Horse Euthanasia, Having A Horse Put Down

It’s a sad fact that most horse owners will, at some point, have to make the heartbreaking decision to have their horse euthanized and even though you know in your heart it was the right thing to do its only natural that you’ll question whether you did the right thing or not. While nothing anybody can say will take the pain away just understanding the whole process can help to ease it a little and help to reassure you that you have made the right choice.

Before you carry on reading though I wanted to explain that the idea for writing this article was to help people to understand the whole process of having a horse euthanized, from start to finish as well as the different options you have. As such I’ve tried to be as informative as possible, but given the nature of the subject you may find this article upsetting, I know I certainly did while writing it. It’s never been my intention to upset anybody which is why I’m mentioning it now, rather than waiting until you get to the end and then saying sorry for upsetting you.

Why are horses euthanized?

There can be many why reasons a horse has to be euthanized but whatever the reason it should be based solely on the horse’s medical condition and quality of life. You should NEVER have a sick, incapacitated or injured horse euthanized just because you can no longer afford to keep him. If this is the case, speak to an animal or horse charity that may be able to help you. If not then your veterinarian may be able to help offer you some advice.

Some of the common reasons for having a horse euthanized are:

  • Incurable, progressive disease
  • Incurable, transmissible disease
  • Debilitation of old age
  • Foals born with serious defects
  • Severe traumatic injury
  • Undue suffering
  • Chronic lameness
  • Inoperable colic

Some people will say that if a horse has dangerous behavioral issues then he should be euthanized but I personally strongly disagree with this. With patience and the right training, any horse can learn how to behave in a proper manner.

Your veterinarian will, of course, advise you if euthanasia may be an option but ultimately it’ll be you that makes the final decision and you need to consider if your horse is likely to recover, even if only partially or if his current level of pain will last. Nobody wants their horse to be suffering and this is also a very important question you need to ask, the suffering may not last. Depending on your horse’s prognosis there may be alternatives to euthanasia but this is something you’ll need to explore with your veterinarian.

How are horses euthanized?

It’s not a nice thing to talk about but it’s important to understand the different methods so that you can make an informed decision about the best approach for your horse.

Lethal injection

This is probably the most common form of euthanasia and can only be carried out by a fully qualified veterinarian. In most cases, it’s carried out in an open area, such as a field, where the horse has space to move. Sometimes the veterinarian will give the horse a sedative beforehand, especially if they’re anxious or nervous, he’ll then give the horse a lethal overdose of barbiturates (normally something like pentobarbital). The horse will normally then slowly collapse and fall asleep, on occasion though they may lurch backward and fall. This is can be stressful and upsetting for the handler but is normal.

It’s not uncommon for the horse’s legs to move, for muscles to twitch or for the horse to appear to take a ‘breath’ after the injection has been administered but this normal and is simply part of the body’s natural response and doesn’t mean the injection didn’t work, although if you’re not aware of this it can be upsetting.

The veterinarian will stay with the horse and check for a heartbeat as well as checking the pupils and blink reflex, if, however, he believes the brain is still active he’ll give the horse more barbiturates.

Shooting

A lot of people feel that this is the most humane way of euthanizing a horse because its instant and the horse generally remains calm. The bone around a horse’s brain can be pretty thick so its important that this is carried out by a veterinarian or somebody who is not only familiar with using a high-powered firearm but who also knows where (and how) to shoot to kill rather than to stun.

While this method is extremely quick and the horse is unaware of what’s happening it can be very distressing for the handler or owner due to the amount of blood that can be lost. Also because it’s so instant the horse’s body and nervous system don’t have time to slowly relax so there can be a lot more muscle twitches which can be very upsetting, although the horse isn’t aware of any of this. One other aspect that some people can find disturbing is the sound of the gun which can often be quite loud.

Captive bolt

A captive bolt is a type of gun (sometimes called a cattle gun or stun bolt gun) that uses a heavy rod known as a bolt instead of a bullet. There are two types of captive bolt, the concussive captive bolt which should never be used for euthanasia and the penetrating captive bolt. The problem with this method though is that it can take around five minutes for the horse to die, although it will be rendered unconscious immediately.

Unlike injection and shooting, the captive bolt method doesn’t, in a lot of areas, need to be carried out by somebody that is qualified or experienced, although most people that do this are.

Exsanguination

This method is very traumatic and harrowing for both the horse and handler/owner so should only be used in extreme emergencies when it really is impossible for a veterinarian to get to the horse (possibly because the horse is trapped in a remote area that isn’t accessible to a veterinarian). Also known as the bleeding out method, it involves the horse effectively bleeding to death which is why it should only be used in extreme emergencies. It can also be a dangerous method of euthanasia because if the horse isn’t unconscious it is likely to struggle violently, probably injuring itself or the handler.

What happens after

Sadly part of the whole process is the removal of the body after but its an aspect that is also often overlooked. What happens after is, to some extent, dependant on the method of euthanasia, for example, if you opted for injection the lethal doses used in this method mean that your options are limited.

Burial

If you choose to bury your horse on your own property then you’ll have to arrange for a backhoe to dig the grave but you’ll also need to check with your local authority to see whether or not you’re allowed to do this. 

If you’re not allowed to do this or don’t have the land to do so then another option is a specialist pet cemetery, your horse will have his own grave and you’ll be able to visit whenever you want. Most veterinarians will know of cemeteries in your area but you can also get a list on the International Association Of Pet Cemeteries & Crematories’ website.

Cremation

Another option you have is cremation but there are a few possibilities depending on what you want to do. If you’d like to keep your horse’s ashes then the best option is private (sometimes called individual) cremation. Some crematories will allow you to be present at the time of cremation if you wish but they will all give you your horse’s ashes after. Sadly though, there are some companies that aren’t too careful about who’s ashes they give to people. To avoid this either speak to your veterinarian for a recommendation or look at the International Association Of Pet Cemeteries & Crematories’ link above for a list of reputable crematories in your area.

Deadstock truck

If you’ don’t want to have your horse buried or cremated then another option is the dead stock truck which will remove and dispose of the body. If you choose to use this option then you’ll need to discuss it with your veterinarian as he’ll also be able to tell you what is likely to happen to your horse after it’s been removed.

Zoos and wildlife sanctuaries

Understandably some people will feel uncomfortable with this option (I know I certainly do) but, providing your horse wasn’t euthanized by injection, some zoos and wildlife parks or sanctuaries will collect your horse and then use it to help feed their animals.

Research

This isn’t available everywhere but there are some universities and research laboratories that will collect your horse for use in medical research. This will help them to make new discoveries that will help other horses in the future. Again though this isn’t an option if your horse was euthanized by injection.

Will my insurance cover horse euthanasia?

Most insurance policies will cover euthanasia but depending on your policy you may have to let your insurance company know beforehand unless of course it just isn’t possible. You will also be required to provide a veterinary certificate afterward as a means of proof, and, in a few very rare cases, your insurance company may ask for a post mortem to be carried out. This is, thankfully, a very rare occurrence though.

Grieving for your horse

Many horse owners regard their horses as members of their family and losing one can be very traumatic and upsetting. We all need to grieve and have our own ways of doing so but it is an important part of the whole euthanasia process and shouldn’t be overlooked. Some days will be harder than others but it’s important to talk to people about how you feel, there are also plenty of forums online that will be sympathetic and understanding plus will have also been through the same emotions as you. If, however, you feel that things are getting too much then you might find it helpful to speak to the Samaritans or a trained counselor.

Remembering your horse

Just because you’re horse is no longer around it doesn’t mean that you have to forget about them and there are plenty of ways you can remember them by, things such as a lock of hair can be put into a locket or framed with a photograph to help remember them. There are plenty of companies online that can make personal memorials to your horse such as bracelets from tail hair.

Somebody once showed be a lovely memorial picture they made for their horse that I’ve never forgotten and thought it was so beautiful. She’d taken a handful of the horse’s tail hair and had placed it in a tall picture frame with pictures of the two of them over the years along with things like the name tag from the halter.

Conclusion

Hopefully, now you have enough information to not only help you make the best choice but also to help you understand the process. From a personal point of view, I prefer the use of a gun, even though I find it more upsetting, I know it’s the quickest method.

Further reading

  1. Caring for an old horse
  2. How to manage arthritis in horses
  3. How to treat colic
  4. How to prevent laminitis
  5. How to worm your horse
  6. How to tell if your horse is healthy
  7. How to keep a hard keeper on a budget
  8. Feeding a horse with no pasture
  9. Do horses get depressed?
  10. Do horses need supplements?

I hope you found this article helpful. If you did I’d be grateful if you could share it please as it would really help me.