horse euthanasia

Letting go: Taking responsibility for end-of-life decisions

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Humane destruction is possibly the least discussed topic of horse ownership, and by far the most sensitive. Even so, every horse owner should give this issue considered thought so they will be prepared if the time comes.

The large majority of horse owners will be faced with making the difficult decision of having their horse euthanised, so all responsible horse owners should have at the very least a rough plan of how they will act if their horse’s life becomes unbearable or there is an emergency situation.

Always remember that your horse depends on you to make rational, informed decisions, often in difficult circumstances and you must ensure that the horse’s welfare is always put first.

What do you need to know?

It is difficult to accept death at any time, and this becomes even more painful when you must decide to end a beloved animal’s life.

It’s probably fair to say that the majority of horse owners will one day be faced with the upsetting yet inevitable situation of having to euthanise a horse. There are a range of circumstances under which euthanasia may be considered for a companion horse. Here are some of the most common:

  • Debilitation in old age.
  • Severe traumatic injury.
  • Dangerous behavioural traits.
  • Undue financial burden of caring for a sick or incapacitated horse.
  • Undue suffering for any reason.
  • Incurable, progressive disease.
  • Incurable, transmissible disease.
  • Chronic lameness.
  • Inoperable colic.
  • Foals born with serious defects.

The decision to euthanize is highly individual. Every case is unique and may even depend on the horse’s temperament, i.e. Will they cope with the treatment physically and mentally? This will always be a difficult question to answer, and it is most helpful to get good (and ethical) advice from a trusted professional.

Practicality vs emotion

Be practical and not entirely emotional when addressing the situation. Let your head, not your heart control your actions. Speak to your veterinarian to help you decide what is right for you and your horse, as even though you have the ultimate responsibility, your veterinarian can provide you with expert medical and in most cases behavioural information, as well as a prognosis and what his possible future could be.

Planning and preparation

The four main questions that need to be considered after making this difficult decision are:

  • Where should my horse be euthanised?
  • How should my horse be euthanised?
  • Who should carry out the task?
  • Which arrangements will I make to dispose of the body?

Where should my horse be euthanised?

In an emergency situation your horse may need to be put down without delay and you won’t have a choice. In a non-emergency situation it is much kinder to keep your horse in familiar and safe surrounds. Choose this option wherever possible.

If your horse can be euthanised at home, make sure that suitable access to the yard or paddock is available for removal of the body.

Move other animals away from where the procedure will take place.

If it isn’t possible to have him euthanised at home, decide with the help of your vet if he is fit to travel. It is illegal to transport an unfit animal.

It is best if you can provide your own transport although in some cases, the knackery itself can do this. Do not load your horse on a truck that is not designed to transport horses safely. Explain clearly that your horse is to be put down as soon as he arrives, and note that it is an offence for the knackery to sell your horse if you have taken the horse to be put down.

How should my horse be euthanised?

Decide if you will have your horse shot or given a lethal injection. Think about who is available to perform the task, the circumstances, and whether the horse’s welfare will be compromised if immediate euthanasia is delayed.

Shooting can be performed by a knackery worker, vet, hunt kennelman or an experienced person with a firearms license. Correctly performed the horse is generally killed instantly by a bullet to the forehead. Often, veterinarians recommend strong sedation before shooting, however, this will also limit the choices when disposing of the body.

Lethal injection is always administered by a vet. The horse is generally injected with a sedative, which is followed by a lethal overdose of anaesthetic drugs given intravenously. The horse will fall to the ground and lose consciousness. It will take a few minutes for body systems to shut down.

Remember that the chemical residue resulting from this form of euthanasia will limit your choices when it comes to disposing of the body.

Who can help me euthanise my horse?

A vet, knackery worker or hunt kennelman are all people skilled to put a horse down.

Don’t dismiss a knackery worker as a suitable candidate. They are licensed by law and have long provided the traditional service of euthanasia and disposal. The experienced knackery worker will come out to your property, often at short notice, and should conduct themselves in a caring, professional manner. Get a recommendation from local horse owners or your vet.

Note: If the horse is insured, notify the insurance company in advance of the euthanasia so that there are no problems with claims. While the vet will provide you with the required documentation, the notification, filing and follow-up are your responsibilities.

How should I dispose of my horse’s body?

Consult your vet and other horse owners to find out what facilities are available in your area, then consider the costs involved. If the horse’s body is diseased or drug treated, the knackery or hunt kennel may not accept it.

Ease the grieving process

Be kind to yourself and others who loved your horse. Grieving for a beloved companion can be really hard to come to terms with, and is an individual process. Talk to someone supportive. There is valuable information available on the internet about dealing with the sense of loss. You could memorialize your horse by writing a story, poem or message or find a favorite photo and post it on an appropriate website. You can keep a memento of your horse, such as a wisp of mane or a piece of riding equipment. This can be comforting during the grieving process and in the years to come. Some jewelers design and produce beautiful items using tail or mane hair and this can make for a beautiful way to honour and remember your horse.

Plan ahead

The large majority of horse owners will be faced with making the difficult decision of having their horse euthanised, so all responsible horse owners should have at the very least a rough plan of how they will act if their horse’s life becomes unbearable or there is an emergency situation.

Always remember that your horse depends on you to make rational, informed decisions, often in difficult circumstances and you must ensure that the horse’s welfare is always put first.

An excerpt from The Australian Horse Welfare Protocol

20 EUTHANASIA OR SLAUGHTER

Minimum Standards: Euthanasia or slaughter must be performed humanely.

The person responsible for the animal must ensure that the method results in immediate death or immediate loss of consciousness followed by death while unconscious.

Euthanasia or slaughter must be performed only by persons competent in the method used and licensed where appropriate.

A person humanely destroying an animal must take reasonable action to confirm the animal is dead or to ensure death.

Horses held at slaughter houses must be dealt with in accordance with state laws.

Horses held at sale yards must be dealt with in accordance with relevant state Code of Practice where they exist.

Guidelines

The horse should be handled quietly before euthanasia or slaughter to ensure it is not unnecessarily distressed or alarmed.

Acceptable methods of euthanasia or slaughter include:

  • rapid intravenous injection of concentrated barbiturate solutions; it should be noted that tissue residues will render the carcass unfit for human or pet consumption if this technique is used
  • shooting by a licensed person, using a registered firearm

Shooting:

  • The firearm should be at least .22 calibre (long rifle)
  • Persons other than the marksman and a handler for the horse should be cleared from the area or should stand well behind the marksman
  • A head collar or bridle should be put on the horse to enable it to be quietly restrained by an assistant, who must stand out of the line of fire
  • Never fire while the horse is moving its head; wait patiently for a quiet interval before firing to provide maximum impact and the least possibility of misdirection, the gun should be fired at a range that is as short as circumstances permit, but not in contact with the horse’s head.
  • Direct contact may be made with the horse’s head when using a captive bolt pistol.
  • The target area and direction of the bullet are as shown in Images A and B below.

Where to shoot a horse

Download the Australian Horse Welfare Protocol from this link (redirects to PCA website).

Jane Duckworth

Jane Duckworth has taken a strong interest in animal welfare for most of her life, an active member of Project Hope Horse Welfare Victoria, which led her to write two books on welfare issues; They Shoot Horses, Don’t They: The Treatment of Horses in Australia (2001) and Not Every Dog Has His Day: The Treatment of Dogs in Australia (2009).

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