Certain events have occurred within the past week and change which have put me into a reflective mood. Most of us don’t like to think about the “hard stuff”—death, separation from loved ones (human or otherwise), accidents, disasters (read my blog on this last here), etc. But whether we choose to acknowledge these things or not, they are a part of life. Ignoring their existence is irresponsible. When it comes to our horses, the consequences of disregarding them can be gut wrenching.
Do you have a plan for what would happen to your horses if something should cause you to be unable to take care of them anymore? I suspect that many horse owners do not, and instead just sort of assume that a friend or family member will step in to make decisions regarding our horse’s care or potential rehoming. But this puts an extreme burden upon loved ones who may or may not be up to the task. How many times have you read a story of the family member who meant well, but didn’t feed/water/shoe the horse? Or the pets brought to the shelter because no one in the family had the wherewithal to take additional animals into their homes?
A fellow blogger shared a somewhat unsettling story about a veterinarian friend of hers who has been saddled with the task of placing twenty four horses after their owner passed away. The owner had suffered a period of failing health but was unwilling to rehome any of her animals, choosing instead to provide for them in her will. Unfortunately, most of her horses are unbroke, older and unregistered—all common reasons for animals to end up in the auction pipeline, sent to an uncertain fate. Clearly, this owner loved her animals and couldn’t bear the thought of parting with them while she was still alive. Unfortunately, making this choice has perhaps precluded the possibility of most of these horses finding appropriate new homes, and has placed a tremendous, heartbreaking burden on her friend.
A friend of mine passed away last week after a long fight with a terminal illness. We hadn’t been in touch for a long time, but shared several years of friendship and I feel lucky that the picture of her in my mind remains of a time when she still was robust and in good health. Her beloved horse, which she bred and trained herself, is safe at the farm which has been his home for eighteen years. He is in good hands there, and care will be taken to find the right placement for him; I suspect he would always be welcomed back, should that be needed. But no one will ever have the intense, empathetic bond with him that she did, and the sentimental part of me grieves for a loss which he likely doesn’t conceptualize.
University programs like the one I work at are frequently the recipients of horses whose usefulness has passed for their owners. Often, these animals are unsaleable due to age, soundness or other variable, or would only fetch a fraction of their original purchase price, so owners looking to move on are often open to the possibility of a donation. I think that many donors are comforted in knowing where their horse is going to end up, and are satisfied to know that it is unlikely that the animal will be passed from place to place, to an uncertain end.
But the hard reality is that we can’t keep the horses forever, either. At UNH, our informal policy has been that as our horses approach 20, we try to find new homes for them, while they are still sound and happy. Prospective adopters are carefully screened, and it is nice to know that many of our beloved school horses get to enjoy their golden years one on one with an owner who loves them. But sometimes, the factors which caused them to be difficult to rehome in the first place come back to haunt them, and we the human caretakers are faced with tough choices.
During the first week of our spring semester, one of our older school horses sustained an injury in my class. We were longeing, as we always do at the beginning of the term. This horse in particular longes quite well and has been used many times in our longeing classes to teach newbies the ropes. On this particular day, he had longed quite quietly at his end of the arena with a competent and experienced student, while the horse at the other end was being all sorts of sassy and fresh. We got that horse settled and into a more obedient and working attitude, when for no apparent reason, our veteran school horse decided to take one lap on the line leaping and bucking. None of us even saw him take a funky step—but suddenly he stopped short, holding up his left front leg, trembling head to toe.
I had joked with the students at the start of class that this particular horse was 23 going on 5 in his mind. His “goofy” behavior on the line was just that—a few little hoo-hahs from a horse feeling playful, nothing naughty or dangerous. I guess it was just a little too much on older legs on that day at that time.
In all my years of working with horses, this is the first time something like this has happened to me. I am devastated. I have replayed the entire morning over and over again, tossing and turning through nights with sporadic sleep, wondering if I made an error in judgement. But what I keep coming back to is this—we did nothing differently that day than we have done hundreds of times, each semester, for many years. We all know how fragile and delicate these animals are, for all of their strength, endurance and stoicism. There was no obvious previous indication that anything was brewing or off with this particular animal, and up until the moment where things were not ok, all had been proceeding totally like normal.
This horse is currently on stall rest. So far, he is coping ok, and after the first day or so, does not seem to be in undue amounts of pain. But the preliminary diagnosis is fairly bleak, and at 23, the question becomes whether it is fair to even attempt the rehab such an injury would require. My friends and colleagues have been supportive, reminding me that it is not my fault, that such an injury could have happened at any time. I would say the same thing to them if the roles were reversed; but it was I who was teaching that day, and it is I who am taking this the hardest.
This is one of those times where the rational brain and the emotional heart come into conflict. As our horses’ caregivers, companions and greatest advocates, the onus is on each of us to make the right choices when these crossroads come, keeping the animal’s best interest in mind. It is not right to pass the problem on to someone else to deal with— it is our duty to consider the available resources, the possible outcomes, and make the hard calls. And I doubt that it matters how much we prepare our rational brains to accept this reality; our emotional hearts will always take it hard. It is the price we pay for love.
I probably shouldn’t even be sharing all of these thoughts on here. But these are the subjects which we don’t want to acknowledge or talk about, and maybe that makes it even harder than it already is. Right now, my emotional heart needs the support.