This article was originally published in the February 2007 edition of Endurance News, and has been reprinted with my permission and EN's permission in the newsletters of several veterinary offices and animal rescue groups. If you would like to reprint the article for your organization, please email me, I'm happy to give permissions.

    My condolences, Candy's girl, and "good on ya" to everyone who has made--or is making--a plan for your horse's final days. They give us the best, they deserve the best from us.
    --Aarene @ Haiku Farm

  17. That was a wonderful story. Tear jerker for sure having just had to put my first old girl down.

  18. Mugs..are you going to post tomorrow about your bucking uphill adventure? :) I want to share my tale of Starlette's first trail ride (Yup!!!) but doesn't seem to fit here ;)


  19. Never mind..I made my own blog!

    Whew! That was a lot of work. I respect you even more, Janet!


  20. I got my first horse at 13, he lived at my grandparents house. I loved this horse to death and he was the first animal I had to make the decision to put down. Grandma rule was never ride without supervision and grandma didn't like spending time watching us kids on the horse. We spent many days out behind the house in the woods and down the little lane riding. We made make shift halters and reins out of bailing twine. Grandpa knew what us kids were up to but grandma never did. I loved that horse and he would eat anything I was eating. I would take a salami and pickle sandwich, chips and cookies to the field under the big tree and he would come share everything with me. He loved his pickles just like me. One day I jumped out of the car running for his field and he was down. I called to him and he just rolled over. I ran to the house screaming, we called the vet and the vet wouldn't return our calls. All day he spent down rolling around trying to get to water. I cried and begged Grandma to find another vet but no one would come out. Finally at 8pm a vet from the large animal clinic finally arrived and with tears in my eyes I told them to just put him down. They looked at me and my grandma, grandma told them it was my horse and it was my decision. I told them that it wasn't fare to him he had been down for over 12 hours. The vet examined him and told us it was EPM? and wasn't really treatable anyways. This was also the day I learned just how horrid it can be to watch a horse be put to sleep when the vet doesn't care and doesn't want to be there. He gave him the medication and my horse laid there in trembling and kicking his legs for over 20 minutes. It was the only horse I have had to make the decison and it was horrrid. But I knew it was the right thing to do. Alright sorry for the long post.


  21. Barbara - Ouch. I'm sorry your vet was so apathetic. That's really inexcusable. He was down for 12 hours? I wish you a better local vet because that's an inexcusable response time and then to be so complacent over euthing the horse... I also wish your Grandma was a bit more, um, interested in helping the horse as well - she shoudln't have been okay with a wait like that. Sorry you had to lose your pal that way. I hate hearing things like that because it doesn't have to be that way.

  22. What a touching story - I'm with Tammy right now, hoping no one comes into my office! Definitely great advice, I really like the parameters and wish I would have done that with my own mare. It's so difficult to accurately assess with a chronic, debilitating disease - your "normal" shifts over time. It's much better this way, then there is no question. Easier for the owner, and for the horse. Thanks!

  23. Mugwump, will you talk about getting (and keeping) a "good seat" in your next post? I dumped off my new calmer, safer horse the other day when he spooked sideways and it was a shock. Never been dumped over something so seemingly minor. Shook my confidence and makes me want to figure out if I'm doing something wrong.

    To Aarene, thank you for your story. I'm amazed at how organized and thoughtfully you planned for your horse's end. She hit the jackpot when she got you!

  24. autumnblaze - In our area there isn't many vets that deal with large animals. Most are a few hours away, at the time 1 clinic that has several vets and another small vet practice did them, both were 30 minutes from us. Now days only the large clinic dose large animals. That means any livestock that goes down you have to either wait for the vet or haul them 30 minutes to the vet. There are tons of Small Animal Vets here in our small town. I am just glad that the large animal vet has done some major changes and our just awesome now.

  25. Hey Mugs: I was recently honored to receive a Superior Scribbler Award. One of the privileges of the award is that I get to give the award to five other bloggers. I have selected you as one of my five. Below is the link that provides the official announcement of your award. Congratulations.

    As an award recipient (if you accept), you too get to pass along the award to five of your favorite blogs. If you do not wish to accept, you still get mentioned on my blog as one of my favorites. It’s all about exposure!

    Here’s where you can read about your award:

    If you accept the award, this will tell you the “rules” of the Superior Scribbler Award.


  26. Aerene.. I'm wordless.
    Your mare had a very fitting name, i'd bet there would be lots of stories of her and peoples first rides!

  27. Again what wonderful stories!

    Off topic...and I am do I post to my own blog comments? I am going crazy. I just added pictures, and want to reply to some people, and it won't let me. I can't find anything in help for it.



  28. Vaya con Dios, Story.....
    Well done, Aarene, well done.

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