Preparing for Death of Horse or Owner

By Bonnie J. Hilton

Saddle and Bridle Magazine Equine Articles


Crane logo What plans are in place in case of death of horse or owner? Written for Saddle & Bridle magazine by Bonnie J. Hilton. © copyrighted horse article.
In the United States we seem to have an aversion to even using the word death, yet we will all face it at some point, no matter how long we try to procrastinate. End of life issues are not well received as conversation topics. We have battles going on in our courts, over procedures and rights. As horse owners, facility managers, instructors and trainers we will either face the death of an equine or share the experience with another. I just attempted to help one of my dear friends, who lives in another part of the country, go through the experience for the first time.

Although it seems like a trite expression, it is easier after the first. I am now helping another person face the reality of the eventual passing of her aging equine and making preparations. What preparations? Have you ever thought about it? I don't want to disturb anyone, but the following article will be blunt and thought provoking. The content of this article may upset some readers, especially young readers. I can't find a way to present this topic in a warm and fuzzy manner and there isn't anything humorous about it. As always, experience comes with age and I want to share some learned wisdom.

I would be remiss if I didn't state that there are facilities that operate solely to provide lifetime care for retired equines. You will pay to retire the equine and if offered, have the end of life issues be carried out by the facility management. I have been acquainted with several facilities here in New England and in my younger years worked for a private facility that boarded retired equines. I would only suggest, since I am so heavily involved with human nursing homes, that you monitor the facility. I would also suggest, if you can maintain the emotional contact, that you volunteer your time. These facilities are always looking for individuals to groom and help with the day to day operation.

There are also equine welfare organizations, also known as equine rescue organizations, that can help you find placement for your equine if you can't afford to keep it yourself or can't cope with the treatment necessary for continuing care. There is nothing to be ashamed of if you need to seek assistance. Compassionate and caring individuals, many who have faced the same problems you are facing are willing to help you. You have to reach out for contact. To find the connections in your state you may have to do some research. Ask the veterinarians you are acquainted with and talk to other professionals at facilities in your area. The American Horse Council publishes a directory which is a good source for all equine related information and has listings of welfare and retirement organizations and their web sites. The American Horse Protection Association, Inc., in Washington, DC, may also be a source of information for you in your state. Personally, I can offer an outside perspective on the following issues:

1. Sudden death, natural passing and euthanasia. The mental shock of sudden death is often horribly compounded by the physical demands of the moment. When a horse suddenly dies out in a field you usually have room to work with the body. In cases of sudden death that happen in the stall, it is sometimes physically difficult and mentally traumatizing to extricate the equine body. It is horrific enough to come out to the barn in the morning and find the equine dead, but now you have to move the body. Do you really know and understand what rigor mortis is? You may have already heard the horror stories and unfortunately they happen because no one was thinking about the what if when they built their facility. For the aging equine that is not experiencing pain or suffering, letting nature take its course in what is known as natural passing is fine. Preparation will make the eventual easier. If the stall walls or stall front can be taken down or the stall door can be taken off, extrication will be easier. Several past clients built temporary stalls during the last months of their lifelong companions existence. I know it is difficult to think about it, but how big is your horse and how will you move the body?

Having a way to move the body is not a problem at most facilities where the farm tractor is large enough to pull or front end lift the load. If equipment is not available, it will have to be brought in and someone will have to make those arrangements. If you don't want to be there, that is understandable, but somebody will have to and it is a subject that should be broached if you are a boarder. If you are a facility owner, you may want to think about the issue and add some sort of comforting clause into your contracts, if you are willing to handle the burden of loss for a client. At most of the large facilities I work at, there are horses buried on the property. It is part of husbandry, something that has become a lost art in some areas.

Animal euthanasia is not a pleasant subject for individuals raised in urban surroundings. I was raised on a working farm and at a young age was imprinted with the economic reality of our day to day operation. I now function as a consultant in a profession where thousands of dollars are spent on the continuation of an animal's life. It has been said and I will quote, "The life of an animal with a curable condition should never be terminated." That quote is from a veterinarian manual for horsemen. I would advise that you attempt to be blunt, direct and demanding with your veterinarian in that definition of curable and find out exactly, if at all possible, what the long term prognosis is for the equine. Get other opinions and attempt to look at all of your options. Only a few of my clients have equine insurance to help them cover costs. What will be the eventual outcome and quality of the equine's life? What will be the impact on your life?

Animal euthanasia is a personal journey for all owners, of all ages. Looking back, I realize that I was fortunate in that I had to take the journey at a young age. It was traumatic at the time, but it brought me into reality. For some it will be a spiritual journey as well. When asked, I often say that the horse will let you know when it is time. Sometimes, however, as with the case of severe injury or illness, we will be faced with few choices. I received the call this morning from one of my students who owns an aged equine with health problems, her mother owns another. The two equines have had irreversible issues develop during this past week. Decisions have had to be made. Through modern medicine we can make an animal more comfortable, but only as stewards of our beloved animals can we make the final decision to end their pain and suffering.

When it comes to animal euthanasia, please don't listen to hearsay or stories, go to a reliable source of information. If you can't muster the courage to talk to your vet without falling apart, write her/him a note and ask them to broach the subject with you, set up an appointment to meet (which you will offer to pay for) and ask them to detail the procedure, the drugs used and how they work. Ask them to tell you how they would like to proceed, up to an including burial and why. It may be a good idea to have someone with you, so that they can take notes and get details that you may forget in an emotional state of mind.

2. Disposal. In other parts of the country where animal husbandry is still big business there are individuals who deal with dead livestock and the disposal of such. Here in my vanishing New England farming area, just about everyone still digs a hole to bury their horse, whether it is legal or not and I am not going to get into legality issues. There is another option and that is cremation, which I will discuss a little later. I took the time to talk to a couple of local veterinarians on the subject and I was not surprised that they said that they had not run into any problems with just having the horse buried on property. However, you need to answer the question, can the horse be buried on the property where it is now living? Just don't assume that you will be able to do it in your back yard.

With the average horse we are talking about a large body that will decompose into the surrounding soil and possible water table. Do you already have the equipment to dig the hole? Unless, and I am not making a joke, it is a miniature horse, this is not the usual job of one person with a shovel. Who will you contact to bring in the equipment to dig the hole and where are you going to dig it? Will they be able to get the heavy equipment into the area you chose and what is going to be plan B, if they run into problems? Please make sure that the person digging the hole makes it big (deep) enough so that enough coverage is applied over the body so that nothing will have an opportunity to expose the body. Here again, some of you have probably heard the horror stories of the body being dug up by some domesticated dogs or wild animal. Everyone seems to have an opinion but my sources said 6 feet of coverage over the body with 4 feet being the minimum.

As we were making the preparations for one horse, this question came up. How do we put the body in the hole? The problems with burial often occur with placing the body, in that it does not always go as planned. We can't always produce the calm, peaceful picture of the horse laying down with its legs under its body, just looking like it is taking a nap. This is where it is often best to let others do what needs to be done, especially if the horse has been found in the stall, having passed away during the night. With plenty of space, a big enough front end loader, ropes and strong arms, a large horse can be lifted over, lowered and placed in a hole. This is not usually the case and I like the option of digging a large hole with a ramp type entrance. This way a body can be moved into the hole with equipment and strong arms. With a ramp and for those owners who can withstand the emotional trauma, if chosen, euthanasia can be performed in the actual site.

3. Cremation. One of my past clients had their horse cremated. It was an option that they had researched and they chose to do it so that their horse could be placed in a burial crypt on their property, along with their other precious animals. In my area of New England, Angel View Pet Cemetery in Middleboro, Mass., does whole horse cremation. That means they cremate the whole body intact. The cost at the time of this writing, just for cremation, was $1,700. It does not make any difference what size animal you have. They offer full services at their facility. If you chose euthanasia with your veterinarian, they have special grounds for that procedure as well. I was told that if the horse dies on your property you can ship the body their or contact them for their vendor to pick up the body. Obviously, this is for owners in my New England area. All this comes at additional cost. Once cremated you will have on average about 60 lbs. of ash packaged in sealed plastic bags in a small 20" casket like container. You can purchase an urn, the price I was quoted was $300. I am sure there are more facilities that offer this service throughout the country.

As an advocate for the elderly I am always talking about Power of Attorney for Healthcare, Power of Attorney for Finances, Living Wills, Wills and guardianship. However, it is not only an elder problem. I can walk into some businesses and younger people (in their 40's) try to avoid me because I have learned that as parents, they have made no arrangements for their children. They have been procrastinating about their wills and the POA's. When I mention this same subject to horse owners I usually get the same answer. I was surprised a few years ago when I had a client leave on vacation and they handed me an envelope before they left. In the envelope was legal documentation that if anything happened to them, I owned the horses and was to see to their care, including one elderly equine. Ample funds were set up for this purpose. Thankfully, nothing happened while the owner was away. It is not unusual to have trust funds set up to see to the care and maintenance of equines left behind. It doesn't just happen in the movies! Like your children, you need to make provisions and have it known somewhere, what to do, just in case.

Here again there have been some sad stories of what has happened to equines who were left behind with no legal documents protecting their lives. Although this subject is sad and not something we want to think about, I do hope this article has made some readers do just that, think about it. I have found over the years that if you learn more about a subject you will not be upset and fearful about it when the time comes to deal with it.

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