The following is a chapter from Dr J's book Goodbye Old Friend: The Euthanasia of Your Horse available on Amazon now.
Horse sense is that thing a horse has which keeps it from betting on people.
This chapter is about the difference you can make to the animals left behind when one of their own has been euthanized.
Occasionally I would hear from clients about what happened after I left following a euthanasia. They would say that another horse in the barn called for his friend for hours, days, and sometimes weeks. I was told of survivors pacing fence lines for hours and looking for their companion. Perhaps you have seen videos from Africa of elephants exhibiting grieving behavior when one of their group dies. Individuals in both species form strong bonds with relatives and friends. Perhaps you have had personal experience with a dog grieving for his missing friend.
This is the story of what happened one day 20 years ago, and the lesson it taught me about how horses can more easily accept the death of one of their own.
Christina had two horses, a Quarter Horse mare named Penny that she liked to trail ride, and a retired Standardbred gelding named Steadfast, who we all called Steady. Steady was a racetrack rescue at 14, the mandatory retirement age. Christina took Steady in as a companion for Penny. Penny thought Steady was pretty special and was always anxious when they were separated. Once Steady arrived, Christina didn’t ride her mare as much as she used to, because it became a battle. Tack Penny up, lead her out of the barn, and she would constantly look back and call to Steady. On the ride she danced in circles rather than go where pointed. Penny would holler for Steady throughout the ride. On the way home it was all Christina could do to keep her from galloping back to the barn and Steady. Penny had extreme separation anxiety.
Steady had been on the farm with Penny for 15 years. Nearly 30, he was experiencing some arthritis in his hind end and was having trouble getting up and down. He had also become a very hard keeper. No matter what he was fed, he was getting thinner. We were both concerned that he wouldn’t make it through the winter.
I pulled into the driveway for Steady’s final appointment at 9 AM. Christina was in the barn, grooming and talking softly to the old gelding. We visited for a while, and then Christina said quietly, “Well, guess we better get to it.” She snapped a lead onto his halter and led him out of the barn. We turned the corner and were just out of sight when Penny started screaming. Christina said, “You know, she’s making this even harder than it already is. Oh, Penny, I’m going to miss him too.”
We walked along the fence line with Steady slowly walking alongside. He paused every once in a while to grab some grass. All the way to his burial site we could hear Penny calling out and the sound of her hooves pawing the stall floor. She was frantic. The euthanasia went smoothly. Steady died as he had lived, with quiet dignity.
As we stood over Steady’s body, Christina, through her tears, said, “What will I do with Penny? I’m going to miss the old boy, but she’s just going to be crazy.” Then she paused and said, “Hey, what do you think about me bringing her down here to say goodbye. Maybe that will help her accept the fact that he is gone.”
Back then that was a novel idea to me, but Penny was acting especially frantic because this time Steady had left her. Before this she had always been the one leaving him behind. So I said, “Sure, let’s give it a try.” I thought this might be interesting, so I sat on the stone wall and stayed with Steady’s body while Christina went to fetch Penny. Pretty soon they came down from the barn, with Penny calling and dancing a jig around Christina every few steps. When they got about 30 feet away, Penny spotted her friend lying on the ground. She stopped screaming and just stared at his still body. Then she walked about half the distance to him, stretched her neck out and up, and rolled up her upper lip. This is the pose that online photos and greeting cards label as “a horse laugh”. The posture is called “flehmen”. Flehmen is a German word that I have heard pronounced most often as flamin’. Wild horses, deer, and antelope also do it. I have read that some dogs do it as well. By holding the head stretched out and curling back the upper lip, scent molecules are trapped in the nose. Here they are picked up by the vomeronasal organ which is located on the floor of the nasal cavity. Nerves from the organ carry the message to the brain. Studs exhibit flehmen after smelling a mare’s urine to check for molecules of pheromones to see if the mare might be receptive. Some horses will show flehmen when they are colicky. Others after a paste wormer or a treat like a peppermint. I often see it after a horse has gotten an intranasal vaccination. Flehmen is a horse trying to make some sense of the smells he takes in.
Penny froze when she saw Steady’s body. I think the flehmen response was her trying to get more information about why her friend was lying so still. She advanced slowly, moving her legs stiffly, acting nervous.
“Unsnap her lead, Christina.”
She did, and we all moved back to the stone wall to watch.
Now free, Penny moved around the body, sniffing here and there and went into the flehmen pose at least twice more. She nibbled at the chestnut on Steady’s hind legs. No response. She bit his neck with that little pinchy bite that horses do to each other. Finally with a wide open mouth she grabbed the front fetlock that was on top, pulled it up 2 feet and then dropped it. She did that several times. She moved to the back leg and did the same thing. Then she began pawing at the body. During this five minute attempt to rouse Steady, she would occasionally snort. Christina and I watched, spellbound.
Then, just like that, Penny lost interest, put her head down and ate some grass. Christina gave her a few more minutes, snapped her lead back onto her halter, and they walked together up to the barn. Penny turned back twice on the way, and nickered, but no more dancing and no more screaming. Steady was buried where he lay, in their pasture. Over the next few weeks Penny spent some time every day standing over his grave.
In the years since this incident I always ask owners to take the time to bring every equine on the place to visit the body of the horse that has been put down. There are no two reactions exactly the same. Some horses will sniff the body once, and move on. Others, like Penny, show a variety of behaviors and may try to rouse their friend. Her behavior was the most dramatic I’ve seen, but in all cases, sooner, or later, there is acceptance.
Acceptance is definitely a longer process when a friend is just taken away and never seen again. I believe that euthanizing horses that are ready to go is a gift to them. Another gift, to the one left, is taking them to say goodbye.
We who choose to surround ourselves with lives even more temporary than our own, live within a fragile circle, easily and often breached. Yet we would still live no other way.