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The Hardest Decision We Ever Have to Make: Deciding When “It’s Time” and End of Life Planning

We often have to make life or death decisions quickly when faced with an emergency. But what about when it’s not an immediate emergency? Planning for the end of your horse’s life takes a lot of courage and love. It isn’t easy planning the best ending possible for our beloved four-legged family members. This kind of a decision is often the hardest one we will ever have to make for them and it cannot be “taken back”, so we must give it the thought and respect it deserves. When dealing with a horse of advanced age or with a poor diagnosis/prognosis, making end of life plans before it turns into an emergency situation is likely the best for all involved. When trying to make the decision as to when is the “right” time, only you will truly know. However, there are some guidelines that may help you in making this decision. Answering the following questions often aids Owners in this process:

  • Mobility

  • Can your horse lie down and rise comfortably and safely on a regular basis (at least every 2-3 days)? Do they lie down excessively or have they begun developing sores from laying down too often or long?

  • Can your horse comfortably walk around and keep up with their friends? Do they voluntarily walk around their paddock or pasture?

  • Can your horse comfortably perform basic tasks such as holding up all 4 limbs for the farrier?

  • Appetite

  • Does your horse show interest in meal time? Can they eat (pick up, chew, and swallow) the feeds you’re able to provide well?

  • If your horse has special diet requirements, are you able to make the changes and offer what they need?

  • Is it safe for your horse to receive regular routine preventative dental care?

  • Treatments

  • Can your horse’s diagnosis be cured? If not cured, can it be managed adequately? Can you afford and provide the necessary procedures and rechecks your horse will need?

  • Can your horse’s pain be managed adequately?

  • Are you able to provide and administer the medications your horse needs as frequently as they need them?

  • Attitude

  • What are your horse’s three favorite things and do they still enjoy them?

  • Does your horse look forward to something each day (besides eating)?

  • Is your horse in pain? (Using a pain scale or knowing the features of a pain face may help you answer this question and there are links to these below)

  • If your horse is in pain, can it be managed? Keeping a journal each time you visit your horse or once weekly may help you notice changes or patterns over time that you otherwise may miss.

  • Have you, or someone you trust that knows your horse well, noticed a change or difference in your horse’s attitude?

  • Logistics

  • What are your plans for your horse’s remains after they have passed on? If burial is your preferred option, do you need to take into account the time of year and frozen ground or availability of equipment/people to help you prepare the burial site?

  • Due to recent law changes, your plans for what to do with your horse’s remains (burial vs pick-up) may change what medications can be used when helping your horse pass on peacefully.

  • Will you need to coordinate your vet appointment with your remains disposal plan?

  • Do you need to plan for the cost of euthanizing and disposing of your horse?

  • Do you prefer not to be present for the euthanasia and need to make arrangements for someone you trust to stand in your place?

The last 2 questions I have owners ask themselves are possibly the hardest to answer; “What does my horse want?” and “Am I keeping my horse here for them or me?” Emotions make these last 2 questions the messiest and most difficult to answer, but often they are the key to knowing when “it’s time”. Your veterinarian can help you answer some of these questions, but unless it is an extreme circumstance of suffering, we cannot make the actual decision for you. If you think your horse may be approaching the end of their life, answering these questions at regular intervals may also help you know how quickly you’re approaching the “right” time.

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